TV may be ground zero for the end of the monoculture, but when it comes to finding the best TV character of the 21st century, the shows that fare best are the ones that come closest to omnipresence. Breaking Bad. Game of Thrones. The Office. Parks and Recreation. These are the shows whose antiheroes, protagonists, and supporting players make up this bracket’s Final Four—and, with due respect to Nathan Fielder’s admirable persistence till the Sweet 16, a smart bettor could’ve predicted as much from the outset.
It’s no coincidence that three of these shows are available to stream on Netflix (for now, at least), while the last was the biggest show on TV before airing its finale last year to a viewership of almost 20 million people. Arya Stark, Walter White, Michael Scott, and Ron Swanson are all great characters, testaments to their writers’ and actors’ sense of comedy, menace, and the full spectrum of human emotion. But they’re also the stars of widely accessible, long-running series, not cult classics (à la Fielder) or short-lived gems (the Bluths) or new favorites (Villanelle, Fleabag, NoHo Hank). The more people see a show, the more likely they are to remember its stars. It’s not rocket science, but after four rounds of voting and many more grievances aired on social media, it is striking.
Mercifully, after two straight days of voting irregularities—first in favor of Gob Bluth, then a mysterious dead heat between Ron Swanson and Cersei Lannister—our Final Four seem to have won their contests fair and square. Each of our on-site polls averaged about the same number of votes, all around 35,000; none of The Ringer’s social feeds showed any obvious anomalies, either. Though that doesn’t mean the competition wasn’t fierce, or surprising. Ron bested Dwight by just over 500 votes in our main poll, while Dwight actually edged out Ron by a margin of around 6 percent on Instagram. At the end of the day, Twitter came to the rescue of our favorite libertarian carnivore, giving him a decisive 57 percent of the vote. Maybe posters were returning the favor for all those handy computer GIFs. According to our readership—and before them, bracket seeders—Ron Swanson can now claim the title of ultimate Scene Stealer, the division he dominated.
Other face-offs were more clear-cut from the jump. In the Wild Cards category, Michael Scott won out over The Wire’s Omar Little by around 60-40 across platforms, a loss for fans of the whistling hitman but not a shock for observers of The Office’s flourishing afterlife. (I would be remiss if I didn’t point out Omar was the last remaining character of color.) Chronology be damned, Arya is our top Millennial, outstripping Jesse Pinkman 52-48. And Walter White is the final Boss, trouncing Tony Soprano by a shocking 2-to-1 in the main poll, albeit slightly less on social media.
As a critic, I reserve the right to be a little bummed that more personal favorites, underdogs, and niche picks didn’t make it into this final day of voting. (I’m not just talking about Fleabag, either—justice for Kim Wexler!) As a realist, it makes perfect sense. These are the shows everyone can talk about; they’re the shows that give us a sense of community, and the characters we root for and/or laugh at in their fictional worlds, and now, this very real and serious competition. Let the Final Four begin!
Walter White and Arya Stark follow roughly the same trajectory over the course of their series. Assigned mild-mannered social roles that don’t really fit their true nature—high school chemistry teacher; aristocrat’s daughter—the two plunge themselves into chaotic conflicts that unleash the anger and violence within. Of course, Walt’s transformation was a bit more voluntary, sticking with the meth trade well past the point of paying for his cancer treatments. Arya may have signed up for shape-shifting assassin school all on her own, but she didn’t start the political tug-of-war that turned Westeros into a war zone. Still, if you took all the Arya scenes from Game of Thrones and edited them into a miniseries, Breaking Bad wouldn’t be a bad choice of title.
The respective champions of the Boss and Millennial divisions had to face some formidable foes to make it to the semifinals. Arya beat out Walter’s erstwhile protegé, Jesse Pinkman, by a respectable margin in her first true upset, seeded fifth to Jesse’s third. And in an antihero-on-antihero thunderdome, Walt trumped the top-seeded Tony Soprano, cementing his status as the most difficult man of all. But Walt’s decisive victory over Tony doesn’t guarantee he’ll win out over Arya; despite their similarities, the two characters draw on very different kinds of appeal. Who will it be: the plucky tomboy who channels her rage into revenge, or the one who knocks?
Which character should advance?
This poll is closed
(2) Walter White, ‘Breaking Bad’
(5) Arya Stark, ‘Game of Thrones’
Both members of the Michael Schur extended universe, Ron Swanson and Michael Scott take polar opposite approaches to roughly similar situations. Though neither was in the Boss division, both are bosses, middle managers who go between the unwieldy bureaucracies they serve and the unruly employees they manage. Yet Ron is a public servant who despises government, the Pawnee Parks Department included, and couldn’t care less whether he’s liked by his constituents or his underlings. Being liked is all Michael Scott’s ever wanted.
Ron’s narrow victory over Dwight Schrute prevented either a true heartbreaker or an utter delight, depending where you fall on the sadism spectrum: a face-off between a would-be master and his chief minion. Instead, we get a face-off between the two last men standing—and, after the demise of Leslie Knope in the Sweet 16, we do mean men—of their respective hit sitcoms, a real-life test of which beloved, bygone series has remained foremost in the zeitgeist. Will the victor be the unlikely Gen Z icon, or the last Republican-leaning character liberal Hollywood learned to love before real life made that impossible? Only you can decide.
Which character should advance?
This poll is closed
(3) Ron Swanson, ‘Parks and Recreation’
(1) Michael Scott, ‘The Office’
Reminder: Friday is a two-round finale! For the Final Four, you can vote here on the website (except for you, bots!), on Twitter, and on Instagram till 3 p.m. ET. Make sure to return to The Ringer right after that to vote in the final.