So Bad They’re Good ꟷ Tv’s Top, Head-Messing, Female Villains

Top Female TV Villains

Ever want a chill to run up your bones? Study a good villain. Not someone who mustache twirls or cackles, or monologues about why they have to kill the country/planet/universe (spoiler: because they’re evil, bwahaha). Nor someone weak as Jonathan Pryce in Tomorrow Never Dies who looks like his evil talent is inflicting paper cuts on James Bond.

I’m talking a terrifying, powerful, awful villain, someone with a believable cause or a moral code that they hold dear to their heart that makes perfect sense to them. It’s even scarier if they take immense pride in their dark deeds and seem pleased after a good day’s bad work.

All great fictional villains have three things in common: they’re intriguing, memorable, and mess with our heads.

How do these villains mess with us?

Simple. It’s not just what they do, but how.

What if a villain isn’t some obviously mentally unhinged and destructive individual we can spot a mile away? What if they’re smart? Funny? Attractive? Sociable? Well-dressed or urbane? How do you explain away someone like that? Someone who seems so adjusted and charismatic who could easily walk among us? That’s so much creepier.

What if they’re women as well? Some of the most chilling fictional villains are female, and they add another level of intrigue. Women who defy, not only societal or gender norms about violence or being good and playing by the rules, as well? That’s head turning.

What’s the X factor for female villains?

A woman who doesn’t care one bit how she’s supposed to behave and flings the rules back in the face of society? Women who don’t care when people spit at them: Just who do you think you are? It’s a naughty indulgence to secretly admire them… or in some cases watch them through our fingers, given how truly horrific they can be.

So who are the best of the baddest female villains on our TV screens? It’s open to debate, of course. Below are my picks. All these women have their own codes, own beliefs that they’re doing the right thing, and all, to the last steely eye, rigid hair bun, or snarky smirk, are so charismatic it’s impossible to tear your eyes from them.

1. Cersei Lannister, Game of Thrones

For dominance at any price, there’s Game of Thrones’s Cersei (Lena Headey). If this cold, ruthless, brother-shagging monarch has to green-nuke an entire kingdom to destroy the people who humiliated her and threatened her reign, so be it. No compunction, no compassion, no regrets. Just, buh-bye Felicia.
Danger scale: Genocidal menace. Do not approach.

2. and 3. Aunt Lydia and Serena Joy/Mrs Waterford, The Handmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood’s chilling tale of a dystopian nightmare remade into a TV show includes two terrible, complicated female villains. Beautiful, icy Mrs. Waterford (Yvonne Strahovski) was co-architect of the plan to force fertile women into procreative slavery as handmaids—trained by efficiently brutal Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd). Mrs. Waterford’s complicity in creating the misogynistic hellscape of the Republic of Gilead runs deep. She spins her awful deeds in her head so she’s in the right. Adding confusion, she whips back and forth between being terrifying and despicable, and someone capable of our compassion as her hardline views shift. Complex and disturbing.

Danger scale: Devious, smart, vicious, ruthless “mean girl” who can also sometimes be reasoned with. At her worst, she’ll sic her powerful, raping, asshole of a husband on you, which is even worse than it sounds.

Aunt Lydia is one of the worst zealots, believing the future of mankind rests with her, and she shows no signs of doubt. In her head, she’s twisted her brutalization and training of fertile women into an essential duty. While as terrifying as a nightmare, this menacing, manipulative lump of a woman also sometimes has humanity burning in her eyes, which makes her all the more disturbing.

Danger scale: Causes nausea and vomiting among women, and an involuntary aversion to red capes.

4. Villanelle/Oksana Astankova, Killing Eve

This Russian assassin (Jodie Comer) is beautiful, cold, and calculating (and queer), and has a taste for bedding the ladies. Her code is her job, even if that means trying to kill her own mentor. What’s disturbing is how little empathy she has, followed by the unnerving way she can also seem capable of love, or at least obsession. But just when you think you have her pegged one way or another, she’ll turn that assumption on its ear. She’s unhinged enough to look orgasmic watching the moment of someone’s death, and vulnerable enough around a woman she loves to pull on our (reluctant) sense of empathy. Brutal and baffling.

Danger scale: Not to be toyed with lightly. Or at all. Do not accept gifts. Especially perfume.

5. Empress Philippa Georgiou, Star Trek: Discovery

In the bad-ass alternate universe, Empress Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) has compromised every value of our version of Starfleet – she’s cruel and xenophobic and believes in the course to wipe out other races. She sees her code as noble; that peace and love are weak nonsense that will see her empire overrun. Her story has a lot of modern parallels about whipping up fear about The Other. This is what makes her most chilling, as she is subtle, sly, and clever in her rhetoric. She’s capable of making a convincing case so the frightened masses believe only her destructive way will defeat our enemies. A villain who millions will gladly follow.

Danger level: Directly, her danger depends on your genetic make-up.  Be warned, she has mad martial-arts skills. For reasons. Indirectly, she can shape history. Not in a good way.

6. Joan Ferguson, Wentworth

Joan “The Freak” Ferguson (Pamela Rabe) might be dead…and no one knows quite yet… but this is the Wentworth prison governor who ruled with a leather-gloved fist. Joan’s code was about precision, efficiency, and a well-oiled prison. Her methods included murder, collusion, and planting evidence. She was complicated: queer, conflicted, tormented by ghosts, with bouts of psychopathy, who became a disarrayed mess by the end. Her mental deterioration turned into car-crash TV, as weirdly compelling as her fixation on yellow pencils.

Danger scale: Thinks like a chess master. Never turn your back on her. Assume she’s listening to every conversation. Never agree to office drinks.

Honorable mentions

There are countless shows with female villains we have loved so hard it hurts but they’re off the air. But for me, two stand out for sheer, bloody ruthlessness, on a scale I can’t recall anywhere else. While Callisto on Xena came close, so close, to inclusion, I’m talking these two…

Orange is the New Black’s sociopathic top dog inmate Vee Parker (Lorraine Toussaint), who could manipulate sun into rain, her “adopted” son into her bed, and Crazy Eyes into a devoted allegiance, all in her bid to rule her world.

And Battlestar Galactica’s hard-assed, brutal Admiral Helena Cain. Horrified to discover that her lover (Tricia Helfer’s Number Six) was an enemy, in a horrific plot line, Cain ordered the woman sexually abused and humiliated. And yet, through it all, like all terrifying villains, down to her core, she believed everything she had done was right.

Did we miss anyone truly dastardly? Which female villains with a code do you love to hate the most on TV right now? Or who terrified you most in the past? Let us know in the comments below.

Copyright image above:


Lee Winter

Lee Winter is an award-winning veteran newspaper journalist who has covered courts, crime, news, features and humor writing. Now a full-time author and part-time editor, Lee is also a two-time Lambda Literary Award finalist and a double Golden Crown Literary Award winner. She has just published Under Your Skin with Ylva.


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About the Author : Lee Winter


  1. Patricia Iserman August 7, 2018 at 20:17 - Reply

    Joan ,the freak,is my absolute favorite villainess .Is that a real word?
    I love it when she zones out on her daddy issues and becomes unglued.
    Unfortunately you have now convinced me to spend my money on Star Trek Discovery.
    Empress Phillipa sounds intriguing.

    • Lee Winter August 8, 2018 at 03:19 - Reply

      The empress is compelling because she believes so utterly in her cause, much the same way Joan does. But no one has the freak’s chilling charisma though!

  2. PJ Olano August 7, 2018 at 22:38 - Reply

    Annalise Keating (Getting Away with Murder)

    • Lee Winter August 9, 2018 at 09:17 - Reply

      Is that still on air? I’ll have to check it out, PJ. 🙂

  3. PJ Olano August 7, 2018 at 22:39 - Reply

    Super Mean!

  4. Diana August 8, 2018 at 02:29 - Reply

    You missed Jeanne !….serial killer in La Mante

    • Lee Winter August 9, 2018 at 09:17 - Reply

      Hi Diana, I haven’t seen that one. Sounds intriguing!

  5. Cristina August 8, 2018 at 05:49 - Reply

    You hit this one right on the nail —> “All great fictional villains have three things in common: they’re intriguing, memorable, and mess with our heads.”

    Let me just say that, one, Michelle Yeoh in anything is gonna be my jam. Just. Is. The. Way. Of. Life. So, her doing a villain turn in Star Trek D… yeah, gonna watch that now.

    Two, my house is still abuzz about Killing Eve. Such. A. Great. Show. Villanelle = damn good character writing (and acting from Jodie Comer.)

    Gotta give props to George RR Martin’s trajectory with Cersei. Cersei’s road to villainy was paved by losing all of what she loved (her mother, her kids, her “safety” as a Lannister, her brother-slash-lover’s devotion), most often violently (the death of her kids… so, gonna bet the farm on her miscarrying in the final season.) She’s the mirror/foil of Daenerys Targaryen; they have same circumstances, same goals, same “monsters” (Danni has dragons, Cersei has The Mountain, basically a zombie), and even perform same actions (ie. they both burn their enemies and sleep with relatives, Cersei with her brother and her cousin and Daenerys with her nephew (unknowingly)… so, gonna bet the farm that Daenerys will become pregnant in the final season). *One yardstick measure of difference is their rhetoric: Daenerys espouses her “breaker of chains” liberation movement to rally a power base whereas Cersei champions self preservation through shelling out coin to rally a power base.* George RR Martin wisely gave Cersei stronger (initially) foes even more despicable than her so that you like actually root for her to hit them up with that green wildfire even as you know it will make her even more unhinged. Now, that’s how you do a villain. That said, nobody threw shade or plotted behind the scenes better than Olenna, Queen of Thrones. She was, at times, deadlier than Cersei because she was smarter than Cersei, knowing the benefit of the long game. But, she just didn’t have strong enough family members (or allies) backing her, and therefore couldn’t continue to back her genius plays.

    Gonna hit up Wentworth. Binge the heck out of it on Netflix. Because Joan is a trained fencer. Nuff said. But, just to say it… that for sure means Joan knows when & how to attack. She’d be like an even deadlier Olenna if she were a Game of Thrones character.

    • Lee Winter August 9, 2018 at 09:19 - Reply

      You make some excellent points about Cersei and Daenrys – I’d never thought of it that way. I cannot wait for their showdown! And Joan on Wentworth? Hoo boy, you don’t want to cross her either. I hope you’ll enjoy the bumpy ride.

  6. Aj August 8, 2018 at 10:17 - Reply

    Would you class Clare Underwood as a villain? I certainly wouldn’t want to cross her!

    • Lee Winter August 9, 2018 at 09:19 - Reply

      Actually she’s a really intriguing suggestion. She’s definitely a schemer. I haven’t watched this incarnation of the show but I remember the British version. I’m really not sure what I’d class her. Is Lady Macbeth a villain? If so, then so is Clare.

      • Aj August 9, 2018 at 13:15 - Reply

        Claire Underwood is more aggressive than Elizabeth Urquhart, who I always saw as more of an enabler than a partner to her Francis. Apart from a slight wobble in season 3, she’s a driven, cold hearted, fabulous, bitch and unlike Lady Macbeth the blood only bothers her if others can see it.
        I think Claire is a villain but at the same time it’s hard not to like her, she’s far more commanding than the weak figure Frank has became as he played out his last few tricks. I can’t imagine they planned on writing out Spacey’s character but it’s a perfect arc, Macbeth takes the fall and his wife steps out of the shadows.

  7. Jane Clements August 9, 2018 at 03:06 - Reply

    Great blog, Ms Winter.

    Serena Joy and Aunt Lydia are the most disturbing characters. They’re so convincing, it’s as if I’ve met them in real life. Women-hating women who join their oppressors in some warped bid to grab the very power they’re arguing should be denied them by virtue of their gender. My favourite quote about Serena Joy from the book is so superbly ironic it was also used in the TV show: “She doesn’t make speeches any more. She has become speechless. She stays in her home, but it doesn’t seem to agree with her. How furious she must be, now that she’s been taken at her word”.

    • Lee Winter August 9, 2018 at 09:21 - Reply

      Jane, sensational comment. I love Serena’s moments of realisation of how she’s screwed over herself. It’s hard not to feel a great deal of schadenfreude for her. But also her complexity is what makes her so compelling. Aunt Lydia is just pure terror to me. 🙂

  8. Jess Lea August 9, 2018 at 11:14 - Reply

    What a marvelous selection of dastardly ladies! I especially love Villanelle – and of course Joan Ferguson 🙂
    I would also put in a mention for Mrs Elizabeth Urquhart in the original House of Cards – picture a sort of psychopathic Hyacinth Bucket with her eye on Number 10…

    • Aj August 9, 2018 at 13:23 - Reply

      “psychopathic Hyacinth Bucket”, I love it! I’m going to have to re-watch the original, I don’t remember her as being that malevolent. Certainly very creepy in terms of “being quite certain” of Mattie’s loyalty, but maybe that just stood out in my young mind when I watched it on tv way back.

      • Jess Lea August 10, 2018 at 22:30 - Reply

        Elizabeth starts out a small (but memorable) character, but watch out for her role at the end of the last season! She takes the role of the supportive political wife to a pretty shocking (but logical) conclusion….

  9. Aj August 12, 2018 at 22:31 - Reply

    Ah, that would explain it. I watched the whole thing when it first came out, but I’ve only rewatched the first one since then.

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