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.”
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…
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.