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‘The Walking Dead’ Franchise’s Best Characters, Ranked

The Hollywood Reporter looks at the AMC zombie universe's very best characters, from Rick and Michonne to worlds beyond.

The Walking Dead is over, but like the zombies at the heart (er, brains?) of the tale, the franchise lives on. 

Clocking in at 11 seasons and 177 episodes all told, the AMC horror drama shuffled off into the afterlife, only to birth a bevy of spinoff shows, most of which center on beloved characters from the original series like the Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Michonne (Danai Gurira) reunion series The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live. Beyond those continuing adventures, there are also the spinoffs without too many overt ties to the “flagship” Walking Dead, including the very first of these spinoffs, Fear the Walking Dead (also now in the grave, joined there by the two-seasons-and-out The Walking Dead: World Beyond and single season anthology series Tales of the Walking Dead).

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Why the veritable Wikipedia entry? Because it highlights this central feature across all of the various Walking Deads: there are hundreds of characters embedded in the collective memory for fandom. Many of them are fondly remembered. Some of them? Not so much. And some of them intended to not be remembered fondly. And others, again, not so much

Sitting down and listing out every single character who ever crossed paths with a walker is not exactly an impossible feat, but it’s close. Sort of like surviving the zombie apocalypse. Ranking these characters is easier, but only slightly.

What follows doesn’t cover every single major and minor player in the Walking Dead franchise’s history. Instead, it groups several different individuals into categories, underscoring the very best of the best and, in some cases, the worst of the worst. Apologies to you and your favorites who did not make this list. For the rest of you, roll on for a roundup and ranking of the best characters.

Top Four Heroes: Carol, Daryl, Michonne, Rick

Melissa McBride as Carol Peletier, Norman Reedus as Daryl Dixon, Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes and Danai Gurira as Michonne Jace Downs/AMC (2); Gene Page/AMC (2)

Three of these four have been around since the very beginning. Without Andrew Lincoln, there is no Walking Dead, period, though the final few seasons of the show would like a word. Then there’s the platonic ideal of a platonic couple, Daryl (Norman Reedus) and Carol (Melissa McBride), so dynamic they spawned their own spinoff with Daryl Dixon and season two’s The Book of Carol, despite emerging from basically zero comic book basis. (Daryl does not exist in the comics, and Carol’s portrayed very differently.) Finally, Danai Gurira’s sword-slinging samurai Michonne cut into season three, following a cliffhanger tease one season earlier, emerging as one of the most vital figures in Walking Dead lore. The series is simply unimaginable without Rick, Carol, Daryl and Michonne.

The Very Best Hero: Glenn

Steven Yeun as Glenn Rhee Gene Page/AMC

It’s no coincidence that viewership dropped sharply following Steven Yeun’s gruesome exit from the series. A bold storytelling choice in Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard’s comic books, Glenn’s death was meant to leave Rick’s group with a jolt of despair. The show’s version instead turned the most widely publicized spoiler from the comics into a summer-long cliffhanger, played up as an exciting TV moment, trading horrific tragedy for watercooler buzz. Glenn’s death was always designed to be cruel, but as adapted for television, it was needlessly cruel, an unfitting sendoff for a character who, up to that point, was arguably the heart of the series. When it comes to Walking Dead, there’s BG and AG: Before Glenn, and After Glenn. As much as the series still has a pulse in its latest incarnations, the Glenn era will always reign supreme.

Top Four Villains: Shane, The Governor, Negan, Alpha

Jon Bernthal as Shane Walsh, David Morrissey as The Governor, Samantha Morton as Alpha and Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Negan Gene Page/AMC (3); Jace Downs/AMC

Jon Bernthal’s Shane dominated the first two years of Walking Dead, providing Rick with a friendly foil who would foreshadow all the much worse bad guys still to come. Fans didn’t have to wait long for the next big bad, as David Morrissey brought one of Kirkman and Adlard’s most iconic villains, the Governor, from paneled page menace to horrifying small-screen life. And this villain was eclipsed yet again, in the form of Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Negan, the most enduring and game-changing antagonist of the entire series — to the point that these days, he’s not much of an antagonist at all, though Maggie (Lauren Cohan) might have a few thoughts on that subject. Though the final season of the flagship series lacked a strong villainous hook, its penultimate year was haunted by Samantha Morton’s terrifying Alpha, queen of the Whisperers, and the woman who brought the AMC zombie drama back to form under the brilliant leadership of showrunner Angela Kang.

The Very Worst Villain: Nicholas

Michael Traynor as Nicholas Gene Page/AMC

Okay, an exaggeration, but Nicholas deserves a special place on this list for a couple of reasons. For one, he’s emblematic of the kinds of cowardly survivors whose self-preservation-above-all instincts get noble folks killed, like Tyler James Williams’ Noah, owner of the single most disgusting death in Walking Dead history. Nicholas also nearly got Glenn killed, after shooting himself and bringing Glenn down into a horde of hungry walkers. Sure, Glenn survived, but it opened the flood gates for “Glenn Gate,” a controversial period in which the Walking Dead team tried to convince fans that Glenn was dead, only to reveal he was miraculously alive, only to kill him for real a year later after the aforementioned months-long cliffhanger. So, in a way, Nicholas is chiefly responsible for one of the worst periods of the Walking Dead, making him someone we have to talk about in the context of terrible villains. But credit where it’s due, Michael Traynor played the character brilliantly, making it all too easy to buy into this desperate man’s final days on earth.

Top Four New Era Characters: Jerry, Mercer, Ezekiel, Connie

Cooper Andrews as Jerry, Michael James Shaw as Mercer, Khary Payton as Ezekiel and Lauren Ridloff as Connie Jace Downs/AMC (4)

After Glenn’s death, The Walking Dead hit a wall for a time, what with a prolonged war against Negan spanning two entire seasons. Even in the midst of that, some tremendous new characters arrived on the scene, such as Khary Payton’s King Ezekiel, as well as his wingman Jerry (Cooper Andrews), electric and expressive characters with dramatic and comedic chops to spare. When Angela Kang stepped in as the new showrunner, she brought some other notables into the mix, with no one better than Lauren Ridloff’s Connie, the one true love of Daryl Dixon — and we will not hear any arguments otherwise. Finally, there’s the last season of the show worth considering, in which one of comic book artist Adlard’s most notably rendered figures comes to stunning life via Michael James Shaw. Mercer wasn’t the single most electric character in the series, but damn if he didn’t make killing walkers look cool.

The Very Best New Era Character: Judith Grimes

Cailey Fleming as Judith Grimes Jackson Lee Davis/AMC

All the flowers in the world to Cailey Fleming, who debuted as the older version of Judith “Little Ass-Kicker” Grimes in her fictional father’s farewell hour. Losing Carl (Chandler Riggs) was one of the show’s very biggest mistakes, and losing Rick was a terrible blow as well. So Judith was left to hold down the original Grimes mantle, alongside mama Michonne, and she did it with ease. Judith’s relationships with various characters on the show, from Daryl to Negan and beyond, kept the original beating heart of the Grimes family firmly in tact for the final few seasons. May we be so lucky as to enjoy a full-scale Judith Grimes spinoff series at some point down the line. Speaking of spinoffs…

Top Four Spinoff Characters: Daryl, Carol, Maggie, Negan

Norman Reedus as Daryl Dixon and Melissa McBride as Carol Peletier in The Walking Dead: Daryl Dixon, Dean Morgan as Negan and Lauren Cohan as Maggie Rhee in The Walking Dead: Dead City Emmanuel Guimier/AMC (2); Peter Kramer/AMC (2)

Yeah, this isn’t exactly fair. Can we really say four of the very best Walking Dead characters are also the four very best spinoff characters, when there are dozens of folks who never appeared outside of their own silo shows? Sure, we absolutely can. And it’s worth stressing that even if the main Walking Dead series lost some steam in its final season, the aftermath has been fantastic. Both Dead City and Daryl Dixon have been absolutely delightful, and the four faces at the heart of both shows deserve their kudos for keeping the Walking Dead universe spinning for many moons still to come. But let’s look away from giving bonus points to Daryl, Carol and Negan (though props to Maggie, who ekes out a spot on our list through this hack), and give a shoutout to four other characters from across the Walking Dead universe…

Top Four Spinoff Characters, For Real: Alicia, Morgan, Strand and Madison

Alycia Debnam-Carey as Alicia Clark, Lennie James as Morgan Jones, Kim Dickens as Madison Clark and Colman Domingo as Victor Strand on Fear the Walking Dead Lauren “Lo” Smith/AMC (2); Seth F. Johnson/AMC (2)

With respect to The Walking Dead: World Beyond and even Tales of the Walking Dead, the breakout spinoff of the series was, for better and often for worse, Fear the Walking Dead. There are two distinct periods of the show: before original showrunner Dave Erickson’s departure, and after. The first three seasons of the series are uneven at best, but filled with some of the most devastating moments across the entire franchise, as fueled by Kim Dickens’ Madison, Colman Domingo’s Strand and Alycia Debnam-Carey’s Alicia. Then there’s Morgan. Lennie James hopped over from the main Walking Dead into Fear starting with its fourth season, headlining the show all the way until his somewhat sudden departure midway into the final year. Morgan was a standout on the original Walking Dead, and sometimes a bit of an anchor on Fear. But if we didn’t treat him with respect on this list, who knows which version of Morgan might come knocking on our door late at night. Best to play this one safe.

The Very Best Spinoff Character: The Croat

Zeljko Ivanek as The Croat in The Walking Dead: Dead City Peter Kramer/AMC

Say it with me now, as our collective Zeljko Ivanek voice intensifies: “NEEEEEGAN!” The Croat is a cartoon character, full stop, played by Ivanek, regularly one of the best bad guy actors our small screens have to offer. Intertwined with the franchise’s history via his connection to Negan, while simultaneously becoming a cackling, cowardly lunatic of his own mold entirely, the Croat is proof positive that there’s still more juice in the Walking Dead franchise. As long as the powers that be want to keep having the Croat shout the word “NEEEEEEEEGAN” from a New York City skyscraper, we’ll be watching.

The Very Best Ensemble: The Season 5 Cast

Tyler James Williams as Noah, Seth Gilliam as Father Gabriel, Norman Reedus as Daryl Dixon, Alanna Masterson as Tara Chambler, Melissa McBride as Carol Peletier, Josh McDermitt as Dr. Eugene Porter, Danai Gurira as Michonne, Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes, Steven Yeun as Glenn Rhee, Lauren Cohan as Maggie Greene, Sonequa Martin-Green as Sasha, Christian Serratos as Rosita Espinosa, Michael Cudlitz as Abraham and Chandler Riggs as Carl Grimes in The Walking Dead Gene Page/AMC

Let’s close this one out with a look back at the GREATM-est era of The Walking Dead. Season five kicks off with an action-packed prison break, headlined by Carol. It escalates just two episodes later when Rick buries a machete in the cannibal Gareth’s (Andrew J. West) head, ending the man who appeared to be the show’s newest big bad with only four episodes of screen-time. It got darker from there. This is the season where the gang had to eat road dogs and fan out across highways in order to stay alive, having previously lived a good life inside the walled prison community. The period right before Alexandria is the show at its survival-horror peak — thanks in no small part to the best collection of characters the show ever sports, including the aforementioned lineup known as GREATM: Glenn, Rosita, Eugene, Abraham, Tara and Maggie. When thinking back on all the characters in the Walking Dead‘s history, the collective season five series regulars are the ones who all come to mind.

The six-episode season of The Walking Dead: The Ones Who Live releases its finale Sunday at 9 p.m. on AMC and AMC+. Head here for a refresher on Rick and Michonne’s story.