There's an old saying that argues that every good villain is simply the hero of his or her own story. And that's true. The best villains are three-dimensional, well-rounded characters with understandable motivations for doing terrible things. And while we as viewers can see that their reasoning is flawed, to them their goals make sense. And the very best stories present their villains in such nuanced, human ways that they can become as easy to root for as their more heroic counterparts.
This depth can take a variety of forms but usually tends to spring from things like troubled childhoods, dead parents or other forms of familial loss, and general loneliness. But almost never from love. Granted, TV bad guys with rich interior and emotional lives are still generally rare enough that it probably shouldn't surprise us that there aren't a ton of stories where they get the girl. (Or boy. We can dream, right?) But the idea that villains deserve love too is anathema in far too many stories.
Sure, there are many narratives in which various villains and antiheroes profess some form of feeling for a heroine. From unrequited love to full-on obsession, unwanted and unasked-for male romantic interest is a staple of many genre stories. (Severus Snape, what's good?) Even when that affection is returned, part of being a villain usually involves a significant amount of lying and misdirection within the relationship about everything from basic issues of identity and shady business practices to assault and murder.
As a result, love stories involving villains often tend to be little more than thinly coded abuse narratives — Harley Quinn and the Joker are possibly the most egregious, but hardly the only example of this — or stories in which the women involved have little ability to act independently, existing solely to serve as glorified emotional crutches or objectified ideals that encourage men to change. Think Once Upon a Time, where Rumpelstiltskin and Belle's relationship is almost entirely predicated on whether he's coded as potentially "good" at any given moment.
That usually doesn't leave a lot of room for anything like real romance, let alone the sort of honest and forthright partnership that's built to last. Not even the prestige TV-fueled rise of the antihero has managed to reverse this trend. But, then again, outside of the Underwoods on the Netflix drama House of Cards — who are, admittedly, a fairly extreme case — it's not entirely clear that many shows have actually tried that hard.
And honestly? They really, really should.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer was out here back in the late 1990s proving that a love story about two villains could be both entertaining and devastatingly effective, yet we somehow didn't see a dozen Spike and Drusilla clones dominate the television landscape in the years that came afterward. (More's the pity, that.) Though Spike and Dru are violent, murderous vampires, the relationship between them is both deeply complex and darkly romantic. Despite the fact that they both experienced suffering — everything from abandonment to torture to madness — they're as devoted to one another as they are to destroying things and killing people. Swoon.
Yet, somehow, it's decades later, and television still isn't giving us the rich Big Bad relationships we deserve. Which is a shame on many levels, but mostly because the rare programs that manage to pull off this sort of story show exactly how impactful and necessary such a love story can be.
Marvel's Daredevil not only features one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe's all-time best villains in Wilson Fisk, but also one of its most romantic characters. Though Fisk is a brutal, dangerous murderer, he's also kind of a sappy mushball. In the series' first season, he meets and falls in love with a local art dealer named Vanessa Marianna. His feelings for her help humanize him for viewers, and give him an in-narrative clarity and focus he otherwise might lack. And, for once, the love interest isn't there to die violently or discover her entire life is built on lies about a man she foolishly trusted, but who viewers knew all along was bad news.
Instead, Vanessa gets the chance to choose for herself and decides to love Fisk back, armed with full knowledge about precisely the kind of man he is. The pair stress communication and mutual understanding in their relationship, talking out their pasts and problems in a way that few central couples on television ever manage to achieve. Vanessa insists on being treated as Fisk's equal, but has no interest in being his conscience; and while he clearly loves her, he's not looking for her to save him.
How many other characters — particularly and especially villains — would benefit from a story that focused this much attention on their emotional depth? In Daredevil's third season, the culmination of Fisk's grand evil scheme isn't taking over New York or killing Matt Murdock; it's planning his own wedding. Seriously, your fave could never.
Fisk and Vanessa aren't Marvel television's only villainous romance. (Who would have ever guessed, right? Thanks, Netflix!) Though the May-December fling between Luke Cage's Mariah Dillard and Hernan "Shades" Alvarez is (much) more sexually driven than the Fisks' relationship, the duo are also tremendously compelling to watch together. And though their story spins out in a completely different direction, ultimately becoming a chaotic thriller in which two ambitious parties repeatedly betray one another in spite of their feelings, the reason it works is precisely the same. As viewers, we're fully invested in Shades and Mariah's romantic connection, as much if not more so than we are Luke and Claire's.
Far too often, television villains are treated as though the fact of their villainy is all that matters. They're bad guys. They exist to be foils and obstacles for our heroes and protagonists and if the story manages to give them something resembling a vaguely three-dimensional personality — something that's by no means guaranteed even now! — then that's supposed to be enough. After all, who's watching for the villains anyway, right?
But, at the end of the day, what we are all watching for is a good story. And no matter how terrible they are, villains are still beings that are or should be capable of basic human emotion and want. And that includes — or should include — someone to love. Maybe these characters are never going to win husband of the year honors or get rewarded with a lavish, happy wedding at the end of the day. (A crazy killer bent on revenge did show up at Fisk and Vanessa's in the end.) But these are still stories worth telling — and, after all, don't the bad guys deserve a little love too?