Three unlikely crime lords, a hometown hero and a fellow who likes the word “bastard”
A great story unfolds with a sense of inevitability: You know the characters couldn't behave any other way.
But for a story to hold our interest – much less make us laugh, scream at the TV, even cry – the characters need to be unpredictable. Only in retrospect can we recognize how their fears, ambitions and failures sealed their fates.
The five characters on our list – and the writers, actors, directors, and many others who shaped them – held our fascination more than any others on television. And they rewarded us for our attention with storylines that felt true and complete.
They also delivered a lot of awfully cool lines.
A quick spoiler warning before we begin: We're going to talk about what every character on our list did, and what became of them. If you haven't seen these shows, go watch them.
1. GUSTAVO "GUS" FRING (GIANCARLO ESPOSITO), "BREAKING BAD": Nothing can diminish a great villain like revealing his backstory – remember how much lamer Darth Vader and Hannibal Lecter became after their prequels?
Walter White's nemesis on "Breaking Bad" was introduced as an exceedingly humble restaurant owner, who soon proved to be a ruthless meth kingpin willing to personally dispatch an inept underling with a box cutter.
A midseason look back at Gus' history initially seemed like a risky move: We learned that he had mysterious ties to Pinochet's Chile, and a close relationship with a business partner who may also have been his lover. But learning about Gus's past made him more sympathetic, and viewers' slight shift in allegiances paralleled the one by Walt's partner, Jesse, as he grew closer to Gus.
The flashback to one terrible day in Mexico also paid off with Gus exacting a brilliant revenge on his former tormentors – and then, finally, with the most spectacular death in TV history. Ever.
2. MAGS BENNETT (MARGO MARTINDALE), "JUSTIFIED": She was a fierce holler mama who smashed her disobedient son's hand with a hammer and made Tony Soprano and Nucky Thompson look refined.
Whether cutting devious deals with Boyd Crowder or the evil mining company (both at the expense of anyone not named Bennett), or playing substitute mother to teen Loretta (whose father she'd killed with her poisonous "apple pie" moonshine), Mags knew how to rule with an iron fist and a manipulative word. But she still managed to be charming in a down-home way, even in that hammer scene.
She was — before downing her own fatal dose of apple pie — a scene-stealing, richly-written character in a show packed with them. Martindale, who deservedly won an Emmy for the role, also turns in top-notch, understated work on CBS's "A Gifted Man" – but we wish she had another role like Mags.
3. TAMI TAYLOR (CONNIE BRITTON), "FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS": The delicate push-pull between Tami and Eric Taylor was always the heart of NBC and DirecTV's beautiful "Friday Night Lights," which concluded this year. It came to a head during a tense family dinner in the final episode, as coach Taylor tried to explain to their daughter why she was too young to marry. As he firmly explained that marriage is about compromise, Tami (Connie Britton) had to leave: The speech belied her husband's refusal to move for the sake of her career.
Standing by a restaurant parking lot, she delivered the most devastating lines we heard on television this year. "It's my turn, babe," she said, reminding him how many times she had moved for his job. "Because otherwise, what am I gonna tell our daughter?"
Britton earned so much good faith that we went into "American Horror Story" already rooting for her desperate character. The FX horror series, which gave us few characters to like, never would have taken off without her.
4. JIMMY DARMODY (MICHAEL PITT), "BOARDWALK EMPIRE": The second season of HBO's prohibition drama – as we only learned in its final minutes — was about an underdog's bold-yet-doomed attempt to replace a criminal bureaucracy years in the making.
Darmody (played by Michael Pitt) usurped mentor Nucky Thompson only to become ruled by fellow gangsters, the old guard of Atlantic City, and his wily mother. His inability to stop a hit on Nucky and hubristic refusal to pay a debt got him killed – and cost his wife and her lover their lives as well.
But before Jimmy died, we saw how much he overcame, starting with his birth to a showgirl who had been raped. And we learned how bizarre his relationship with his mother truly was. Pitt perfectly played the character as stoic and closed-off, desperate not to reveal his inner agony.
5. TYRION LANNISTER (PETER DINKLAGE), "GAME OF THRONES": Dinklage anchors the HBO drama with a character who personifies all of its trademarks: wit, unpredictability, and an obsession with power.
Dinklage deservedly won an Emmy for his droll, layered performance. Lannister cannily manipulates everyone around him, and refuses to back down to men twice his size, whether in battle or brutally honest talk. Watch him matter-of-factly explain to one character, in the show's pilot, that he meets the precise definition of a bastard: