In any good story, there are heroes and villains. These characters make up the fabric of a fictional universe, and their battles of will and fights for power generally constitute any story’s most memorable moments. The Walking Dead is no different. Since its inception, it’s introduced dozens of antagonists to battle Rick, Daryl, Michonne, Maggie, and the rest of our favorite survivors.
The Walking Dead‘s villains come in all shapes and sizes. Often, what makes them so compelling is that their motives make sense. We want to hate them, but find ourselves seeing their point of view. Well, some of the time, anyway. The fact that they’re not painted in black and white (at least not on TV) gives the series an extra layer. It makes a TV show about a zombie apocalypse feel at least a little bit realistic. And it gives us a reason to tune in, to see if good will win out over evil. Here are the 10 best Walking Dead villains so far.
10. The walkers
A case can be made that the titular undead figures in The Walking Dead are nothing more than victims of circumstance. But, in truth, that’s somewhat true of any dangerous figure in the series. Sure, the zombies that our heroes are on the run from didn’t ask to become mindless flesh-eaters. They’re still responsible for widespread death, destruction, and terror, though. They have everything you’d look for in a horror series villain: they’re scary, gross, and never stop hunting.
Sure, they’re easy to kill individually. But zombies exist on such a massive scale that truly defeating them seems nearly impossible. In that way, any list of Walking Dead villains that doesn’t honor the walkers themselves would feel a bit incomplete.
9. Dawn Lerner
Sometimes, the most interesting villains are the people that truly believe they’re doing good. That was true of Dawn, the de facto leader at Grady Memorial Hospital. She fought hard to keep things orderly among the survivors she’d taken in. Unfortunately, she was also prone to turning a blind eye when her officers wanted to do wrong.
Like many other Walking Dead villains, Dawn was never above using extreme measures to keep the peace within her camp, like banishing those who disagreed with her. Also, there was that thing where she more or less forced her fellow survivors to stay at Grady against their will. Dawn’s obsessive need to keep everyone in line was ultimately her downfall, but it also unfortunately meant the untimely demise of Beth.
8. The Claimers
There’s sort of an unspoken rule when it comes to villainy in The Walking Dead that all but a few characters and groups seem to abide by: sexual assault is a big no-no. Only the worst of the worst seem to pay it no mind — and that’s what made Joe and the Claimers so particularly nasty. It was bad enough that they employed indiscriminately violent tactics to “claim” the goods they wanted.
After strong-arming Daryl into joining their group, they kidnapped Rick, Michonne, and Carl and subjected them to a unique kind of torture: Joe threatened to rape both Rick’s ally and his son before brutally killing them. His lackeys got so far as to pinning Carl to the ground before the elder Grimes finally snapped and gave Joe a taste of his own medicine. In the end, he’d ripped out Joe’s throat (with his teeth) and finished off the rest of the Claimers with Daryl and Michonne’s help. It was an especially brutal end for Joe’s group, but it’s hard to argue that they didn’t have it coming after what they put their victims through.
7. Lizzie Samuels
When we first met Lizzie and her little sister Mika, they seemed like any other normal, sort-of well adjusted preteen survivors of The Walking Dead’s apocalypse. It didn’t take long for us to realize that there was something wrong with Lizzie; namely, her obsession with the undead. Carol and Tyreese took the two girls under their wing after the prison group scattered in Season 4, and they soon realized they’d bitten off perhaps more than they could chew.
Lizzie’s penchant for trying to befriend and connect with walkers put their lives in danger, and she didn’t seem to be able to listen to reason. Her story took a tragic turn when she ended up killing Mika so that she could prove to her caretakers that the zombies were just “different.” The moment at which she proudly showed them her handiwork remains one of the most chilling in Walking Dead history — as is the abject joy she obviously felt. Lizzie never knew she was doing evil, and in some ways that makes her one of the scariest villains of all.
6. Merle Dixon
For the most part, The Walking Dead‘s villains tend to be more fiendish than fun, with a few key exceptions. Merle Dixon managed to be both. He was one of the first and only “love to hate him” antagonists in the series’ history. Whether he was baiting T-Dog and Andrea’s anger with racist, sexist banter or physically torturing Glenn and Maggie, Merle had his share of incredibly dark moments. He also had a vital, if contentious, relationship with his younger brother, Daryl, that gave us a chance to see at least a bit of his humanity.
When he was bad, he was awful. When he was trying to get along with the good guys, it was entertaining to watch. And he went out in a blaze of glory, the way only Merle could do; with his unique brand of dark humor, and by being a huge pain in the Governor’s ass. All in all, his villainous arc was planted early, developed over time, and culminated with an unforgettable payoff. That makes it one of the most satisfying in The Walking Dead history.
In its seven seasons on the air, The Walking Dead has offered a crash course on gnarly ways to die. It hit an excessively gruesome note in the early fifth season when Rick and the gang found Terminus. At first, they seemed harmless — serenely safe, even. Then we found out that they were really just cannibals who put on a friendly show to lure fresh kills.
The entire Terminus crew was scary, but their leader, Gareth, was especially villainous. He stalked Rick’s crew after they escaped, then kidnapped Bob and ate his leg right in front of him. The pleasure he seemed to get out of torturing his prey was disturbing. After all, it’s one thing to go to extreme measures to survive. It’s entirely another to go out of your way to hurt and kill others just so you can thrive.
4. The Wolves
In the realm of extreme reactions to a post-apocalyptic world, the Wolves would be right up there in the Walking Dead hall of fame. This roaming group of survivors felt compelled to kill any and every person that crossed their path. Sure, they had what they thought was a good reason for doing so — because they were freeing souls that no longer belonged on Earth. But that doesn’t excuse mass murder.
The Wolves, led by the wide-eyed, grinning Owen, had several run-ins with TWD‘s protagonists. They tracked Daryl and Aaron back to Alexandria, but not before encountering and being outsmarted by Morgan late in Season 5. When they finally paid Deanna’s SafeZone a visit, they started a bloodbath they weren’t prepared to finish. Still, their presence in the series marked an eerie tonal shift, one that called into question what exactly defines insanity in a world that’s already gone mad.
3. The Governor
In some ways, Philip Blake — aka The Governor — was the ideal leader for a chaos-riddled society. He shielded his people from the worst of the outside world. The citizens of Woodbury, in return, were none the wiser when it came to his nefarious power plays. And between gunning for Michonne, attacking the prison multiple times, and beheading Hershel to prove a point, he definitely had his evil moments.
But the Governor also had a tenuous grasp on reality, thanks to the traumatic death of his daughter. He also had a thirst for the blood of his enemies that made it hard for him to really focus on strategy. And he craved not just survival, but unadulterated power over others, in a way that many of his fellow Walking Dead villains often did not. These twisted elements of his personality prevented him from keeping the control he sought over people like Rick, Merle, and Michonne. But they also proved to be a true thorn in those characters’ sides for the better part of two seasons.
When it comes to Walking Dead villains, no one has gotten more attention than Negan. That’s exactly the way he’d want it, too, because the Saviors’ leader loves it when all eyes are on him. Since his introduction in the final moments of Season 6, the man has certainly left his mark on the series. He took out two of our favorite characters with Lucille, his trusty barbed-wire bat. He’s terrorized Rick and the rest of the Alexandrians, and he’s done it all with laughter and plenty of crude jokes.
Negan was created to be a crowd pleaser, a villain who’s so charismatic you can’t take your eyes off of him. In that way, and in terms of the sheer havoc he’s wreaked on our beloved characters, he’s already cemented his legacy on TWD. But all told, we haven’t had that much time to get to know him, or to see what he’s capable of besides just bullying those around him into submission. The true mark of a great Walking Dead villain is what they do when they’re backed into a corner. And it will be interesting to see what happens to Negan if, and when, that day comes for him.
Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. It’s a time-honored saying, and one that was definitely relevant to Shane Walsh’s post-apocalyptic life path. He was, in many ways, the most tragic of The Walking Dead‘s villains thus far because he truly seemed to believe he was doing good every step of the way. Shane loved Lori, and wanted to do right by her, but Rick was in the way. He led a group of survivors safely out of Atlanta, then ceded leadership when Rick showed up.
When he disagreed with Rick’s leadership tactics, it was at least partially because he thought he had what it took to keep the others alive. At every turn, his former best friend and ally became the one thing that stood in his way. And as that resentment brewed throughout Season 1 and 2, you could see Shane change. Arranging an elaborate scenario to lure Rick away and get him killed was definitely an 11 on a 10-point evil scale.
But even in his worst moments, we usually knew — and could sometimes see — where Shane was coming from. That fact made his villainy feel, well, complicated. His death signaled a new era on The Walking Dead, one in which Rick’s more aggressive leadership methods ended up falling in line with Shane’s more militant survival vision. So in some ways, even though Shane has long since left us, his legacy, in all its insidious intent, lives on in those who knew and loved him.
Follow Katherine Webb on Twitter @prufrox
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