The Movies/TV 8 Ball: Top 8 The Walking Dead Deaths
Welcome, one and all, to the 8 Ball in the Movie Zone! I’m your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, we will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You’re free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is “wrong” is just silly. With that in mind, let’s get right in to it!
The Walking Dead ended its seventh season last night with an action-packed episode that saw Rick and his band of survivors finally fighting back against Negan after being under the Savior leader’s stylish bootheel for the entirety of the season. There are a lot of opinions across the board regarding the quality of this season and I’m not here to debate that; I largely enjoyed this year and felt it was an improvement over last season, but I understand why people got frustrated or annoyed at the show’s grim depiction of the Alexandrians being shoved down time and time again.
Either way, I’m here to talk about a lighter topic: death. Over ninety-nine episodes the post-apocalyptic series has had no shortage of deaths both big and small. This week in honor of the seventh season concluding, we’re talking a look at the top deaths in the show’s history.
There are in fact spoilers all the way through to the end of season seven of The Walking Dead in this column. You have been warned.
Caveat: There isn’t really a caveat this week: if a character died during the run of the show, they were eligible. For ranking purposes, I considered both the importance of the character to the series and the impact that their death had on the other characters and the series direction, as well as how well the death was executed both in terms of emotional impact on the viewer and critical details like performance, how it was filmed and such.
• Dale Horvath (Season Two)
• Beth Greene (Season Five)
• The Governor (Season Four)
• Noah (Season Five)
• Lori Grimes (Season Three)
First up in the top eight this week is the third season loss of an original cast member. Merle Dixon was a thorn in the side of the Survivors right from his first appearance in the second episode of the series, a violent and racist misogynist who declared himself the leader of the group only to be taken down and left behind handcuffed to the roof of a building. Merle was nothing if not resilient though, and maintained a connection to the show through his brother Daryl only to pop up in season three under the Governor’s employ. That led to a loyalty tug-of-war between the two factions that saw Michael Rooker have ample opportunity to flex his acting muscles. In the end, the battle for Merle’s soul claimed his life as he redeemed himself and frees Michonne from a potential death at the hands of the Governor and pays that price himself. Merle’s zombified body was found by Daryl, who puts down his brother in hysterics. Despite not being the most likeable character (which, on this show, is saying something), Merle became a fan favorite and his death was a painful moment for many. It had quite the impact on Daryl and took the personal level of his hatred for the Governor to a whole new level, raising the stakes for the eventual climactic battle.
If there’s one thing that can be said about the gods in The Walking Dead, it’s this: they must really hate Maggie Greene. Maggie has suffered through the deaths of basically everyone she’s ever loved on the show, including all the members of her blood family. As much as Beth’s death hurt, the most impactful to the show overall had to be that of her father Hershel. During his time on the series, Hershel Greene served as a spiritual leader and the conscience for our core group of survivors, guiding Rick and the rest in figuring out how to survive within the new world they found themselves in. Of course, as Dale proved in season two it isn’t healthy to be a voice for morality in the zombie apocalypse and Hershel didn’t fare any better. After being captured by the Governor’s forces, Hershel was put out in front of the survivors in the prison and had Michonne’s sword sliced into his neck. He struggled mightily as a firefight erupted but was ultimately beheaded by the Governor in the battle. Hershel’s death was a turning point for the protagonists, driving them a step further down a path of moral abandon that would carry through seasons four and five until Glenn found his way into being the moral center partway through season six. His murder was also of course the tripwire that set off the final fight between the Governor and Rick’s group, putting an end to that story arc. Hershel may be gone, but through Glenn first and now through Maggie his essence lives on.
It actually kind of sucks that Abraham’s death ends up all the way down at #6, but he is sadly overshadowed a bit by another death that occurred in that episode. The former Army Sergeant with a knack for off-color witticisms was fantastically brought to life by Michael Cudlitz when he, Rosita and Eugene debuted in season four. Cudlitz brought not only his imposing physical presence but considerable charm to the character and established great relationships with a host of characters including Rick, Sasha, Rosita, Eugene and Daryl. By the end of the sixth season he was as integral a part of the cast as anyone else and his odd combination of reckless abandon with words of wisdom lightened up many an episode during occasional sloggy periods of the fifth and sixth seasons. Unfortunately, he was also one of the most likely to fall under Negan’s bat for a variety of reasons both metatexual (his death’s impact on multiple characters, his somewhat more supporting status) and in-universe (being the most defiant and imposing physical threat). Abraham went out like a champion, taking the first hit and then staggering up to tell Negan, “Suck… my… nuts” before he was put down for good. Abraham’s death was horrific and shocking, and the only reason he ranks this low is that what immediately followed was far more heart-wrenching.
Hey, I said above that there would be spoilers through the end of the season. Some may call BS on this ranking because Sasha’s death is so fresh in our minds, and I can’t deny if there might be some validity to that. But I do think that the demise of Tyreese’s sister should rank high on any list because of the way she went out. Most comic readers strongly recall the moment in the Walking Dead books when Negan delivered a walker-fied Holly to the Survivors, causing chaos and demoralizing them. Showrunner Scott Gimple gave that scene a twist in a half by putting Sonequa Martin-Green’s character in the slot but making it a death of her own choosing. Like Maggie (and everyone, really), Sasha survived a hell of a lot of loss in the apocalypse and found herself in Negan’s clutches after going on a mission to try and kill him. Faced with the idea of being used against her friends, Sasha chose to go out on her own terms and perhaps even take Negan out in a way that he wouldn’t expect. It was a tragic moment, but a triumphant one too. Too often the character who die on The Walking Dead fall while helpless, unable to prevent their own fates. Sasha chose her fate and that makes her sacrifice a noble, exultant moment instead of being one that tears down any hope. In doing so she didn’t kill Negan, but she did manage to buy Alexandria some time and ultimately ended up saving her friends lives. She also died peacefully, which is perhaps the best death she could have hoped for on this show.
Few deaths have had as much impact on Rick than that of Shane Walsh. While Lori Grimes’ death certainly messed Rick up for a long period of time (and gave us Lori hallucinations for a good while after), that one didn’t actively change the direction that Rick was headed in. The betrayal by and death of the man who was Rick’s best friend before everything got all undead left a scar on his psyche that, it’s fair to say, still deeply affects him to this day. Shane was the mirror of Rick in the first two seasons, the man who acted out of pragmatism and not idealism. That led him to do some abhorrent things including essentially killing Otis and literally trying to kill Rick, because he didn’t think Rick had what it took to keep the group safe. Shane’s death was one of the first true shocking deaths on the show (for those who hadn’t read the comics, of course) and it turned Rick into a dictatorial monster for a period of time. He has since balanced that out with his humanity, but his former partner will always be in the back of his head I think, not to mention that of Carl’s who put down the walker version of Shane.
“Look at the flowers” holds a hallowed place in fandom references at this point, right next to Game of Thrones’ “Hold the Door!” By the time season four was coming to a close, Walking Dead fans had no illusions that children might be remotely safe within the zombie apocalypse. The death of innocents has been used relatively sparingly but to great effect by the show to really drive an emotional stake right into the hearts of viewers and tell them that yes, even kids can fall to the wayside. Lizzie and Mika’s death wasn’t just about the death of children though. Forgive the play on words here, but it was about the death of innocence that can and would happen in this kind of a world. Lizzie and Mika’s storyline took the place of the characters of Ben and Billy in the comics, wherein two young children pay the price for one of their increasingly unhinged mental states. Lizzy’s murder of her sister is tragic in part because she is still naive and believes that the zombies won’t hurt anyone, so killing Mika and having her come back as a walker is fine. It’s the point that drives Carol to a very deep, dark place as she kills Lizzie, realizing that to do otherwise would endanger everyone else. It’s a brutally tragic moment that resonated with viewers for long after the echoes of gunfire faded and, much like Shane’s death did for Rick, drove Carol’s story arc for the seasons that followed.
Yep, “only” at #2. And let that take nothing away from the importance of Glenn’s death in the season seven premiere. It was the most horrific, brutal visceral death I believe I have seen on non-premium cable television, and perhaps even when you include HBO, Showtime and the rest. And it was a death of a core character, one of the most beloved on the show. Glenn Rhee had been with The Walking Dead since the beginning and Steven Yuen made him everything that comic fans and non-comic fans alike could want in a character within this group. Of all the characters on this show, perhaps no one has gone through as compelling, interesting, thorough and realistic of an arc as Glenn. He went from plucky survivor to nerdy romantic interest, growing through that to become a badass in his own right during the Governor arc and then finally becoming the moral compass for the group. But Glenn’s death was set in stone after The Walking Dead #100 came out. There was no way a death that iconic could go to someone else, and whatever problems people may have had with the season premiere they executed this brilliantly. Glenn’s death is tragic and heart-breaking, right down to his calling out for Maggie before Negan pulps his head. It would have been hard for any death to overshadow that of Abraham’s, and it is a testament to the effectiveness of Glenn’s character and the execution of his murder that it does so.
I know people who still aren’t over this one. If you had asked me whether The Walking Dead could have turned a character as inconsequential (and frankly kind of irritating) as Carol’s daughter Sophia into an emotionally destroying death, I would have laughed. But they did it, and in such a way that even the drawn-out story arc of the search for Sophia didn’t blunt the heartache. For all the criticism of season two for sticking at the farm for a long period of time (a fairly valid criticism, to be fair), it was the length of the search for Sasha, particularly via Daryl, that gave this moment its power. Viewers got invested in someone who was a largely minor character up to this point and when it is revealed that she is one of the zombies in Hershel’s barn, the emotional mic drop was deafening. Credit this to episode writer Scott Gimple and director Michelle MacLaren for their staging of the scene, bringing out all the other zombies and pausing just long enough before she stumbled her way out. Sophia’s death and zombification destroyed the group and was the first step toward Rick becoming more ruthless. It left its mark on all of the characters, marks that can still be seen to this day. Even now, five seasons of carnage later, it’s still a tough scene to watch. Of all the Walking Dead demises, none — not even Glenn’s — can really top this one.
And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don’t forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411wrestling.com! JT out.