Walking Dead fans have learned to accept that no one – and we do mean no one – on the show is guaranteed to make it through an entire episode, let alone multiple seasons. Over the course of hit the horror show’s six years on the air, it’s become one of the Screen Actors Guild’s biggest clients. Dozens of major heroes and villains have come and gone, along with countless folks who’ve popped up for an episode or two, made a strong impression, and then ended up dead – or worse. Much, much worse.
All heroes, villains and potential zombie snacks are not created equal, of course, so we’ve chose the 30 most memorable TWD characters to date. Some are likeable; some are awful; and others, frankly, we’re still not so sure about. But all of them have played a part in populating a complex epic about what it means to be alive in a post-apocalyptic world overrun by the shambling, groaning, flesh-craving corpses. It would not be The Walking Dead we know and love without them.
30. Officer Dawn Lerner
So far, the series has featured two major long-running bad guys: The Governor and Negan. And over the years, the survivors have matched wits with a handful of petty tyrants, like the Terminus cannibal Gareth. But Dawn Lerner was one of the show’s more sympathetic mini-villains: the protector of Grady Memorial Hospital, a ruthlessly pragmatic cop and someone who saved useful humans so they could be employed as slave labor. (She kept them locked up, yes, but to be fair, she claimed it was for their own good.) As played by Christine Woods, Officer Dawn was not outright evil – she was just ice-cold by necessity. If she hadn’t reflexively shot poor Beth in the head, she might still be the Queen of Atlanta today.
Give the veteran character actress Alicia Witt credit for pushing this one-episode wonder onto the list. An early emissary of the Saviors, Paula eluded the Alexandrians’ massacre at her outpost. Then she kidnapped Carol and Maggie, revealing a casual callousness that offered a hard look of what an extreme form of “toughening up” can lead to. More than just a placeholder for Negan, this proudly mean lady was about as fully realised as a special guest villain could be, with a backstory and an ethos that was immediately arresting.
28. Dr. Denise Cloyd
A major character in creator Robert Kirkman’s original Walking Deadcomics, Denise was completely transformed between the page to the screen. She was gay instead of straight; nervous and inexperienced as a physician instead of strong and skilled; and she took an unexpected arrow through the eye long before her tale had been fully told. Nevertheless, the quiet decency in actor Merritt Wever’s performance and the tenderness of the doc’s romance with Tara was enough to make her untimely demise genuinely heartbreaking.
27. Dr. Edwin Jenner
Periodically on TWD, the survivors arrive at some place that appears to offer actual hope for a better tomorrow – until those promises turn out to be inevitably empty. Rick and company encountered their first cruel mirage at the end of Season One, when they reached the seemingly safe, well-supplied Center for Disease Control. But after spending a little time with the CDC’s remaining doctor – well-played by the spookily calm Noah Emmerich of The Americans – it became clear that the authorities would have no comforting answers, and no future to provide. The devastating letdown of Jenner set the stage for the many disappointments to come.
26. Milton Mamet
Every supervillain needs a faithful lackey, and Milton (Dallas Roberts) served that part well – a first-rate Smee to the Governor’s Captain Hook. An intelligent and curious man, i.e. more inclined to experiment on zombies than to skewer them, Mr. Mamet would’ve made a fine addition to anyone’s post-apocalyptic crew. But he had the misfortune to throw in with a madman, and though he tried to broker some kind of a peace once he realized the extent of his boss’ badness, the effort came too late. Like so many on this show, he paid a price for valuing comfort over righteousness.
25. Lizzie Samuels
How children have been affected by growing up surrounded by zombies – it’s an intriguing theme that’s run throughout this series. This world has clearly damaged Rick’s son Carl, as well as countless other youngsters who’ve popped up briefly over on the show. But no one’s been sickened as much as Brighton Sharbino’s Lizzie, an adolescent girl so confused about life and death that she gave walkers names … and then murdered her own sister in order to prove that being undead isn’t so bad. More terrifying than any zombie, this kid was a sweet-faced, sharp-fanged rebuke to any hope that the rising generation might make the future brighter.
Though he’s a fairly major player in the comics, the Hilltop Colony’s selfish, cowardly “leader” has barely appeared on TV thus far. And yet he’s made quite an impression, thanks to Xander Berkeley’s gruff performance. More inclined to defer to the strong than to take action himself, Gregory has become the show’s version of a weaselly politician: pretending to be in charge but always waiting to see which way the wind is blowing before making any decisions.
23. Deanna Monroe
Aaron was the first Alexandrian that Rick and company met, but the community’s noble principles and far-ranging vision have been best represented by the late Deanna Monroe, a former U.S. representative (played by Broadway star Tovah Feldshuh) who intended to turn her gated community into a model for democracy and peace. Trusting Rick led to a breach in the ASZ’s walls, and then her own untimely end – which, on the plus side, meant she didn’t live to see the disruptive threat of the Saviors. Before she was eaten, the congresswoman passed her values on to Maggie, inspiring her to become a leader.
The introduction of one of the comics’ most important characters happened so stealthily (via what seemed at time like a one-off episode, last season’s “Always Accountable”) that even die-hard fans didn’t recognise that they’d just met the man who’ll play such a major role in the Negan/Saviors storyline. Season Seven has fleshed Dwight (Austin Amelio) out a lot more, making his original appearance all the more tragic in retrospect. He and his wife Sherry could’ve allied with Daryl back then. Instead, he’s ended up divorced, physically scarred and back at the Sanctuary working as a loyal accomplice to a monster – but with a lot more story still to come.
21. Tyreese Williams
This fan-favorite from the comics took longer than expected to arrive on TV, but once he showed up, Tyreese (played by The Wire‘s Chad L. Coleman) served the show well during his three seasons. His story arc saw him go from being a strong, silent sidekick to experiencing his own personal tragedy – and then finding himself on the road with Carol, the woman partly responsible for the death of his lover. His eventual sloppy shifling off this mortal coil continues to haunt his sister Sasha, who now finds herself navigating the apocalypse without her burly, tender-hearted protector.
20. Rosita Espinosa
One advantage that series’ comic book origins provide is that creator Robert Kirkman and his string of artists have taken full advantage of the visual medium to create heroes and villains who are recognisable on sight. Rosita’s big trademark is her soldier’s cap, but it’s been up to TWD‘s writers and actress Christian Serratos to fill that hat. She’s the one who’s turned the character into a woman who’s been strong out in the field, and one heartbroken in private that the men in her life don’t stick around. Whenever she gets a big scene, the heroine becomes so much more than her headwear.
In one of the series’ best episodes – “Here’s Not Here” – a depressed, almost feral Morgan meets a capable hermit living in a cabin in the woods. His host nurses his guest back to mental health; he also eventually teaches him Akido, eastern philosophy and how to wield a mean staff. There are times on The Walking Dead where the creators seem to agree with the worldview of their most cynical characters, who believe that anyone who may one day be a threat to survival should die – whether they’re evil or not. The honorable Eastman (kudos to legendary character actor John Carroll Lynch) represents a different perspective, arguing that in a world where humans are dying, every life has value.
One of the biggest divergences between the comic book and the show has been the character of Andrea: She’s practically a co-lead with Rick on the page yet became a surprise casualty in the show’s third season. She had a good run though, with Laurie Holden playing her as shrewd enough to see through the Governor’s beneficent facade, and friendly enough to bring the lone wolf Michonne into the fold. Even now, her steeliness and wits are missed.
17. Dale Horvath
He’s been forgotten somewhat as the saga has rolled on without him, but for the show’s first two seasons, Dale was the conscience of the series, always urging Rick and the rest of their band of survivors to think in terms of a greater moral good. With his scruffy beard, fishing hat and willingness to call people out for their mistakes, the character (and actor Jeffrey DeMunn) helped anchor the early version of the show, when cooperation still outpaced conflict.
16. Shane Walsh
For its first two seasons, The Walking Dead didn’t have “villains” per se, aside from the shambling hordes of flesh-eating walkers and the occasional murderous ravager. The closest Rick came to an actual nemesis was his former colleague in the King’s County Sheriff’s Department, who took care of his ol’ buddy’s wife and son when they all thought their man was dead. Unhappy at being usurped, Shane (played by Daredevil’s Punisher himself, Jon Bernthal) consistently undermined his friend at every turn, becoming the first ongoing TWD character to insist that the only way to make it in this new world is to leave all scruples and sentiment behind. And love him or hate him, his return as a walker remains one of the series’ more memorable moments.
15. Tara Chambler
There was no reason to expect that Tara would eventually play such a major role in this drama when she was first introduced as the sharp-tongued skeptic in the family that welcomed in the Governor. But from the start, Alanna Masterson always emphasised the character’s sense of humor and her compassion for others, as evidenced by her passionate romantic relationships with women like Alisha and Denise. She’s become one of the easiest heroes to root for; her self-deprecation and sensitivity make her highly relatable.
14. Paul ‘Jesus’ Rovia
Anyone with the nickname “Jesus” is bound to be a fascinating fellow, and while Tom Payne’s TV version of the character has only appeared in a handful of episodes, his phenomenal abilities to avoid detection and escape any trap have justified his moniker as much as his long hair and beard. Paul’s biggest weakness is that he prefers to be a provider and facilitator, not a leader, which means that in a roundabout way he’s allowed his friends at the Hilltop Colony to be governed by the unqualified Gregory. Bad move.
13. Sgt. Abraham Ford
A soldier perpetually in need of a mission, the silver-tongued Abraham arrived on the show with Eugene in tow, determined to deliver his friend to Washington D.C. so that he could eradicate the zombie plague. Finding out that he’d been lied to rattled the sergeant’s self-image; with the help of several other companions – notably Sasha – he realised that he could still serve a purpose, even if he couldn’t save the world. A tip of the Army helmet to Michael Cudlitz, who gave the character an unforgettable ‘stache, a peerless sense of humor (“When you were, uh, pouring the Bisquick, were you trying to make pancakes?”) and a genuine sense of presence. He remained proud and brave all the way to his end at Negan’s hands, which he met with a defiant glare and a growly, “Suck my nuts.”
12. Eugene Porter
We’ll admit that part of the fun of The Walking Dead is guessing which character we’d most resemble if the whole world went kerflooey. We all want to be Daryl, Morgan, or Michonne. The truth, however, is that most of us would be more like Eugene: a nervous nerd who relied on lies and loquaciousness to convince Abraham, etc., that he was worth protecting. Since admitting that he can’t cure zombie-ism, the former high school science teacher has become determined to earn others’ loyalty for real, and his tentative steps toward confidence and courage have been inspiring to watch. Plus any actor who can rock a mullet like Josh McDermitt is a-ok in our book.
11. Philip ‘The Governor’ Blake
A divisive figure among Walking Dead fans, the man who declared himself “The Governor” of the not-as-idyllic-as-it-looked small town of Woodbury is at the moment the show’s longest-running antagonist, having challenged Rick’s bunch across a healthy chunk of two seasons. Initially a somewhat one-dimensional sicko – whose virtues as a leader were counterbalanced by his deranged preoccupation with the undead – the eye-patch–rocking Blake lasted long enough to get beaten and to mount a comeback. The episode “Live Bait,” where he rests and regroups, is a series high-point – humanising an at-times inhuman creep courtesy of David Morrissey’s ability to elicit sympathy and make you feel sick to you stomach simultaneously.
The show’s current big bad was touted for more than half a season as the ultimate threat to our heroes’ hopeful plans. He comes complete with an fiercely loyal army (the Saviors), a hard-earned survival-of-the-fittest philosophy and a perpetually “thirsty” barbed-wire–covered baseball bat named Lucille – all of which assures that any thriving community would have to hand over most of its bounty. With all of that set-up, it would’ve been hard for any villain to live up to the hype, but thanks to Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s grinning, relaxed performance and some genuinely shocking acts of violence, Negan has been firmly established as a formidable enemy. The alarming ease of his cruelty and the rigours of his organisation represent a worldview that’s been both fascinating and frightening to explore.
9. King Ezekiel
How cool do you have to be considered one of The Walking Dead‘s best characters after only one episode? Arriving in the story right when he was needed most, i.e. immediately after the arrival of Negan and the brutal slaying of two key heroes, the amusingly pompous King Ezekiel restored some lightness to a show that was threatening to become unbearably bleak. Thanks to Khary Payton’s theatrical flair, the general congeniality of “The Kingdom,” and one seriously awesome pet tiger, this new leader offered a reminder that violence and selfishness aren’t the only way to survive. Sometimes an overly polite nice guy pretending to be medieval royalty can stir up some loyalty too.
8. Hershel Greene
Around the same time that Dale died, Rick’s bunch picked up a new voice of reason in the form of Hershel Greene, a gentleman farmer and veterinarian who initially stubbornly resisted the reality of the zombie apocalypse. Once the truth of his and his daughter Maggie’s situation sunk in, he became a wizened pragmatist, cutting through the emotions of any moment to find compromises and options that others couldn’t see. His death at the hands of the Governor was one of the show’s most tragic sequences; and the role he played in the overall dynamic of the group has never really been re-filled. P.S.: Your presence is much missed, Scott Wilson.
7. Maggie Greene
Hershel’s daughter has her dad’s good heart and keen mind; her journey over the course of the series, however, has already been richer and more complicated than his. She’s experienced a deep, life-changing romance, only to see her true love Glenn get bludgeoned before her eyes. She’s developed political acumen thanks to the tutelage of Deanna, and has used it to fill the void within the survivors and become the group’s real leader. And while she experimented with becoming as razor-edged as Carol, she ultimately realised that hardness didn’t fit her personality or perspective. Battle-tested, strong-willed, and played with real nuance and grace by Lauren Cohan, the young Ms. Greene has quietly become a Walking Dead MVP. Give ’em hell, Maggie.
6. Glenn Rhee
It says something about how beloved Glenn is that his death at the start of Season Seven has been the last straw for many TWD fans, several of whom have stopped watching the show because of it – even though what happened to the character on TV was taken directly from the comics. Prior to his murder, the ever-upbeat ex-delivery man had been in the series as long as Rick, and though he’d seemed to be dead multiple times before, our man Glenn somehow persevered each and every time … except the last time. His final fate appears to mark a turning point in the plot, signalling the end of the survivor’s can-do spirit and the dawn of despair. For many, Steven Yuen’s character was the heart and soul of the show. R.I.P.
5. Rick Grimes
Often with fantasy/adventure shows, faithful viewers love everybody but the hero; the man or woman at the center of the story is too tortured or too square. But while former sheriff Rick Grimes has had plenty of stretches where he’s been overwhelmed by his emotions or has made outright idiotic decisions, he’s ultimately remained the compelling, charismatic character that he was when we first met him. He represents The Walking Dead‘s conflicted core, the conduit that writers use to explore both the hard choices a successful survivalist has to make and what it costs people when they become unfazed by death. The role has also turned British actor Andrew Lincoln into a stubbly sex symbol and provided the show with too many unforgettable moments to count. It may be more fun sometimes to hang out with the rest of the cast. But to grasp what the series is really about, it’s necessary to understand what the head of the Grimes family is going through as the show moves from one test of will to the next.
4. Morgan Jones
Is it a coincidence that four of TWD‘s strongest episodes are Morgan-centric? He was a crucial part of the pilot, guiding a then-helpless Rick to safety. He came back as a troubled soul in Season Three’s heartbreaking episode “Clear,” and then recovered from the loss of his family and moral compass in the extended flashback “Here’s Not Here.” And in this season’s highly entertaining “The Well,” he became our guide to the strange and wonderful world of the Kingdom, where his peaceful spirit has been better integrated than it ever was with the spikier Alexandrians. Over the past few seasons, the survivors have had less use for such a gentle, philosophical soul, but the show still badly needs Morgan – both to prove that it’s possible to stay alive without sacrificing every principle and that it pays to speak softly and carry a big staff.
3. Carol Peletier
A battered wife, a grieving mother, a good-in-the-clutch friend, a stone-cold killer with a creepily pleasant facade – Mrs. Peletier has been a source of genuine pathos and some dark comedy, made all the more potent by casting-director-turned-actor Melissa McBride’s mercurial performance. It’s no surprise that the TV version has long-outlived her comics counterpart, who killed herself instead of getting stronger; McBride has helped turn this once peripheral character into a major part of TWD, whether she’s putting on a Susie Homemaker act as a front or rescuing her comrades from certain Terminus doom. A recent crisis of conscience has sidelined Carol some over the course of the past year, but she’s always going to be an all-star just based on her arc in the first five seasons. And while the character is in uncharted narrative territory right now, that just makes it all the more exciting to see what will happen to her next.
2. Daryl Dixon
The Walking Dead is a show that traffics in iconography – and and you do not get more iconographic than the show’s scraggly-haired, crossbow-wielding, motorcycle-riding hunter. First introduced as an angry redneck and evolving into one of the series’ most striking figures, Daryl has revealed more dimensions over time, and Norman Reedus’ performance helping to expose an unsurpassed kindness and commitment to the hero’s closest companions. So far in Season Seven he’s been stubbornly resisting Negan’s efforts to recruit him; it’s been easy to see why his enemy would much rather convert him than kill him. Even without his good brother Merle (R.I.P., the Other Dixon), Daryl is one of a handful of the show’s characters who seem like they could get along just fine in this world without any help. Drop him into the wild with no weapons, food, or clothes – and he’d still outlive everyone cowering behind walker-battered walls.
From the moment she appeared on screen – katana sword at the ready, stoic-gunfigther look on her face, wandering the land with two jawless walkers shackled to her – Michonne has been The Walking Dead‘s ultimate bad-ass. She survived on her own for months, figuring out how to thrive in the wilderness under the harshest of circumstances. Yet she’s also adapted well to living in a group, and has even started to draw on her pre-apocalypse past as a mother and an academic to start thinking about how best to rebuild society. Savage when she has to be, tender and affectionate with her friends and lovers, both nurturing and deadly as they come, this character (courtesy of Danai Gurira’s continually extraordinary performance) represents this series at its best. Michonne hasn’t lost touch with her humanity. And she’s a thrill to watch on a killing spree.