A well-crafted TV villain is one of the best characters on the screen. Sure, we root for the heroes, but there’s something about a well-written bad guy that can really get our blood boiling. They’re the real reason we pack our iPad and headphones on long flights: because they’re a safe place to direct our anger and frustration. But despite everything, most modern villains have something that makes them just a little more interesting—some quality that makes us sit up and take note, rather than just rooting against them. With that in mind, here are 10 life lessons we’ve learned from our favorite TV villains.
Listen to Your Advisors ~ Joffrey Baratheon, Game of Thrones
Sometimes, the best way to learn from someone is by observing the way they behave and choosing to do something different. Joffrey Baratheon is one of the most infuriating characters on Game of Thrones exclusively because he is such pure evil. Raised as the entitled heir prince, Joffrey grew up believing that there was no need for him to listen to anyone—and he didn’t. Ultimately, his unwillingness to listen to any of his advisors led to his demise, and a careful lesson for the rest of us: Listen to your advisors.
Respect Your Enemies ~ The Master, Doctor Who
The Doctor’s longest-running enemy is The Master, one of the few Time Lords alive and not caught in a perpetual time loop. One of the things that make The Master such a good enemy is that they know the Doctor intimately. Towards the end of their latest run, you even realize that despite their animosity, the Doctor and the Master respect each other so much that they’re almost able to be friends under certain circumstances. In today’s turbulent political climate, it’s a lesson we could all stand to lean on.
Always Have a Backup Plan ~ David Xanatos, Gargoyles
One of the things that made Xanatos such a stellar bad guy was the fact that even when he lost a battle, he won in some way. His ability to have a backup plan for his backup plan was so impressive that he has a trope named after him. But whether you love him or hate him, the truth is that we could all learn from Xanatos’s ability to thrive even when he fails and keep his cool no matter the circumstances.
You Can’t Buy Love ~ Kilgrave, Jessica Jones
Kilgrave is one of the most uncomfortable villains in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in part because he seems to genuinely care for Jessica Jones at times and seems to be trying really hard to win her favor. But as you watch more, you realize that he’s the definition of the creepy stalker, made worse because he has so much money working in his favor. The great lesson to learn? You can’t buy love, and he certainly didn’t win Jessica Jones’s behaving the way he did.
Honesty is the Best Policy ~ Lex Luthor, Smallville
One of the most infuriating things about watching Smallville is knowing the entire time you’re watching it that Lex has to turn out to be a bad guy in the end. At the beginning of the show, he’s a completely redeemable character, and viewers can attest to the fact that the only thing he’s asking from his friend Clark is a little bit of honesty. If you catch the show on a re-watch, it seems obvious that if Clark had just been honest with Lex from early on, Lex probably wouldn’t have descended into evil and madness trying to learn Clark’s secret, and all would have been well in the world. Like Mama always said, honesty is the best policy.
Be Careful What You Wish For ~ Scorpius, Farscape
The latter half of Farscape centers on Scorpius’s obsession with getting wormhole technology from John Criton. Criton repeatedly tells Scorpius that he doesn’t know what he’s asking for, but Scorpius is certain that learning wormhole technology would end the war between Peacekeepers and Scarans. When Criton finally releases the technology—and nearly destroys the entire universe—Scorpius’s pale face and quiet, “John, what have you done?” speaks volumes. Sometimes, the best gifts in life are unanswered dreams.
Fear Doesn’t Make Friends ~ Ramsay Bolton, Game of Thrones
As hate-able as Joffrey—if not more so—is Ramsay Bolton. One of his greatest claims to fame is his creation of Reek, a broken version of Theon Greyjoy borne of torture and violence. But even that broken man turns away from Ramsay when confronted by Sansa Stark and the memories of the things he cared about, proof positive that fear can’t make friends—at least not loyal ones.
If You Love Your Job, You Never Work a Day in Your Life ~ Moriarty, Sherlock
Moriarty is one of the most charming Sherlock villains, fun to watch because he’s as simultaneously broken and intelligent as Sherlock himself. But one of the best things about watching Moriarty is the fact that he truly enjoys what he does. We might not enjoy what he does with his genius, but he’s proof positive that if you love your job, you never work a day in your life.
Persistence is Key ~ Plankton, SpongeBob SquarePants
From the very inception of SpongeBob SquarePants, there is Plankton, the tiny villain determined to get ahold of the secret Krabby Patty recipe. While Plankton’s role in the show is often played for laughs, the truth of the matter is that he is the most persistent villain on television. The master of getting back up when he’s been knocked to his feet, his persistence is admirable, even if his results leave something to be desired.
Perception is Reality ~ Eric Cartman, South Park
There’s a beautiful episode of South Park where he and another kid come up with a joke. As the joke is told repeatedly throughout the episode, Cartman’s perception of how the joke was founded changed, and by the end of the episode, not only does he say that he wrote the joke, but he believes it with every fiber of his being. It’s a beautiful illustration that perception is reality.
One of life’s greatest treasures is the ability to learn something from everyone. Even the evilest characters on TV have lessons they can teach us if we’re willing to set aside our animosity—and their crazy—long enough to listen.