Niccolo Machiavelli is the 15th-century Italian diplomat and author whose political treatise The Prince is still considered one of the greatest works in the realm of philosophy and political science. Considered synonymous with ruthless ambition, cunning immorality and values, Machiavelli’s name led to the evolution of the term Machiavellian which is often associated with unscrupulous, duplicitous and manipulative people who are well-versed in treacherous deeds, lies and deception.
Villains are antagonists and are often found in abundance in films. However, it is very hard to construct a Machiavel who thrives on the misery of others, using their vulnerability to their advantage and often, like Machiavelli himself, using fear as means of controlling and affecting their surroundings. It is indeed difficult to conceive characters with such hatred and vivacious malevolence; it is even more difficult to get into the skin of those.
However, in pop culture, there are certain Machiavellian characters who have left an indelible mark, from Tony Soprano to Scar, from Walter White to the Underwoods. Netflix has a wide variety of series and films and has gifted us Machiavellian characters who induce fear, hatred and anger in our hearts.
Here are six such despicable Machiavels who are equally charming and scary:
The 6 scariest Machiavellian characters on Netflix
6. Eric Cartman – South Park
While some might find calling an elementary school student a Machiavel a bit of a stretch, Eric Cartman, sometimes simply referred to as Cartman, is a dark, 2-D brainchild of Machiavelli. A twisted and talented manipulator, Eric is well-versed in the kind of tactics he must employ to emotionally blackmail those around him to do his bidding. From framing his mother for drug production to manipulating all his friends to listen to him, Eric is a mastermind who can anticipate the moves of those around him.
Devoid of empathy, Eric never cares about the adverse effects of his actions. He is cruel and ruthless in his observations, often bullying others around him into submission. He is guided by an obsessive ambition, and although the showrunners Matt Stonie and Trey parker try to infuse dark humour within his character, making his weirdly comedic, Cartman is frankly scary!
5. Tom Ripley – The Talented Mr. Ripley
Initially, Tom Ripley hides behind the facade of being a good-natured simpleton who conceals within him the vaulting desperation to be rich and climb up the social ladder. Based on Patricia Highsmith’s eponymous 1955 novel, Anthony Minghella casts Matt Damon as the complicated Ripley who executes Machiavelli’s ideas to the T, even willing to kill a man to assume his wealthy identity.
With a penchant for lies, deceit, manipulation and grandeur, Ripley’s lack of empathy and morality transforms him into a dangerous character who experiences no guilt or shame. He goes to extreme lengths to achieve his goals and grows obsessed with the idea of being affluent. Damon is dexterous in his portrayal of Ripley’s gruesome monstrosity and inability to accept rejection which ultimately fuels his twisted psyche.
4. Light Yagami – Death Note
Yagami Raito or Light Yagami is the main protagonist of the Death Note manga which was later adapted into an anime and subsequently a live-action film. In the anime, Yagami is perhaps the scariest and most cunning Machiavel. Initially, he is a bored genius who comes across the supernatural Death Note that bestows in him the power to kill, appealing to his Machiavellian traits.
Egotistical, arrogant and corrupt, Yagami finds the ultimate power to control life and death and is completely remorseless about his deeds. Yagami tries to gain complete control of those around him, aiming to be of a godlike stature. Although he has certain redemptive qualities, in the beginning, power corrupts him, turning him into a twisted monster who wants to mould society according to his whim.
3. Daniel Plainview – There Will Be Blood
There Will Be Blood is Paul Thomas Anderson’s ultimate masterpiece where Daniel Day-Lewis does a brilliant job as the ruthless and cunning oil mogul Daniel Plainview whose ambition compels him to stop at nothing to achieve immeasurable success, even prompting him to manipulate his adopted son. A harrowing odyssey of morality, human ambition and greed, Plainview s based on the real-life oil tycoon Edward Doheney who inspired the James Arnold Ross character from Oil!.
Brilliantly portrayed by Day-Lewis and created with extreme finesse, Plainview is one of the most intense and ruthless Machiavels whose insatiable lust for power, success and greed is enunciated by his unforgettable monologues that assert his dominance. With his Oscar-winning performance, Day-Lewis weaves into his character the element of fear and ambition that Machiavelli talks of constantly in The Prince.
2. Frank Underwood – House of Cards
Portrayed by the disgraced Kevin Spacey, Frank Underwood is the perfect Machiavellian villain who thrives on fear and not love. A true follower of Machiavelli’s The Prince, Frank is cunning, cold and calculative. As the 46th President of the United States, he is ruthless and duplicitous and does not hesitate from indulging in bloodshed to achieve his desired results.
A true modern-day Machiavel, Underwood also adopts a facade later to trick people into believing him. He has no regard for the repercussions of his actions and is almost morally bankrupt as he uses fear as a strong method of controlling those around him.
1. Walter White – Breaking Bad
With Vince Gilligan’s Emmy-winning show Breaking Bad inarguably being one of the greatest TV shows of all time, Walter White is a cult-like persona who went from being a mundane everyman Chemistry teacher to a fearful drug kingpin named Heisenberg in a frankly terrifying journey of self-discovery.
From being a law-abiding citizen to cooking crystal meth right under the noses of the DEA agents without giving them a whiff of anything, White’s descent into evil and ambition is aggravated by his narcissism, greed and lust for power.
What starts off as a cancerous man’s ambition to protect his family from ruin quickly explodes into a way more sinister event that White deftly handles with Machiavellian brilliance. Although he defies Machiavelli who advocated for the betterment of the state, White is concerned solely about his family and does not stop at anything, even manipulating Jesse and controlling fellow Machiavels, for necessary results.