Beware: Spoilers follow for The Walking Dead television show, comic books, and Telltale Games series. Read on at your own risk.
For over 16 years, The Walking Dead has provided the world with differing views of society and culture. This varied display of social commentary bleeds through the narrative in the form of its vast array of villains. Ranging across comic books, television, video games, and even full-length novels, The Walking Dead‘s cast of post-apocalyptic baddies never fails to leave the consumer pondering their methods, as many of them are intelligent, cunning, and shockingly sympathetic. While looking back on the franchise in its entirety, there are five prominent figures who stand out amongst the crowd, thanks to their technique, their tenacity, and their lasting impression on viewers and readers alike. In this short list, we will take a closer look at these so-called “villains,” and dive deeper into the minds behind the madness.
The series’ first major antagonist, Shane Walsh lands a spot on any Walking Dead villain list for his personality alone. Initially introduced as frontman Rick Grimes’s best friend, things quickly turn dark as Shane steals the comatose Grimes’s wife and son, and refuses to back down from this role even when the true patriarch returns from the presumed dead. Shane’s character progression never felt fleshed-out, neither in the comics nor in the television series. As the first big baddie, he didn’t get much time to shine before he was killed off in the sixth issue and 18th episode, respectively. What was apparent, however, was Shane’s lack of sympathy for really anyone in the group, as well as his blatant narcissism, which ultimately led to many bad decisions being made. While Shane deeply cared for Lori and Carl Grimes, his inability to put aside such feelings for the sake of his partner-turned-best-friend sent him on a downward spiral in terms of mental stability. No better portrayal of such greed and villainy could come from anyone but Jon Bernthal, who stole the show for the first few seasons as the ruthless dirty cop. The actor wears Shane so well on his sleeve that even now, in such roles as Netflix’s The Punisher and the antagonist of Ghost Recon Breakpoint, it’s hard to see Bernthal as anything other than a terrifying, ominous force with some awful secrets in his back pocket. While The Walking Dead may have said goodbye to Shane early on, his legacy lived on in the mind of Rick Grimes ’til the day he died (or vanished, depending on what version of Rick we’re talking about). Shane’s destructive personality and dominant behavior left Grimes always looking over his shoulder, and kept him ever wary when put in the position of trusting someone new. Shane will forever be one of the strongest Walking Dead villains, albeit one of the shortest-lived, simply for the mind games he played and the relationships he brought to the brink of severance.
Fans of the Walking Dead comic series will find themselves familiar with the Hunters, a group of cannibals encountered by Rick’s group during the Volume 11 arc. Perhaps best known for eating Dale’s infected leg and leaving him for dead, they acted as a major force to be reckoned with for a few issues until Team Rick got the upper hand and mercilessly slaughtered them all. While not entirely identical, Gareth came into play during the television show’s fifth season; he and his community known as Terminus were based on the comic book counterparts of Chris and the Hunters, respectively. The survivors in Terminus were all cannibals, and after welcoming Rick’s group into their town, this quickly became apparent. While Gareth is weaselly and off-putting, his morals represent one of the most terrifying aspects of post-apocalyptic life: human’s animalistic nature revealing itself in order to survive. These morals are shared by later villains like the Whisperers. Led by a woman who calls herself “Alpha,” the Whisperers are taught to relieve themselves of the trivialities of modern society – like names and etiquette – to embrace the animal within. These behaviors are simply horrifying on the surface, but when considered from a different perspective, these “villains” are just doing what they can to survive. In an Armageddon scenario, there would certainly be those who turn to cannibalism as the only means of fulfillment. While many of them would seem psychotic in nature, some might seem damn near rational, until their true intentions were revealed. Such is the draw of characters like Chris and Gareth – one and the same – who profit off the naïve to satiate their hunger. In a society full of death and a lack of rules, this leader took the law into his own hands to feed his people, and that makes him one of the most chilling antagonists The Walking Dead has on offer.
Turning now to a rather unorthodox means of Walking Dead content, the video game series developed by Telltale Games offered up some of the more relatable and ruthless villains to ever grace the overall lore. From Carver, to Joan, to the St. John’s, these choice-based narrative games have provided some of the scariest encounters with its assortment of evil-doers. The worst of them, by far, has to be Lilly, as her pessimistic attitude and flair for the dramatic follows Clementine from the first season to the last. Appearing first in Season One, Lilly acts as a thorn in Lee’s side for three episodes, culminating in a fight that either leaves her stranded on the side of the road, or stranding Lee as she steals the group’s RV, never to be seen again. I chose to leave that no-good sack of garbage on the side of the road where trash belongs, but to each their own. In The Walking Dead’s Final Season, Clementine encounters an older Lilly, now the leader of a heavily-armed community and emotionally scarred from years of brooding. Her lust for power leads to the death of many – including a few of Clementine’s new friends – and her appetite for chaos keeps the series’ young protagonist an emotional wreck for much of the season. Every one of her actions has devastating repercussions, mostly in the form of mental trauma forced unto those around her. Some of Clementine’s worst decisions came as a result of Lilly’s involvement, including her climactic zombie bite in the final episode. While Lilly may be seen as no more than a few grains of sand in the underpants we call “a zombie apocalypse,” her role as primary murderer and mean boss lady earns her a spot on this list, thanks to the lasting effects of her incessant order barking and resting bitch face. Seriously, Lilly is the worst.
Quite possibly my personal favorite Walking Dead villain, The Governor formerly known as Mr. Blake is one of the most misunderstood, underappreciated, and disgustingly vile characters to ever enter the series. Whether you know him as Philip from the television show, or Brian from the comics – and his very own set of spin-off novels – The Governor is beloved as the corrupt mayor of Woodbury and one of Rick Grimes’s greatest adversaries. If Negan is The Joker, The Governor is Two-Face; he may not be the most compelling and constant baddie, but he’s always mentioned as a suitable foe, and fans can’t get enough of him. What makes The Governor so endearing isn’t his lack of eyesight and missing limbs, or even his affinity for heads in fish tanks. No, those things just help to make the man seem more distasteful, to distract the audience from his genuinely relatable personal struggle. The Governor was the first character in The Walking Dead to truly believe in life after zombification. He kept his own undead “daughter” tied up in a closet, and fed her fresh meat regularly, in an attempt to find some humanity left in her reanimated corpse. This naivety in the face of the literal end of the world adds a whole new layer of depth to Blake’s character. Put aside the torture and the Napoleon complex, and you’re left with a deeply broken man who’s not only trying to keep his town tight-knit and satisfied – albeit with live entertainment in the form of zombie cage fights – but he also still believes in family and forgiveness. The show puts this into perspective so well with the inclusion of Andrea in his storyline, as The Governor’s relationship with her brings out a completely different side of empathy and love that the comics never got a chance to explore. The Governor will forever be a terrifying villain in The Walking Dead universe, but when you look a little closer, he’s just another survivor trying to make it in an unknown world.
We now arrive at the biggest baddie of them all, and while some may think I was about to include Alpha or Beta on this list, let me just mention why they didn’t make it. To put it bluntly, I believe the onscreen portrayal of these characters has genuinely ruined their reputation in my eyes, regarding their comic book counterparts. Beta is too heavily utilized for a menacing bodyguard, and Alpha kills more people with her line delivery than her ominous presence and utter lack of sympathy should be. These characters are so well-written in the comics, with enough time to flesh them out and expertly craft some of the scariest villains I have ever seen. But AMC really mucked up these renditions, and by essentially swapping their roles onscreen – not to mention Alpha’s blatantly atrocious casting – the fear just isn’t the same. Hell, Dante was a more enticing villain than they were in two seasons, and he was only bad for an episode and a half before getting stabbed to death! That bromance-turned-blindside with Siddiq almost earned him a spot on the list, and he was nowhere near a villain in the comics. Sometimes AMC gets it right with their creative license, and sometimes they have absolutely no clue where to go. So no, the Whisperers did not make the cut.
Negan, however, did make it onto this list, as he is without a doubt the most badass, unapologetically crude villain that The Walking Dead – and maybe even comics as a whole – have ever seen. Obviously, what makes Negan so lovable is his taste for brutality. He’s a monstrous, semi-racist, bloodthirsty alpha male with a mouth like a sailor and a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire. What more could you want from an infamous gang leader? But Negan is so much more than just violence, misogyny, and bashing in the skulls of beloved characters. What makes Negan so fantastic, and hands down the most perfectly-written comic book character I have ever encountered, is his dedication to a set of personal rules. His morality is based upon edicts he has instilled in himself, and he follows this code, even in everyday post-apocalyptic life. Negan cares about his people, and in doing so he shows empathy for the human race, even in a world devoid of basic human rights and standards. He holds himself – and others – accountable for their actions, and no death is without purpose. Contrary to popular belief, Negan does not just kill for the fun of it, as he explains many times throughout the series. He doesn’t want to waste energy and/or bullets on those who aren’t a threat. He antagonizes Rick – as The Joker does to Batman – because neither man backs down from a challenge. Both men have their own sets of values in a world without reason. Neither man can fully understand the other, but at the same time both men can read each other like a book. It’s this perpetual cat-and-mouse game throughout Negan’s entire timeline that keeps readers and viewers alike on the edge of their seats. It’s the will they/won’t they in terms of everything, from killing to stealing to double-crossing to working together, making Negan the ideal chaotic foil to Rick’s perpetual order. In last week’s episode, Negan and Daryl shared one of the most petrifying scenes as they held each other at gunpoint. In the final issue of The Walking Dead, even Carl couldn’t let his relationship with Negan die out, even though he hadn’t heard from him in years. Negan is a driving force in the world of The Walking Dead because his writing is done with such finesse, and his portrayal by Jeffrey Dean Morgan is such a joy to watch. Every swear, every smile, every brutal killing – they make the man just as lovable as he is terrifying. He’s so hateable, yet he’s so relatable, and that is the beauty of Negan.
The Walking Dead will undoubtedly establish many more villains in the years to come. Fear the Walking Dead has its own cast of untrustworthy characters – one of whom shot Morgan in the latest season finale and left him for dead. The new spin-off series, World Beyond, is set to officially introduce the ominous CRM, who were last seen flying away the abandoned and broken body of Rick Grimes. Whether or not their intentions are grim remains to be seen, but Rick’s remaining group is certainly about to encounter some rather unpleasant folks as the Commonwealth comes to life on TV. The Walking Dead may never fully die out, but even so, its cast of villainous characters will live on in the hearts and minds of fans the world over. As time passes, hopefully these “criminals” will be assessed for what they are at their core, not just on the surface, which is to say they’re all more relatable than we may notice at first glance. Sometimes those who seem to be doing evil deeds may just be doing what they deem is right. Thus is the hidden message of The Walking Dead, and to be completely honest, that’s scarier than any zombie ever could be.