Hero or Smooth Criminal? These TV Characters Make It Hard to Tell

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There is no shortage of criminal characters on television, most of whom we are meant to root against and revile.

However, a select few are so charismatic and good at their jobs that they make us wonder if they are the true heroes of their shows.

These characters are in it for the long haul, living out in the open and evading capture.

They may build a business empire or just maintain the solitary life of a freelance assassin, but whatever they do, it's done with style and a certain "why didn't I think of that" cleverness.

Boyd with a Gun

A fair number of these criminals inhabit shows that carry their names, like Dexter, Barry, and Ripley.

But many more operate within larger fictitious worlds that center law-enforcement heroes and recognizable moral codes.

Here are four of our favorite smooth TV criminals. We definitely shouldn't love them as much as we do, but what can we say -- our hearts are the first thing they stole!

Boyd Contemplates

Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), Justified

The GOAT of smooth TV criminals is from down in the holler of Harlan County, Kentucky.

Boyd, the former high school friend and current nemesis of Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), hails from a long line of drug runners but began the series as a bank robber.

Boyd is a slightly tarnished version of Raylan. The two share a history of mining coal as young men and are intelligent, attractive, and excessively articulate.

After a near-death experience, Boyd cycles through finding religion, going to jail, and running a bar before becoming a major local crime boss. He and Raylan are often at a standoff, but their mutual respect keeps them from fully destroying the other.

Boyd always presents a sharp figure no matter where he's currently located on the income spectrum. His neat, perfectly fitted attire contrasts with the shock of hair standing straight up from his head, a sign that all is not as it seems with him.

Boyd Draws His Gun

Boyd's mythic sense of self and complicated code of ethics make him a fascinating criminal. He is often funny and poetic during his frequent contraction-free and preacher-cadenced monologues.

Various setbacks occur during Boyd's criminal career, but he uses his hometown connections to great effect. It's mesmerizing to watch him leverage old ties and suggest mutually beneficial compromises between local factions that would never occur to outsiders.

Boyd's situational intelligence and twisted moral core make him compelling, but his business acumen takes him to the next level as a villain. Like Raylan, we secretly want Boyd to escape the law and maybe just be satisfied with running that darned bar.

Villanelle (Jodie Comer), Killing Eve

Villanelle is the apex predator of the smooth criminal set. A remorseless killing machine, she also boasts a wry sense of humor and a preternaturally excellent sense of fashion.

Pajama Killer - Killing Eve Season 2 Episode 1

Her exuberance is matched only by her skill as an assassin.

Villanelle kills those she is paid to but somehow ends up leaving several other bodies in her wake with every assignment.

The kills are usually instinctual and clean, as if operating from muscle memory.

Villanelle's competence and insouciance are what draw British Intelligence Investigator Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh) to a point bordering on obsession.

The two play cat-and-mouse all over Europe, with Eve always a step behind.

It is tempting to label Villanelle a sociopath and be done with it, but she is far too complicated for that description to be either accurate or fair.

Villanelle's orphaned childhood, constant lies from her handlers, and the different personas she's assumed to complete assignments have all contributed to a fractured view of life and her place in it.

She is also genuinely curious about people, even if that doesn't stop her from killing them.

Villanelle's Green Outfit - Killing Eve Season 3 Episode 7

Villanelle and Eve mirror each other much as Boyd and Raylan do in Justified.

Villanelle is an expert assassin who moves through the world stylishly and mostly without consequences, but it takes Eve some time to stop making mistakes in her new globetrotting job.

Villanelle is initially intrigued by Eve's flawless hair but soon senses that her nemesis has an enviable core of decency.

The possibility that Villanelle might reform keeps Eve and the audience invested in an otherwise monstrous criminal character -- well, that and her outfits!

Berlin (Pedro Alonso), Money Heist and Berlin

Suave, sophisticated, and sadistic, Berlin's character stood out among the red jumpsuits and Dali masks of his fellow bank robbers in the hit series Money Heist.

Berlin is one of the masterminds behind a daring plan to infiltrate the Royal Mint of Spain. Armed with those red jumpsuits and guns, a group of thieves take the Mint's employees hostage while they try to steal 2.4 billion euros.

Berlin is as charming and assured as a gameshow host with the hostages, but he can instantly turn threatening when challenged. He is a volatile bon vivant who lives in the moment even more ferociously now after a dire medical diagnosis.

Berlin Money Heist Pic

In what is starting to look like a pattern for these characters, Berlin is brilliant, scathingly funny, and extremely good at his job.

Criminal characters also share the lack of a moral compass, but Berlin conveys a palpable sense of danger that keeps his odds of redemption low. 

Every time you are charmed into liking his character and wishing him well, he performs a brutal act that will leave you speechless.

His character benefits from flashbacks showing preparations for this and other heists.

While not entirely stripped of his cruelty, Berlin presents as a debauched dilettante still in love with life in these scenes of earlier times.

This is perhaps the best (and only) excuse for a prequel series starring this mercurial but always-entertaining character.

Berlin (the show) returned to a jewelry heist years before the events at the Royal Mint and was recently renewed for a second season on Netflix.

Rio (Manny Montana), Good Girls

Honestly, all three women in this show deserve to be on this list.

But it did take them some time to work out the kinks of their criminal enterprise, while Rio was smooth from the get-go.

Making His Demands - Good Girls Season 4 Episode 1

When three friends and suburban mothers at the end of their financial ropes rob a grocery store and get away with it, the last thing they expect is to wind up in debt to a sexy crime boss. 

Rio is a gang leader who uses the grocery store as a money-laundering front.

The women discover a talent for counterfeiting and keep working for Rio after their debt is paid.

Rio's dealings with the women tend to be more dangerous than humorous.

Still, Rio sees a kindred spirit in Beth (Christina Hendricks) and slowly opens up to her throughout the series, revealing different aspects of his character.

Beth is also drawn to him, but their mutual attraction never becomes more than a power battle.

He is taciturn but compelling, letting his presence and physicality silently convey dominance better than any words could.

Rio can still be quite funny, and he enjoys upending Beth's expectations, such as taking her to meet his grandmother at a backyard family dinner.

Afternoon Smiles - Good Girls Season 4 Episode 6

He maintains a large criminal organization with seeming ease, although the FBI might have taken notice.

Rio is another example of how appealing it is when characters play outside the rules.

They give us the vicarious thrill of skirting mundanity in everyday life without consequences, or at least fewer than we'd meet if we tried the same.

Smooth criminals tend to be impressively competent but are also multi-faceted characters who often help balance out their misdeeds with charm and humor.

Who are some of your favorite criminal characters?

We'd love to know!

Paullette Gaudet is a staff writer for TV Fanatic. You can follow her on X.

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