Warning: this article contains some spoilers for The Walking Dead season nine episode “Guardians.”
As we start to see the extent of the Whisperers’ ruthlessness this week, it’s time to look at how they compare so far to the other great antagonists of the show. Because frankly, when Michonne’s insecurities seem like they’re far more of a threat than Samantha Morton with dirt on her face, it’s a problem for the would-be big scary baddie. Let’s run down who did villainy right and how.
(Note that this is a list of primary The Walking Dead villains; their sidekicks are mostly saved for another day.)
10. The Whisperers
They make this list mainly because of what a great, horror-movie style entrance they made, murdering Jesus in a graveyard, but they’ll have to shape up if they hope to rank any higher in the future. First, the show demystified Alpha by giving her a backstory (fake or otherwise) that felt like a truncated Fear the Walking Dead season one episode (not every villain needs to have been good once!). Next, it tried to make her scary by showing her decapitate one of her followers with piano wire, but everyone watching saw it coming, and wondered why anyone who had challenged her would be so stupid as to just stand there and let her get close.
Samantha Morton is a wonderful actress, but she was scarier lying in a dirty giant fish tank in Minority Report. We’re left to wonder why more intimidating sidekick Beta doesn’t just knock her down and take control of the group himself. Their zombie masks, initially so terrifying, now look like the sort of high-end licensed Halloween merchandise you’d find in seasonal pop-up stores, and even the gruesome scene of a walker getting face-flayed this week didn’t persuade us any differently.
If you’ve read the comics or even seen the comic-based action figures, you know many more decapitations are coming. But given how Daryl made more headway as a fake Whisperer this week than any of the real ones, we will riot if he (or anyone else significant) dies at villainous hands this disappointing.
Poor Gregory really only got to be the main bad guy for one episode after an entire season of being a deliciously cowardly weasel trying to play The Walking Dead world like it’s Game of Thrones. He found out quickly that when your strength is covertly playing sides against each other, you lose that power when one side is conclusively vanquished.
Also, subtlety gets you nowhere on this show, ever.
8. The Wolves
Remember the last time there was a group of villains who wanted to behave like pack animals? The Wolves were a bit of a short-lived threat, mainly because leader Owen’s primary narrative purpose was to serve as a prop in Morgan Jones’ journey from man of mystery to peaceful warrior. He ranks here mainly because in stick-wielding badass from, Morgan finally became the star of his own spin-off show, and he needed some journeyman villains along the way to make him look good and put him over.
Negan was arguably a better villain before he ever showed up than he ended up becoming—back when every Savior was a self-proclaimed Negan, and Rick and company decided to kill as many of them as possible in their sleep. The show ventured into morally gray territory about whether preemptive war is ever justified, and what kind of toll it would take on supposedly virtuous people waging it. Once again, we were left to ponder who the real “walking dead” are.
So then Negan finally showed up, left us with a shocker of a cliffhanger, bashed some skulls in, and audiences initially hated him for actually being a dastardly character. Alas, he proved mostly one-note, and that particular note—general a-hole who’s also kinda misogynist—couldn’t carry an interesting tune after a while. In the end, his redemptive qualities, like the initially grudging affection for Carl and respect for Judith, made him more interesting, and the show is finally turning him around.
6. Officer Dawn Lerner
Running a hospital with ruthless efficiency, in which she allowed abuse and murder to happen, Officer Lerner seems like she could just as easily be a villain in our world. Perhaps that’s why she didn’t last—there was an opportunity for some pitch-black social satire about our broken health care system, but satire and, again, subtlety aren’t things The Walking Dead has ever excelled at, though it has finally started trying just a little bit.
Cannibalism is always super-creepy, and the residents of Terminus made a safe space into a slaughterhouse. Though the backstory of the place was one about abuse victims who became the abusers, leader Gareth became particularly creepy and eminently hatable, having fully committed with relish to an “eat everyone who disagrees with me, and mock them while doing it” lifestyle. Unlike some on this list whom we hated to see leave the story, Gareth was one we were delighted to see meet a particular brutal fate, hacked to pieces with the red machete.
The junkyard home. The weird baby-talk she was easily able to slip in and out of once she became Anne the (seemingly) friendly artist. Those creepy-ass gladiatorial zombies with all the weapons embedded in their bodies. The fact that she was able to get both Negan and Rick completely at her mercy on different occasions. Anyone who’s seen the horror movie The Woman shouldn’t be surprised at Pollyanna McIntosh’s domination of both the screen and any patriarchal sort who’d try to oppress her. But the White Witch of The Walking Dead earned a position as a worthy adversary all on her own. And then just as we thought she’d settled down into a fine romance with Gabriel, she turned again, whisking Rick Grimes away to TV-movie land. Something tells us she’ll be back, and as dangerous as she ever was.
3. Merle Dixon
Nobody excels at playing characters who can elicit both sympathy and disgust as well as Michael Rooker, better known for his other signature roles as Guardians of the Galaxy‘s Yondu (an awful, gross pirate who turns out to have been a secretly loving father figure) and the eponymous Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer (you think he’s reformed, but surprise! Still a killer). We hated him when he first showed up opposing Rick and yelling epithets. We realized he was a dangerous foe when he passed the Mad Max/Watchmen/Saw test of self-mutilation for survival. And we cheered when he finally turned on the Governor, groaned when he missed by that much, and maybe even shed a tear when brother Daryl had to take out the zombie version of him afterward.
Come back, Shane! Come back!
The punishing role that put Jon Bernthal on the map reminded us that some of the best bad guys are heroes gone rogue. We knew from the very beginning that Rick just couldn’t show up, find his wife living with his best friend, and have everything be okay, but Shane’s vastly quicker descent into ruthless pragmatism and convenient fact-fudging made Lori’s choice a little easier. Ironically, in the years since Shane’s death at the hands of Rick, that same Rick who couldn’t even bring himself to do mercy-killings has committed preemptive murder, mutilation, and creative justification in pursuit of ends that supposedly require the means. Shane was arguably just a little too ahead of the curve.
1. Philip Blake, the Governor
Has there been any more indelible image from The Walking Dead on TV than the room full of zombified heads floating in fishtanks, in which Blake, a.k.a. The Governor, does some of his best thinking, and feeds his dead-daughter-on-a-chain chum in a bucket? Even if he’d only been a run of the mill villain, his office alone would have assured Philip a place in our minds, and nightmares. But he’s so much more than that.
Like Liam Neeson’s Ducard in Batman Begins, whom he superficially resembles in some ways, the Governor was capable of being a good friend and mentor, a great post-apocalypse leader, and a near-genocidal psychopath. Dominating TWD‘s third and best season as the leader of too-good-to-be-true community Woodbury, he managed to survive into season four and regain some of his humanity among new followers, but it was not to last. Had he played his cards a little better he might even have prevailed at the prison siege, but his own ruthlessness and craziness was ultimately his downfall.