Best of 2021: Characters features spoilers for various shows. Please be advised if there’s something you don’t want to know.
We all have a different definition for what makes a character great or why they become a favorite of ours. Here at Marvelous Geeks, it’s often been the characters with the most growth of the season and the most layered. It’s been the characters we’ve stayed up late thinking about, wanting to know more about, and loved as though they’re someone we know. Somehow, the best of 2021 characters are always the ones there for you in a way you never expected them to be, and in our books, that makes them extraordinary.
For more end-of-the-year coverage, be sure to check out our Best of 2021: Ted Lasso Season 2 Special, as the shining example of what excellent TV looks like in its entirety. There’s also the Best of 2021: Scene-Stealers and Best of 2021: Performances who made this year a joy ride through and through.
Shadow and Bone
Shadow and Bone’s Inej Ghafa is my everything, and much to no one’s surprise, I’ll fight on this hill that she’s the best new TV character of 2021. Impeccably skilled and utterly loyal, Inej is the definition of a badass character with more love in her heart than the world deserves. No one at her age (or ever) should have to go through the tragedies and darkness that she has lived through. Still, with every wraith-like step, every benevolent decision, and the inexpressible patience for all those around her, Inej makes the world around her a little better and a little brighter.
She’s the kind of character that graces our screens rarely. The kind who’s bound to inspire both young and old. The kind whose growth will be something we appreciate for years to come because she represents the importance of kindness and love being a choice. She represents selflessness in the form of someone who’d never let another soul live through the kind of darkness she experienced, and no matter the risk, she’s always willing to take it if it ensures someone else’s life is better as a result.
Season 5 of The Expanse and the first two episodes of Season 6 continue to challenge Naomi Nagata in ways nothing in the past has by placing her duties as a mother, and the greater good of the world basically at her fingertips. Throughout the year, Naomi’s inability to get through to Filip brought terrors back into her life, followed by the near-death experience, which is now a cause of post-traumatic stress that she has no idea how to grapple with.
Pair all of the above with the grief she’s living through because of her self-proclaimed failure and Alex’s death—every bit of the darkness Naomi experiences during her time away from the Roci haunts her now every move. And though it is the kind of darkness that’ll undoubtedly strengthen her, Naomi Nagata has never once deserved any of it. Nevertheless, through all this, Naomi’s bravery remains unaltered, and her heart more open than ever before.
Law and Order: SVU
To be fair, Olivia Benson isn’t just a best of 2021 character. She is a favorite character every year. She’s far from perfect and has fallen into typical cop behavior from time to time, but overall, she’s the person we wish we had in our corners after major trauma. Much has already been said about her incredible bravery in letting Stabler right back into her heart after everything, about how she’s shown up for him and his kids when a much lesser person (so us mere mortals) would absolutely not have done that. It bears repeating, though: This woman’s capacity for caring is everything. She has not lost herself in being an empath; she just continues to get better in every way because of her unimaginable capacity for empathy.
So, that brings us to our next point: One of the absolute, lights out, phenomenal things we’ve seen from Captain Benson in 2021 was her total refusal to take Chief McGrath’s orders to drop certain cases. She’s not turning her back on any victim, no matter who demands that she take the easy and PR-friendly way out—no matter how difficult the case is. Even after over 20 years, she’s still there for the victims, fighting for justice, and—as has been highlighted in SVU Season 23 more so than it has been in a long time—still up against a power structure that could very easily, even with all her commendations and her status as Commanding Officer, swallow her whole.
But it won’t. Because she’s Olivia Benson…and she bows to nothing and no one. Somehow, in the face of trauma after trauma, heartbreak after heartbreak, and an endless parade of increasingly horrifying perpetrators, she remains a hero to so many. The world may try to destroy her, but nevertheless, she persists. She’s even learned that it’s okay to admit she’s been hurt and her right to let people know what she wants from them along the way. It doesn’t take away from her strength; on the contrary, it just makes her tougher than ever. –Shana L
After 10 long years, Elliot Stabler finally came home. And he came back better than ever. The Detective Stabler of 2021 is careful and caring with his mentally ill mother; he calls her “Mama” and is incredibly patient with her when she’s clearly struggling to find her grasp on reality. He’s a better father, finding ways to see his youngest son even when he’s undercover. And when Eli went missing, the family reunion wasn’t about an outraged, overbearing parent giving his baby “tough love.” Instead, he was horrified to hear that Eli was terrified of hurting him more after the terrible year he’d had; all he wanted to do was hug his son and tell him he was so sorry for how much he was hurting. A lot of people have seen Elliot as the “toxic male” and “overly violent” cop prototype, the “poster boy for rage,” if you will. And yeah. He had his moments, most notably when interrogating a suspect in his wife’s murder—something he should never have been doing in the first place—but overall, 2021’s El is much more under control.
Although it took him a while (that original “back off” to Liv still stings), Elliot has learned how to ask for help when he needs it. And he’s learned how to just be open and vulnerable about it in ways we never thought we’d see. He’s finally in therapy—or at least, he was before he went undercover—after having been hostile (at best) to the idea back in the day.
…and he listens now. A younger Elliot Stabler, when confronted by Olivia about their reconciliation being one-sided since his return, would’ve probably been in deep denial, deep rage, and fully prepared to start a screaming match. That’s not how the final crossover of the year went down, though. Nope. He listened. He admitted he really didn’t know why he’d given Liv that stupid letter and even confessed that he had no idea where to begin with their “whatever this is.” And once the danger with Eli was past in Law & Order: Organized Crime 2×09, he told Liv he wanted to find the balance she’d asked for. He was also so incredibly soft and bashful, things our favorite stubborn sonofabitch could never have been described as before now.
Elliot has gone on such a journey in 2021—the growth in the mere months since his first reappearance in SVU’s “Return of the Prodigal Son” being undeniable—and we can’t wait to see what happens next. –Shana L
Wanda Maximoff is one of the most complex characters in the MCU, and where her story goes following the events of WandaVision will determine whether she stands as a hero, a villain, or even an anti-hero. But how the future looks is no matter compared to the fact that she is, without question, one of the best of 2021 characters few were expecting to be this in awe of. (At least, I wasn’t.)
Wanda’s battles with grief and the haunting decisions she made to cope with the immense loss left in her life made her the kind of woman so many related to. (If she were a man, people on social media wouldn’t even be having these conversations about whether her actions are merited or not, they’d be coddling him instead.)
In short, it comes as no surprise that controversies follow the creation of Westview, but Wanda’s paralyzing heartache acutely showcased her immensity to love more than anything else. Wanda Maximoff makes it clear as day that women are allowed to grieve and struggle and hurt despite how powerful they are. She can’t “mind control” her pain away. And thus, while her actions are one thing, the fact remains that Westview is a direct result of how much she loved Vision, how much she was willing to give to lose her children after being their mother, and how hard she tried to cope at the face of being terrorized from every angle. She was exhausted. And in the end, Wanda does the right thing even though all she is left with then are memories. Memories of a life she loved more than anything and a kind of grief that is proof of said love, and that’s really all that we can ask for where growth is concerned. WandaVision, at its core, is both a love story and a brilliant character study.
The Falcon and The Winter Soldier
The Falcon and The Winter Soldier didn’t give either of its essential characters the screen time they deserved, but it did prove that Sam Wilson is more than worthy of Captain America’s shield and everything else that comes with the title. Sam Wilson is the best part of MCU’s Phase 4, and probably even, a more righteous character than Steve Rogers. (As his self-proclaimed biggest fan, I feel as though that’s a claim I can boldly make.)
Sam’s heart is unparalleled, and his compassion is something else entirely. And in every way that matters, his goodness is a shining example of what it truly means to be a hero. Sam Wilson is a risk taker, but more than that he’s the kind of character who understands the weight of loss, and as a result, would never let another person’s heartache go unnoticed. Sam will fight for the people who won’t fight for themsleves. He’ll give everything for the silent voices the world isn’t looking out for. And his loyalty to his loved ones is a beautiful thing we might never get tired of. It’s why he fought so hard to help his sister. It’s why he could never give up on Bucky. And it’s why he needed to go on this journey to understand that he’s always been more than worthy despite the cruel world we live in.
If you thought Rosa Diaz was an icon before, the final season of Brooklyn Nine-Nine gives the badass woman even more room to become better and stronger, and undeniably, a best of 2021 character. So much of what has always stood out with Rosa has been the fact that behind to stoic exterior, she’s cared deeply about humanity and her loved ones. She was in this job first and foremost because she wanted to help people.
And after the events of Black Lives Matter in the summer of 2020, Rosa makes the decision to leave the precinct and corrupt institution behind to find better ways to actually help the marginalized communities that are terrorized daily in America. Rosa’s decision thus cements the fact that beyond the words she speaks, she’s a character who backs everything with actions, showcasing the immensity of her heart through every move. Rosa Diaz got to choose who she wants to be and where she wants to go, and she does so with the kind of admirable decision that bestows her an eternal force to be reckoned with in TV history.
Geralt of Rivia
In the same way that Henry Cavill anchored his performance through more emotional beats, Geralt’s growth in the second season allowed for him to stand out even stronger than ever before. In The Witcher’s second season especially, he’s significantly more thought-provoking than before.
Geralt is the kind of character who’s now entirely unforgettable beyond Cavill’s indescribably admirable physicality. It was evident that he cared deeply in the first season despite trying to conceal so much, but it’s a whole new wheelhouse today watching him navigate through protecting someone else while trying to work through the perils within him slowly. Watching Geralt understand that the chaos in his life is a part of his destiny, and a part of the bigger picture is just the kind of growth needed for him, and where the series will go in season three could likely destroy us all.
Sex Education Season 3 works wonders for all its characters as they’re challenged in ways that change so much of their high school experience. And as a result, it does something beautifully inspiring with Aimee Gibbs by allowing her to be a human who’s struggling. While that’s never a good thing and life is tough as is without TV adding “realistic” drama when it comes to Aimee’s arc, it’s something that hasn’t been done before, and perhaps, it can act as an example for both the real world and the fictional.
Sexual assault and trauma in any form are unspeakably horrible—it doesn’t just go away overnight. It stays with you, it lingers, and it hurts in a way that individuals will say there are no proper words for. But people can be helped. The trauma doesn’t need to control a person, but rather a person can learn how to overcome it, and the inclusion of therapy is a great part of the series that’s making it clear how normal and necessary it is. Aimee needed to find her own freedom—she needed to work through the demons inflicted upon her while simultaneously working through embracing her sexual desires, which no one can rob from her.
She needed to understand that no part of the assault on the bus was her fault. She had done nothing to deserve, and that she can overcome it. And perhaps, even more, beautiful is the fact that she needed to realize that she’s strong even while she struggles—even while she aches.
Shadow and Bone
There are very few instances where a debut show and brand-new characters experience organic growth or even leave a worthwhile impression, and that’s the case with Shadow and Bone’s Kaz Brekker. While book readers have more insight into the development and the character’s more compelling traits, the series does an exemplary job of showing that there’s so much more to Ketterdam’s bastard of the barrel than meets the eye.
The reason behind the gloves, the piercing gaze, the dry remarks, and the seemingly offhand behavior is all just a means to leather his trauma—to fight through the never-ending pain of grief and guilt. And though that’s not something Kaz vocalizes, we see so much of his inner struggles through Freddy Carter’s performances. So much so, that by the end of the first season, Kaz exhibits organic growth by revealing that he cannot do any of this alone. He does this by admitting he needs Inej and Jesper by his side. There’s much development ahead and so much story still to be told, but allowing himself the chance to be vulnerable and to admit to his mistakes is a step even adults aren’t yet willing to take. As an already fully fleshed out character, there’s no telling what can follow this development next year through more intricate heists and a larger crew to work with.
Yennefer of Vengerberg
The Witcher explores agency in a way that’s so utterly riveting through careful excavation, and the way it does so with a character like Yennefer of Vengerberg is my absolute favorite thing about it. Because what Yennefer ultimately represents is such normalcy in human desires, it’s almost painful to witness. Because to go from being detested to then revered only to realize it makes life empty still is something that’s unbearably human. And then to sacrifice yourself only to lose your powers instead while still losing so much of what you thought you knew.
Broken, battered, and more alone than ever, so much of Yennefer’s journey is about discovering parts of herself that are more than enough—the parts that have always been enough. And in Season 2 especially, it’s the exploration of the fact that it was never her powers, never the beauty, never any external part of her, but the fact that she’s always been a woman with a purpose bigger than what she could’ve ever imagined. It’s all about her agency and choosing to do the right thing, which she does by the end of the season in the type of sacrifice that brings to the surface her heart once more.
Choosing between Jim Holden and Amos Burton feels like a Sophie’s Choice, but for the sake of The Expanse‘s fifth season and the beginning of six, Amos’ growth has been the most substantial. What we’ve seen with the character in 2021 has been nothing short of incredible but simultaneously comforting.
Who wouldn’t want to be stuck with him when it feels like the world is falling apart and your insides are eating you apart? An absolute grump with a heart of gold, Amos Burton is the kind of character who’s easy to appreciate more and more with every passing season. He was doing superbly last year, but everything we’ve gotten with him and Peaches (Clarissa Mao), along with the fact that he continues to prove there is no one he wouldn’t fight his hardest for, proves to be admirable in every way.
So much can be said about Dr. Helen Sharpe, and it still wouldn’t be enough. Her journey in 2021, following a third-season opener that had her grappling with the trauma of working through the worst of the pandemic, has been nothing short of loaded. Helen didn’t ever wind up going back to that terrifying “normal.” Instead, she went beyond it. After already being the heart of New Amsterdam (sorry to any men) since basically the very first episode, she truly embraced who she was and allowed herself to be open to more.
Dr. Sharpe continued to allow others to lean on her—like being there for Ella when she went into labor, or when she stepped down from her administrative position to fully focus on Mina—and that alone would have been enough to make her journey from this past year a noteworthy one. But it’s the way she allowed herself to lean on others, to open herself up to a real relationship, first with Mr. Wrong and later—finally!—with Max, that truly made her year incredible. It’s how she confronted some of her childhood memories and realized what she thought she knew all along was wrong. And, of course, her decision to move to London—to follow a calling, even when it was difficult and might have meant losing this brand new love she’d finally allowed herself to fully experience—that was completely shocking and so refreshing to see on television. Even better: Max went with her. For as often as we see our favorite female characters being asked to give everything up for men, it was truly a breath of fresh air to see the situation not only reversed but ultimately turned on its head. –Shana L
No character in the MCU has had the journey Thor’s (and now Loki’s) Loki Laufeyson has. No character has gone from a factual villain to an anti-hero while blurring the line between a good person and a complicated soul through such an entertaining fashion. Where the end of Thor: Ragnarok and Avengers: Infinity War prove that Loki was on the right path towards growth, the TV series evidences the detail that his complexities are even grander than we ever thought possible.
And as messy as variants got throughout the series, the Loki we are left with is a man who genuinely wants to do the right thing while working through all the heartaches that have made him who he is. The losses that have left him alone thus, showcase his desperation for companionship, love, and a family. It’s all Loki has ever wanted—to be loved and appreciated as he is. The series reiterates this with such heart and vulnerability that when I walked into the series expecting glorious chaos, I was left constantly crying instead. The character who once believed power and dominion was the only answer to life in its place learned that nothing matters more than putting others first. As one of our best performers of 2021 and one of the best of 2021 characters, Tom Hiddleston’s work as Loki has been the strongest yet.
Disregarding the season 10 mid-season finale that feels incredibly out of character, Stella Kidd‘s accomplishments in 2021 easily make her someone worthy of admiration. Stella’s heart surpasses beyond the fact that she’s willing to jump through actual fire to save lives, but it’s extended towards the small accomplishments that will later become bigger. In an ordinary world with no superheroes, Stella Kidd is one. She is as real as they come in the face of a woman who’s always trying her best.
Girls on Fire proves how much she is willing to do to ensure that girls end up in a better place than where she used to be. It was one thing to keep the program within Chicago while studying for her Lieutenant’s exam, and it’s another to spread it to other larger cities. And then there is, of course, the love she sprinkles into the lives of those she cares about—the love she holds onto for dear life. Stella Kidd continues to outdo herself, and here’s to hoping the rest of Season 10 and 11 allow even more room for growth.
The Jake Peralta we meet in the Pilot and the one we leave behind in Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s “The Last Day” are two completely different men, and that alone is a lovely accomplishment. That alone makes him a character to be missed and the kind of character I personally never thought I’d love this fervently when the show began. But the best part of Jake’s character journey in 2021 is that he does ultimately set an example for the type of white man not to be.
He learns one of the most important lessons that a person can, which is the detail that it’s not up to anyone from a marginalized community to validate whether or not you are a good person. Your actions are your own, your research should be your own, and who you choose to be is your own. While navigating through fatherhood and the changes in the precinct, Jake ultimately realizes that the best thing he could do is to continue learning without relying on anyone to spoon-feed him how to become better. That’s on him, and he gets there.
He also realizes that leaving the precinct behind to be the kind of father he never had is where his path leads him toward, and not because it’ll make anyone else proud, but because it’s best for his entire family. It’s Amy’s turn to shine with all the accolades, and he not only accepts that now, but he parades it around because at every turn, his wife’s accomplishments have always been a light in his life. The lost boy not only finds a place to belong, but he learns how to sprinkle the world with the love that was always missing in his life. And learning to do it through his own free will makes his journey that much more worthwhile.
Both Lucifer Season 5B and the final sixth season give Chloe Decker so much development, it’s hard even to begin summing it all up. Between quitting her job, losing Dan, considering becoming Mrs. God, and then the reality of living her entire life with the secret of Lucifer’s decision is too much to even process as someone watching from the outside. If anything, it’s proven that there has always been more on her plate than a single person deserves, but the grace she has taken it on with it is one of the reasons she’s always stood out as a character.
Through the challenges from Azrael’s blade to every battle big and small (including dying at one point), Chloe Decker only continued to prove that she is the kind of person the world needs. A light in the darkness, a beacon of hope, and one of the most loving characters who’ll ever be a part of the fantasy genre on our TV screens (all while being one of the best of 2021characters and beyond these years). The warmth Lauren German consistently brought to the face of everything Chloe did is a treasure to hold on to. If every woman on this list decided to run the world, we’d live in euphoria, and that’s a fact.
Much like with Chloe Decker, Lucifer Morningstar’s character development in 2021 has been astounding. While we were already headed to this place during most of Season 4, every little thing that happens in Season 5B and Season 6 proves that the character has atoned more than anyone else.
Whether it’s understanding that God actually does love him or realizing that his true calling is helping the lost souls find the solace he has, Lucifer’s growth cannot be summed up by a mere paragraph or two. Instead, we can say that his character journey showcases his selflessness and the immeasurable love that’s now residing with him–the same love he’ll continue to act on and the understanding that imperfections are indeed part of humanity in a way that works. It’s almost hard to believe that we’ve had this much development in a single year, but after so much hard work—he did it. Lucifer got to the place where he belongs, and he did so by working on himself through therapy and supporting others. He did so by understanding the hearty weight of the gifts in his life and the meaning of what selfless love truly entails by ultimately choosing the path that’d benefit others more than his own desires. A father, a son, a brother, a lover, a friend, and now a healer, Lucifer Morningstar does all that.
It’s hard to believe, but it’s taken four seasons for us to finally get a look into Tim Bradford’s past. Although we’re only halfway through the season, we’ve seen tremendous growth from the newly-promoted sergeant. In the past, we’ve often seen Tim express his softer side sporadically–this often occurs in the presence of Lucy. Perhaps it’s due to his promotion, but we’ve seen the no-nonsense and tough cop open up to his co-workers more often than not lately.
Initially, Tim Bradford usually kept things close to his chest and minded his own business. He now takes an active part in his fellow officers’ professional and personal lives. Despite claiming that he believes his union representative vote should be a private matter, he publicly endorses Nolan to the department. He sympathizes with veteran officer Jerry McGrady and takes him on patrol one last time before giving him a departmental send-off, honoring his service. Recently, we see him confront his father for his past abuse and break down to Lucy, stating that he’s nothing like his father. It’s a tender moment, but it’s also refreshing to see him not be the one that has it together for once and to be openly vulnerable. –Alice S.
Matt Casey has always been a safe character—the kind of character who’s perfect for a show like Chicago Fire. He’s a character who aches and bruises, but one who continues to be a shining example of kindness despite it all. However, there is something about the Matt Casey who leaves Chicago Fire in its 200th episode—something more fleshed out and shining about how far he’s come, the confidence in the decision he makes, and the place he leaves behind.
Casey’s choice is understandable in every way, but as are the hesitations, the sadness, and everything that falls in the middle of leaving a precious life to take care of others. But it cements the fact that he’s good, and ultimately, in a year like 2021, we deserve to see characters who are just so. To embrace love, to embrace his friendships, and to embrace the little things makes him easily admirable. Whether that return ever happens or not, a Captain like Casey is hard to come by, and for Chicago Fire to have allowed him the chance to continue improving upon his goodness is a beautiful thing.