What is a Big Bad?

Mary McMahon

The term “big bad” is used to refer to a major recurring villain in a television series. Typically, the big bad's story covers an entire season of broadcast, with the characters defeating or overcoming the character in the season finale. In some cases, a big bad is everpresent, enduring for the length of a series while various minor villains create mayhem in individual seasons.

A Big Bad Wolf plays a role in "Little Red Riding Hood."
A Big Bad Wolf plays a role in "Little Red Riding Hood."

This term originated in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer television series, first emerging in the second season of the series. The term became widespread, with fans of the series using it to describe characters in the series and using it in discussions of other television shows. Numerous television shows, including Buffy, have used the term in individual episodes, identifying specific characters as big bads.

Daleks are considered the big bad of the Doctor Who universe.
Daleks are considered the big bad of the Doctor Who universe.

The use of “big bad” to describe a nemesis, villain, or enemy probably spread so widely and so quickly because the Buffy series has such a cult following. Fans of the phrase would have disseminated it widely, with creators of other television shows picking it up in response to Buffy fans and in homage to a famous and well-loved television series.

When the term was first used, it was probably meant to reference the Big Bad Wolf, an infamous fairy tale character who is known for being cunning and particularly evil. Several variations on the term have also appeared on television, including “Big Bad Evil Guy.” On occasion, TV villains have even used the term to describe themselves.

The big bad's personality and style vary widely, depending on the series and individual seasons. Often, the influence of the big bad is felt before he or she is formally introduced to viewers, setting the stage for an extended story arc which will feature complex conflict. Most big bads also have a substantial backup team of minions to assist them with their devious plots.

In addition to providing an important source of conflict to keep viewers engaged and interested in the series, the big bad also helps the series to grow and change. Often, a big bad forces characters to confront parts of themselves which they are struggling with, and as characters learn to defeat the big bad, they become stronger, and develop into more interesting people. On occasion, a big bad is even turned, successfully converted to the side of the protagonists of the series.

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