Unapologetic Evil: Cardinal Richelieu

For as long as I can remember, I have loved fictional villains. I justify it by pointing out a hero is nothing without a villain to overcome, but in reality I love their pure, unabashed delight in being dreadful. They bring melodrama to the story. I’m a sucker for damsels in distress, enormous evil plots, and diabolical laughter. These things give me joy. All my favorite movies and shows have “good” villains (and by “good” I mean either likable, demented fiends or soulless, amoral masterminds).

So, to counter-act the profound thoughtfulness of this blog in recent weeks, I bring you a post about one of my all-time favorite villains, Cardinal Richelieu in The Musketeers.

This show knows how to open a series. By the end of the pilot, you know who everyone is—it has established them well. D’Artangan is a hothead who never listens and has zero boundary awareness. Lady DeWinter is an uncontrollable psychopath out for revenge. Aramis is a “wallow in my tortured past” drunk. Porthos cheats at cards and laughs. Aramis is a sociopath who likes to live on the dangerous side. King Louis is a twit. His wife is sweet. And… you know not to trifle with the Cardinal, because he masterminds a scheme to cast the Musketeers in a bad light to get his Red Guards better established. Oh, and he murders his mistress when he finds out she’s sleeping with Aramis. As one does. When she screams at him, as she’s being dragged into the woods, that he’s going straight to hell, he replies, “I have work to do here first.”

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Richelieu makes life hell for the Musketeers throughout the first season, while they trace every diabolical scheme, underhanded plot, back alley murder, and nasty dealing straight to the cardinal… and then trap him into revealing himself, at which point he unleashes a magnificent speech that reveals the core tenant of his personality: he does what they are too weak to do, what NEEDS done, for France, and for the king. He justifies all his evil actions through necessity. Richelieu serves France. He prevents catastrophic problems. His kidnapping and locking up of ambassadors keeps safe their spy in Savoy. He justifies an attempt on the queen’s life by pointing out France needs an heir and she has provided none.

While his methods are without conscience, he is often right from a logical perspective, playing the voice of reason with a spoiled, temperamental king. (“Beheading one’s mother is never popular with the people, Sire. It always looks a tad ungrateful.”) Even his vendetta against a feminist has little to do with her politics, and everything to do with the king wanting an armada. Her money could pay for it. He allows her to keep her life after being framed for moral crimes, but he takes her fortune.

Now, if all of this makes him sound awful—good, it’s intended to, because he’s evil. Unabashedly and unapologetic, without conscience—a narcissist who allows a psychopath to do his dirty work for him, since he never dirties his own hands with menial things such as murdering priests. (Which… if they know a secret that could endanger France… well, you shut them up. Or rather, have your Red Guards do it while you burn the evidence.) But what I like about him is…

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The writers never felt the need to soften him. We live in an age of “woobie” villains, or villains with dark, tortured pasts. As much as I like Kylo Ren or Commodus from Gladiator or even Loki, occasionally it’s nice to find a remorseless villain without an angst-ridden past that is just evil for the sake of ambition and not because he is butt-hurt.

He’s rational. Richelieu roots each ruthless decision in a tangible result that has nothing to do with personal feelings. He does not just advance his own career; everything he does he justifies as being a “servant of France.” None of it is without a reason. He’s a cool-headed politician who argues with facts. They need Savoy, and Savoy needs them, and it’s ridiculous to settle a political negotiation with swords (but Athos had better win!).

He’s realistic. A fellow priest must remind Richelieu he’s a man of the church, “the highest ranking officer in the Catholic faith.” That has not hindered him, it has assisted him. Ambitious young men, if they could get into the Church, had an inbuilt way “up” into power hierarchies. In the middle ages and beyond, only the Catholic Church could afford to educate their young men. A lot of the lower class outside the monasteries could not read, much less learn foreign languages, study poetry and theology, or have any in-road into power beyond servitude. Ambitious men like Richelieu or like Cardinal Wolsey in Tudor Times, went into the church, worked their way up into power, attracted a king’s attentions (often one with less interest in ruling than in “having fun”), proved their competency, and wound up ruling the county behind-the-scenes. In their thinking, they get power and wealth, the country gets ruled, what’s so wrong with that?

He is smart and sarcastic. Richelieu also comes with a slew of brilliant insults, unabashed sarcasm, and various digs—all while his mind works behind the scenes to discern the true motives and intentions of his minions and adversaries. You cannot pull fast ones over on him. He’s a worthy adversary who plays the idiotic Musketeers like a string quartet. So smart, in fact, that if he were real, he would not let Lady DeWinter live. He knows she’s a loose cannon, an assassin he cannot control, and a psychopath. The cardinal does not ask her, “Did it give you pleasure to kill him?” for no reason. He knows it did. His feral kitten has claws. But the show needs her to live, so he never takes matters into his own hands. He regards her warily. She’s a tool, and like any tool, he can use her.

Sometimes, you don’t need a villain to have a tortured past, or a reason he turned out as he did. Sometimes, you need one who sees people as tools to get what he wants… or as a roadblock standing in his way.

5 thoughts on “Unapologetic Evil: Cardinal Richelieu

Add yours

  1. This is a really important point for us writers to remember.

    Sure, some villains are evil because they’ve been hurt, and that’s legitimate writing . . . but some villains are just evil because they want POWER, and that is ALSO legitimate writing.

    (Side note: Do you think Darth Vader would’ve been a more powerful character if they hadn’t given him that emo backstory? I don’t know, it just didn’t seem to suit him.)

    1. There’s too many emo villains these days. I don’t mind them, but let’s just throw a few in there who “love to watch the world burn.” 😉

      I don’t mind Vader’s back story, but it would have been nice had the writing remained consistent between the two trilogies, in order for him to have the same basic personality. Consistency issues really irritate me in major franchises. I’ve been discussing that problem elsewhere, with doing a “prequel” series years after the fact, and how it rarely works. (We were speaking specifically about the X-Men franchise where, horrifically, their villain not only has two different personality types, but two different Enneagram tritypes as well. :P)

      1. I think most of all, I like a villain who believes he/she is IMPROVING the world . . . hmmmmm. I’ve never actually sat down and thought about my favorite villain types before. You’re rubbing off on me, Charity 😛

        Right!! It seemed like “Anakin” was an entirely different PERSON than “Darth Vader,” like they could never really be one & the same. And that’s confusing.

        (Consistency issues are the worst. *waves vaguely at the entire MCU*)

        1. I love so many villains, I couldn’t tell you the pattern of their behavior other than they have some serious internal screw-up going on. 😉 Also, yay for rubbing off on you! It’s a tough job, but somebody’s gotta do it.

          I guess you could vaguely argue that losing his mother to the Sand People, and growing up a slave, and losing his mentor, and slaughtering a bunch of innocent kids to save his wife who then died, and losing his kids, and then losing his arms and legs when his BFF turns on him could make Anakin just about depressed enough to be Darth Vader, but Vader is actually a competent strategist and careful individual whereas Anakin is an emotional hothead, so I don’t buy them as the same person.

          (I’m sorry, but this is what happens when you let George Lucas play with his toys 30 years later.)

          1. Rubbing off on ME really IS a tough job. Not many people can do it. But I think you’re up to the task 😉

            Yup. It’s not the depressed part I can’t buy, it’s the Seriously Competent Villain part.

            Have you ever seen this video, btw? I think it would crack you up. 😉

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