Clockwise from left: Helen Sloan/HBO; Eric McCandless/ABC; Ursula Coyote/AMC
In war, criminal court, cutthroat politics, or even the local bar scene, characters with manipulative minds negotiate the boundaries of morality to reach for rewards their straight-laced peers can't fathom. These quick thinkers and slick speakers know how to get what they want without lifting their little fingers.
Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman (Better Call Saul/Breaking Bad) Things didn't turn out too well for Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk). Following the disastrous events of Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul's opening scene shows the former criminal lawyer working incognito at a shopping mall Cinnabon (as he predicted in the Breaking Bad episode "Granite State.") Still, considering the fates of nearly everyone else who crossed paths with Walter White, he got off easy.
His on-screen manipulation has largely been for the sake of self-preservation – watch him talk his way out of a torturous finger-removal in his first encounter with deranged drug lord Tuco. But in his prime years as Saul and early years as Slippin' Jimmy, he was always a man with a plan -- a plan that would pay him a substantial cut.
Courtesy of Netflix
Frank Underwood (House of Cards) Assassinating the president of the United States of America would have been difficult to get away with, even for a man as clever as Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey). So instead, after murdering his way to the nation's second-highest office, the political string-puller used his dangerous mind to befuddle the president into removing himself from power.
As an unelected and highly unpopular president at the beginning of Season 3, Underwood has to realign the focus of his deceptive prowess from upward mobility to maintenance of authority.
Jeff Winger (Community) Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) spent years as a slimy corporate defense attorney – a job that would qualify him for a manipulator list on its own. Add in that he practiced without a legitimate college degree, and his record of deception becomes much more impressive. At Greendale Community College, Winger frequently uses his cool, nearly sociopathic wit to influence the hearts and minds of his classmates, professors and administrators. Witness the Community pilot, where he twists his study group first into infighting and later into group camaraderie while barely looking up from his Blackberry.
Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish (Game of Thrones) A Valyrian steel blade is a coveted status symbol throughout the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, but a silver tongue is much more likely to keep its owner alive. A true self-made man, Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen) plays the political game in King's Landing more cunningly than anyone. Unlike the Lannisters or even the Starks, who have brokered power with deep family coffers and influential names, Littlefinger has raised himself to a position of authority with few resources aside from his own ruthless intelligence.
Barney Stinson (How I Met Your Mother) Most of Barney's (Neil Patrick Harris) lies aren't meant to hold up beyond a single night, so he's often free to get as elaborate as he pleases in smooth-talking the ladies. He has been known to create names, personas and entire careers for the sake of his one-night stands; for a less-experienced fraud, that might be an unmanageable burden, but for Barney it's all in a night's work.
Roger (American Dad) If exposed as an alien, Roger (voiced by Seth MacFarlane) could be killed and dissected by the CIA, and the Smith family would be arrested for harboring him. So Roger has taken it upon himself to become a master of disguise and deceit, partially for self-preservation, but mostly to stave off boredom. Roger is such an effective manipulator that some of the personas he's conjured up go undetected by even those closest to him. Sometimes he's so good he fools himself: at one point he seeks revenge against his own alter ego, Sidney Huffman. Aside from his disguises, Roger also knows how to trick the family into giving in to his desires; he's especially talented in exploiting Francine's motherly tendencies.
Eric Cartman (South Park) Everyone in South Park knows Eric Cartman (voiced by Trey Parker) is a crude, violent, anti-Semitic racist. And yet, he is still a master of propaganda and a schemer of the highest order. Cartman's most notable act of manipulation? Getting an unwitting Stan and Kyle to participate in a plot to feed Scott Tenorman his own parents. In that macabre episode, Cartman proved that when he put his mind to it, he could remain a step ahead of his peers and play them in any way he pleased. He also proved that he has a taste for children's tears.