What do we enjoy about villains? Or more accurately, what is it that makes us enjoy villains? Usually, if a villain is presented to us, fully formed and ready to kill or betray or do villainous stuff with a cackle, we aren’t going to be transfixed by their character. Lex Luther, for example: in almost every context we consume Lex Luther, he is already bald and already hellbent on destroying Superman. Boring.
No, with villains, we like a slow-burn from goodish to evil. Or a chaotic descent. We like to see elements of ourselves, ounces of humanity that can be severed and burnt and spat on so the not-yet-evil character becomes the nefarious soul the plot needs right in front of our eyes. That way, they become three-dimensional and to a degree, relatable. That’s exactly why Walter White has a place amongst televillan greats. He arrived a loving father; innocent school teacher; green-shirt and tan chinos wearer. Then, on account of the screaming cancer inside him and the financial burden associated with that, he became Heisenberg. Then Heisenberg became Walter White and vice versa and we all collectively lost our shit.
But Walter White almost became too villainous and powerful by the end of Breaking Bad, and as such, felt closer to comic book villain than flawed man. For me, what really makes a compelling evil character, is one who blends in amongst good people, seemingly no different, and yet never outwardly displays any sort of behaviour that can be considered altruistic.
This is why The Office’s Ryan Howard is television’s best villain ever.
Ryan Howard (B.J. Novak) appears in The Office pilot an innocent boy, fresh out of college and ready to take on the professional world. For a year or two he stumbles around, generally meaning generally well-ish, inadvertently striking up a romance with Mindy Kaling’s Kelly. He’s not a great boyfriend. He doesn’t particularly enjoy Kelly and he lets her know that. But is he a villain at this point? Hardly, maybe just more the guy your mom warned you about. But a villain, no chance.
Then he burns down the office. And look: burning down the office doesn’t ignite something in him. He doesn’t get a taste and burn down every office space in Scranton, insisting people call him The Arsonist. That, my friend, is Basic Bitch Villainy. No, the fire incident simply leaves a chip on his shoulder. He’s now branded as a doofus, a fool, the office jester. Which he doesn’t like.
Then, after a few twists and turns, he's promoted to Dunder Mifflin’s corporate office in season 4. This is when he gets the prowess he needs to take the next step in his character arc. He carries this newfound authority with pride, undermining anyone who dares speak to him, especially those in his former office. He strikes up a feud with Jim for no reason other than the fact Jim is lazy and perhaps in the same league, maybe even the one above, in terms of attractiveness. (This is a good reason to begin a feud with someone.) Kelly? She’s history. He broke up with her the second he got the promotion (when he dumps her he does this thing where he looks at the camera for literally a split second and in my opinion, this camera stare is actually better than Jim’s but that’s a different argument for a different day.)
Continuing this arc, Ryan would admittedly be no better than another 7 out of 10 villain. Funny, but obvious; simply a mean boss with vested interest in making people’s lives not as good as they could be. But a year later Ryan is arrested for fraud and he is demoted back to being a temp.
But the thing is: his ego doesn’t fall with him. Ryan’s scandal would cause any sane person to fall into themselves, a shell of what they once were, reminiscing about the good ol’ days (only when alone to avoid getting visibly upset in public). Not Ryan. He gets even more confident after his scandal, carrying around his criminal conviction and goatee with pride.
I feel sorry for anyone who’s favourite character is Michael or Jim or Pam, because whilst funny and objectively good, as individuals, their shtick can become slightly dull. Every moment we see Ryan take the centre stage he blows the audience away. For example:
i) He pretends to be Kelly’s supervisor, lambasting her unrelentingly so the new boss (Will Ferrell) doesn’t discover he hasn’t actually had a job for years.
ii) He gives a baby who’s barely 6-months-old and allergic to strawberries a strawberry so he can speak to Kelly who was previously occupied with looking after the baby.
iii) He scams Pam out of $50 for her wedding present.
iv) He conspires with Dwight to get Jim fired.
v) He ignores Michael’s love, repeatedly, only ever using it for his own gain.
vi) He—and this is undoubtedly Ryan’s best in his oeuvre of bad guy moments—returns from his corporate calamity to find Kelly in a relationship with Daryl. After a few thrusts of pseudo-masculinity, he has Kelly emotionally lassoed to the point where he can control her. Then he, off camera, types out a text for Kelly intended for Daryl essentially saying we’re over and gets her to send it.
Which is funny and pathetically evil enough alone. But after that, obsessed with the means and not the end, Ryan instantly realizes he’s made a mistake. So he, unexpectedly, but very characteristically, announces he is going Thailand and thus needs to break up with Kelly. He also asks if he can have whatever she has in her savings and she obliges. And he says they should be adults and have sex one more time. She, again, obliges. It later turns out he actually went to Fort Lauderdale.
Every moment with Ryan as the focus is filled with a sordid richness that is just so clever and smart and well thought-out it’s genuinely one of the most enjoyable aspects of the show.
After his fall from grace, Ryan displays a more subtle, nuanced evil. The thing is: he hadn’t actually achieved anything in New York—he crashed and burned. But he comes back to Scranton somehow more confident, more entitled, more up himself, treating literally everyone as lesser and not worthy of his respect.
Like a lot of the now-bald (and rich) bellends that you went to high school with, Ryan is Machiavellianism at its best. Although he doesn’t commit much traditionally villain behaviour —killing, blowing up cities, taking over the world—you know, if the situation played the right notes and his selfish tendencies were stroked a certain way, he would. He’d look literally anyone in the eye, tell them they look nice and then stab them in the chest without breaking eye contact for a second, simply waiting for their sense of being to float away.
This is the Ryan we’re sold; this is the Ryan I believe in. As a villain, his untapped potential, seemingly bottomless self-interest bubbling beneath the surface, is ultimately much more enjoyable than Mr. Burns or Walter White or Dexter or any other famous villain. This is because at the core he is painfully mediocre and despite how very bad and deceitful and up for chincary he is, he ultimately never achieves more than a low-tier position in a distinctly lacklustre paper company.
Ryan Howard is the best ever villain because he arrives fairly nice and then becomes something larger and sinister. He’s the best villain ever because he’s an amplified version of that guy you work with who got promoted despite being very shit. He is the best ever villain because, like you and I, he spends 60 percent of his life in an office frying under artificial light. He isn’t actually smart or clever enough to be exactly what he intends to be, but he tries, and it is funny to watch.
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