10 Best Morally Gray TV Characters of the 21st Century

Movies


Unlike the morally gray characters of the big screen, those on television have more opportunities to engage in lengthier arcs fueled by narratives audiences are desperate to explore. With longer episode run times, seasons, and the ability to air for over a decade in some instances, morally gray TV characters are complex, nuanced individuals who may ultimately be redeemed or may slide into the black. Audiences root for these characters, assessing their circumstances, intentions, and accountability for their actions before truly deciding what shade of gray pairs best with their morality.


Characters like Breaking Bad‘s Walter White and The Sopranos‘ Tony Soprano paved the way for the morally gray limbo before the characters fall into villain spirals. Throwing a wrench into the dynamic of hero versus villain, the morally gray protagonist or antihero lands smack dab in the middle, allowing viewers to take an active role in deciding their fate alongside the writer’s rooms. The best of this storytelling genre comes from hit streaming originals and the pages of beloved fictional series. The award-nominated and winning performances behind this lot keep viewers on their toes as these characters find a delicate balance in the gray area.


10 Rue Bennett

‘Euphoria’ (2019-)

Image via HBO

Portrayed by the Emmy-winning icon Zendaya, Euphoria‘s Rue Bennett is a Gen Z heroine who stalks the morally gray line. The HBO original follows a group of teens with intertwining stories as they navigate a dramatized version of an American high school. The narrator and central character, Rue, grapples with drug addiction following the death of her terminally ill father. Making her struggles more traumatic is the slew of mental health issues the series alludes to Rue having.

She remains morally gray because she’s a victim of circumstance, continually making the wrong decisions even though she understands the consequences of her actions. Filled with complexities and flaws, the audience takes an active participation in Rue’s grayness because they are still rooting for her despite her sometimes unforgivable choices. By the end of season two, Rue’s narration indicates she remains clean, but her history of lying could suggest otherwise as audiences wait to see what becomes of a long-delayed season three.

Euphoria

A look at life for a group of high school students as they grapple with issues of drugs, sex, and violence.

Release Date
June 19, 2019

Main Genre
Drama

Seasons
3

Watch on Max

9 Damon Salvatore

‘The Vampire Diaries’ (2009-2017)

Nothing screams morally gray more than the bad-boy brother in a fantasy love triangle—enter Damon Salvatore. Brought from page to screen by heartthrob Ian Somerhalder, Damon is a vampire vying for the heart of Elena Gilbert (Nina Dobrev), a human who happens to be in love with his brother, Stefan (Paul Wesley). Damon embraces his vampirism, feeding on humans, using mind control to manipulate them for his gain, and thriving off the chaos he causes, all in the name of taking revenge against Mystic Falls for their killing of vampires in 1864.

As The Vampire Diaries seasons progress, Elena is the driving factor for Damon’s shift from villain to mostly morally on track. She understands, to a degree, the hurt and betrayal he’s felt. Damon’s love for Elena motivates him to protect her at all costs, despite any romantic flings he uses to fill the void of not being with her. He is willing to put everyone and everything on the line to keep her safe, ensure her humanity stays intact, and protect her soul from becoming like his. In one of TV’s best redemption arcs, his methods and means shift from impulsive and heartless to calculated and morally gray.

The Vampire Diaries

The lives, loves, dangers and disasters in the town, Mystic Falls, Virginia. Creatures of unspeakable horror lurk beneath this town as a teenage girl is suddenly torn between two vampire brothers.

Release Date
September 10, 2009

Main Genre
Drama

Seasons
8

Watch on Peacock

8 Jackie Peyton

‘Nurse Jackie’ (2009-2015)

Edie Falco as Jackie and Paul Schulze as Eddie stand in the back office of the pharmacy in Nurse Jackie
Image via Showtime

In an Emmy-nominated series about saving lives, Jackie Peyton (Edie Falco) ensures that her life is complete shades of gray. The titular character in Showtime’s Nurse Jackie, Jackie, is a New York City emergency room nurse addicted to painkillers following a back injury that introduced them into her life. From secretly popping pills and having an affair with the hospital pharmacist, Jackie attempts to juggle being a mother, wife, and nurse.

Despite her vices, Jackie is always a vocal and aggressive advocate for her patients against doctors who don’t care and corporate suits who mismanage the hospital. Jackie’s addiction issues blur her into the gray despite her dedication to All Saints, however manipulative in the ways she skirts around hiding her addiction and eventual relapses. Her inability to quit spirals her downward as she loses her marriage (struggling to maintain any further romantic relationships)and a positive relationship with her kids. Ultimately, it affected her ability to be a nurse.

Nurse Jackie

A drug-addicted nurse struggles to find a balance between the demands of her frenetic job at a New York City hospital and an array of personal dramas.

Release Date
June 8, 2009

Main Genre
Drama

Seasons
7

Watch on Amazon

2:50

Related

The 10 Best Morally Gray Movie Characters of the 21st Century

These characters always blurred the line between right and wrong.

7 Sandor “The Hound” Clegane

‘Game of Thrones’ (2011-2019)

Rory McCann as Sandor
Image via HBO

A stand-out character in a series as brutal as Game of Thrones, The Hound proved to be a dark horse when it comes to morally gray character arcs. Rory McCann provided a compelling performance as Sandor “The Hound” Clegane, a member of the Kingsguard known for brutality and a stomach for savage killing. Audiences saw a shift in The Hound after he developed a soft spot for both Sansa (Sophie Turner) and Arya Stark (Maise Williams).

After deserting at the Battle of the Blackwater Bay, traveling as a fugitive, and a brush with death, The Hound joins the Brotherhood Without Banners, hoping to fulfill a greater purpose. Like many others in the award-winning series, The Hound is a layered gray character who is never inherently good but makes his shift from inherently bad into the middle zone, becoming a fan favorite along the way. A product of the violence of Westeros, “The Hound” is a dramatic example of an arc that ended with a thoughtful resolution.

Game Of Thrones

Nine noble families fight for control over the lands of Westeros, while an ancient enemy returns after being dormant for a millennia.

Release Date
April 17, 2011

Main Genre
Drama

Seasons
8

Watch on Max

6 Gregory House

‘House M.D.’ (2004-2012)

In Hugh Laurie’s greatest role on American television, Dr. Gregory House created ethical nightmares as he took on the most bizarre medical cases at Princeton Plainsboro. Head of diagnostics with a team of the best fellows, House thrives on solving the puzzles no other doctors can decipher, using the rush to distract his mind from his chronic leg pain. A double-edged sword, House’s brilliance comes at a morally gray cost for not only his patients but for the hospital’s Dean of Medicine, Dr. Lisa Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein).

With a Vicodin addiction and a God complex, House’s sole motive is to be right, no matter what the expense. He toes the line of morally gray because of this drive to save each of his patients, picking and choosing when that drive is rooted in medical humanity or just to serve his vanity. House’s belief that everybody lies and patients are idiots may help him close cases, but it ultimately leaves him cynical and alone.

House

Release Date
November 16, 2004

Main Genre
Drama

Seasons
8

Watch on Amazon

5 Elliot Alderson

‘Mr. Robot’ (2015-2019)

mr-robot-social-featured
Image via USA Network

Crossing ethical lines comes within the morally gray territory, a step that cybersecurity engineer Elliot Alderson has no problem taking. Oscar-winner Rami Malek stars as Elliot, a complex character doubling as the engineer and a vigilante hacker seeking to take down the corrupt corporation he works for. While his end goal is rooted in bringing justice to the world, the tactical means to the end become blurry.

In addition to the technical know-how to commit crimes for the greater good, Elliot also suffers from substance abuse and several mental health issues stemming from his traumatic past. Elliot’s introverted nature breathes into the idea of a closeted villain; however, he’s on his own quest to be the hero in everyone’s story, not just his own, despite his tactics and mindset reaching far outside the societal norm. From the spying, interference, and manipulation, the reality is Elliot is far from his hero narrative, but not so far removed that Mr. Robot audiences refuse to root for him.

mr robot

Release Date
June 24, 2015

Main Genre
Crime

Seasons
4

Watch on Amazon

Related

10 Great Movies That Serve as Morality Plays

“And that’s why you always leave a note.”

4 Villanelle & Eve

‘Killing Eve’ (2018-2022)

Jodie Comer as Villanelle and Sandra Oh as Eve in Killing Eve (2018 - 2022)
Image via Hulu

Led by two formidable female leads portrayed by Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer, Killing Eve flipped the mindset of a traditional hero and villain dynamic, allowing both its central characters to soak in the shades of gray. Eve (Oh) is a British Intelligence Agent, and Villanelle (Comer) is the international assassin tasked with killing her. The pair play a game of cat-and-mouse over four seasons, heating up with mutual romantic interest along the way. Where one discovers a darker, exciting new life, the other seeks an ultimate escape from a dark upbringing.

Eve shifts from observing at a distance into a full-blown operative tracking down Villanelle, killing people and seemingly becoming addicted to the rush in the process. At the opposite end, Villanelle transitions from a killer with no regard for human life to expanding her emotional capacity while searching for redemption. The pair begin at opposite ends of the color spectrum and meet in the middle, where they remain morally gray.

Killing Eve

Release Date
April 8, 2018

Main Genre
Drama

Watch on The Roku Channel

3 Marty Byrde

‘Ozark’ (2017-2022)

Marty and Wendy Byrd are seated at a poker table in the Netflix series Ozark
Image via Netflix

A director, executive producer, and leading man in one of Netflix’s best original TV dramas, Jason Bateman steps into the troubled waters of the Lake of the Ozarks as Marty Byrde. A former financial advisor, Marty, hauls his wife Wendy (Laura Linney) and their two kids from Chicago to Missouri to launder money for a Mexican drug cartel his former business partner got mixed up with. As Ozark moves through its four seasons, Marty and Wendy become increasingly entangled in the politics of the remote community as a consequence of embedding themselves further into the crime business in order to keep up their end of the bargain.

The goal was always about protecting his family and laundering as a means of self-preservation, no matter what the moral cost, with the inevitable goal of getting out. Marty maintains his moral ambiguity throughout the series, whereas Wendy revels in the cat-and-mouse game with the cartel, becoming power-hungry to build an empire. When the series ends, Marty is left wondering whether the cost of saving his family and the consequences of the actions he forced into play were worth it in exchange for those who were lost.

Ozark

A financial advisor drags his family from Chicago to the Missouri Ozarks, where he must launder money to appease a drug boss.

Release Date
July 21, 2017

Main Genre
Drama

Seasons
4

Watch on Netflix

2 Barry Berkman

‘Barry’ (2018-2023)

A hitman turned actor, Barry (Bill Hader) is a comedic yet complex morally gray character. Barry follows the former military man after he relocates from the Midwest to Los Angeles, where he stumbles into an acting class, finding interest in the art. With an Emmy-winning performance from Hader, Barry is likable despite his choice to continue transactional killing for a living. Like many morally gray TV characters, Barry’s morality isn’t a stark black and white.

As Barry’s body count increases, it’s clear his moral compass is much more complicated than just a veteran caught up and manipulated into becoming a hitman. While his admirable attempts to quit the hit game never followed through, Barry’s number one priority always landed with self-preservation, making it more difficult for viewers as the series progressed to identify with his morality struggle. Barry remains a notable TV character left in the gray area as not a hero and a questionably redeemable villain.

Barry

Release Date
March 25, 2018

Main Genre
Drama

Seasons
4

Watch on Max

1 Dexter Morgan

‘Dexter’ (2006-2013)

Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) examining a blood sample on 'Dexter'
Image via Showtime

A killer of killers, Dexter Morgan, captivated the audience for eight seasons with his questionable morals, with loyal fans that rooted for him despite his identity as a serial killer. In a career-defining role, Michael C. Hall stars as the titular Miami Metro Police Homicide Division’s forensic technician, solving crimes as his day job and committing them at night by killing other serial killers. His attempt at moving the moral compass needle away from villain satisfies his urge to murder by targeting other criminals. It doesn’t get more gray than that.

Debating Dexter’s intentions against the gravity of his actions is where he falls into a very gray middle ground between definitely not a hero, but is he really a villain if he’s cleaning the streets? The Emmy-winning series managed to sway audiences—in a decade full of crime shows where good always prevails over evil—that Dexter was a morally gray character capable of toeing the line.

Dexter

Release Date
October 1, 2006

Main Genre
Crime

Seasons
8

Watch on Showtime

NEXT: From ‘Avengers’ to ‘Breaking Bad’: The 10 Best Movie & TV Villains Who Were Also the Protagonist



Source

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *