The Walking Dead‘s surprising character deaths have always kept the audience on its toes. Whether a character bites the dust to raise the stakes during a premiere or finale, bring much-needed closure to a long-simmering character arc, or add shock value for Chris Hardwick and the gang to unpack on Talking Dead, the show boasts a lengthy trail of bodies. Though The Walking Dead prides itself on this bloody approach to plot-building, even diehard fans will acknowledge that there have been characters taken before their time, and in far too unceremonious a fashion. As the show has been on the air for many years at this point, it has aired as many bungled deaths as it has worthwhile, gut-punching, game-changing ones. Fans can forgive many of a favorite show’s sins, but at some point, they become impossible to ignore.
It should be noted that The Walking Dead’s stumbles are due to its admirable ambition, and the solid reputation it built for itself. When people expect your show to keep one of the most engaged audiences in TV history guessing, there’s bound to be a handful of big swings and tremendous misses. Still, those misses stand out. We’re here to take a look back at some of the most effectively shocking deaths to ever grace The Walking Dead, as well as the show’s most irritating dud endings, which left viewers frustrated on behalf of characters they’d grown to love.
Worst: Denise Cloyd
Whenever a new character gets a little extra screen time, savvy audiences know to start preparing for a dramatic death. Denise Cloyd is a perfect example. Introduced as one of the townspeople in Alexandria, she reluctantly becomes the community’s doctor. When Denise sets off on a supply mission with Daryl and Rosita in the sixth season, her modest arc kicks suddenly into high gear, in a way that basically screams, "DEATH IS COMING FOR THIS CHARACTER." Denise is determined to become the sort of person Tara, her girlfriend, deserves. After risking her life to get an orange soda, Denise is lectured by the others. She starts to explain what this trip really means to her, revealing that Daryl reminds her of her brave brother, and that lonely Rosita reminds her of who she used to be. Suddenly, she’s shot through the eye with a bolt from Daryl’s stolen crossbow, now wielded by Dwight.
This moment feels like a hasty end to a relatively inconsequential character, designed to ramp up Alexandria’s impending war with the Saviors. The Walking Dead has proven time and again that it can wrap up season-long arcs without shameless shock moments like this: There’s simply no excuse for packing an episode with less-important characters like Denise, just to stun people with a sudden demise. And really, who was even shocked? The minute she starts taking up more screen time, you pretty much know she’s headed for the grave before the credits roll.
Simon is a character who seems largely inconsequential … right up until the moment he single-handedly loses the war for the Saviors. For most of his run, this psychopath, who acts as Negan’s right-hand man, remains on his master’s leash. The show takes full advantage of Steven Ogg’s acting chops whenever they need someone to demonstrate what loose cannons the Saviors can be: He’s intimidating, cruel, violent, and always trembling on the edge of total inhumanity. Subtle signs of a power struggle between him and Negan emerge as the series winds on, which come to a head after Negan’s apparent death. Simon, the heir apparent to the Saviors, makes good on his promise to lead the group in a different way, which values wiping out the Saviors’ enemies, rather than converting them. He begins by slaughtering the Scavengers. However, when Negan returns, Simon finally reaches the end of his rope and decides to stage a coup.
Simon is foiled by double (and at times triple) agent Dwight. Negan stops the underhanded takeover, and challenges Simon to a one-on-one fist fight to the death, for control of the Saviors. Simon lands a few cheap shots before he’s ultimately strangled to death by Negan in one of the show’s most thrilling sequences. This moment proves Negan’s formidable reputation is well-earned, closes out a fascinating character arc, and brings an elegant end to one of the most intriguing power struggles in the show’s history.
Worst: Theodore "T-Dog" Douglas
T-Dog never really gets his time to shine. Sure, he has some of the snarkiest lines of the early seasons, and he definitely brings some much-needed blunt wisdom to the group. But by and large, T-Dog is just a background character the show fails to do anything interesting with. In the absence of a truly satisfying character arc, T-Dog meets his end as a transparently stakes-raising measure in the middle of season three. When the prison becomes overrun with walkers, he and Carol find themselves in the unfortunate position of having to re-close the gates. In the mayhem, he gets bitten on the shoulder, which ensures his doom: A shoulder can’t be amputated. He spends the remainder of his life rambling about God’s plan for him. In the end, he charges two walkers, and allows himself to be devoured so that Carol can escape. God’s plan fulfilled, apparently, despite the fact that he’d never previously seemed to be all that invested in the almighty.
T-Dog’s death makes the moment tense, but even that effect is muddled by the fact that Lori, a significantly more consequential character, dies in the same fray, making the loss of another day-one character like T-Dog just plain redundant. His heroic sacrifice and newfound faith in the Lord feels less like the completion of a character arc and more like a shoehorned ending created for shock value — something the show was already getting from another character’s end.
Best: Glenn Rhee
Glenn meet his end after Daryl punches Negan, prompting the villain to randomly select Glenn to murder. The moment is violent and gruesome as Glenn chokes out his last words to a wife who can’t bear the sight of his grotesquely beaten visage. The characters and audience watch helplessly as a character who has been around a whole lot longer than most is brought to a bitter, bloody end.
While the show’s worst deaths feel hollow, Glenn’s death is heavy with actual meaning. Negan is not an easily solvable problem, and thus, Glenn’s death is not there to distract from this fact, as so many lesser deaths are. His execution proves that this is a villain who will leave many more beloved bodies in his wake before he’s finally brought down. In the wake of Glenn’s death, it once again feels like no one is truly safe: Suddenly, there’s a bad guy capable of smashing right through any plot armor characters might have seemed to have. Moreover, unlike other deaths, Glenn’s demise isn’t signaled with shoehorned dialogue or a sudden, significant moment of calm. All apocalypses considered, he dies at the height of his life, with a new safe haven to call home and a wife who is about to give birth to their first child. This moment sends a clear message that the show will never be the same — and, in fact, it wasn’t.
Worst: Paul "Jesus" Rovia
The reason that Jesus’ death remains one of The Walking Dead’s worst character endings has a lot to do with the fact that his comic-book counterpart is so freaking cool. On the page, Jesus is a capable fighter, and is without a doubt the correct answer to any Walking Dead-based game of "Who would win in a fight." As actor Tom Payne noted in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, he spent all his time training for fight scenes that never actually came. Jesus is a big part of the war against the Saviors in the comics, but is given almost nothing to do but smile and nod in the background on the TV show. Jesus’ death is supposed to draw audiences into a scary new plot featuring a powerful threat, but all it does is disappoint.
In what ends up being the only scene indicative of what fans wanted from Jesus, he uses a sword to take down multiple walkers in one of the most well-done action sequences on the show. Then it all ends with him taking a swipe at a walker, only to discover the walker is actually a member of the newly discovered Whisperer faction, wearing a disguise. Down goes Jesus. While this is a cool way to introduce a villain, it’s a lame ending for a character who should have been the coolest thing to hit The Walking Dead since the arrival of Negan.
Best: Merle Dixon
No ending on The Walking Dead embodies the series’ blend of tension, horror, and emotion more than Merle Dixon. After making a splash in just two episodes of the show back in season one, Merle comes back in a big way in season three, as one of the Governor’s right-hand men. However, once his baby brother Daryl is back in the equation, it becomes clear that Merle does, in fact, have an odd sense of loyalty. He slowly begins to turn on his boss. Eventually, he chooses Daryl over the Governor, but is frustrated to find that his little bro isn’t interested in choosing him over Rick. What’s worse, Merle notices that Daryl seems better off without his influence in his life.
In an effort to prove that he’s the only one with the guts to do what’s necessary in this new world, where humans are just as dangerous as walkers, Merle goes rogue and takes his very own shot at the Governor. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work out. Though Merle manages to take out a large number of the villain’s men, he’s quickly overwhelmed, killed, and left to turn. This brings an end to his character arc, and brutally proves that he was wrong all along. Daryl finds his undead brother and puts him down in a cathartic display of anger, showing that the Dixon brothers are by far the most complicated characters on the show.
Worst: Abraham Ford
Abraham’s death is marred by the fact that it is shamelessly milked as a cliffhanger. Season six concludes with Negan’s infamous introduction, in which he randomly selects someone to execute. An agonizing six months of speculation among fans followed. At last, the show returned, and it was revealed that the biggest guy in the group who isn’t main character Rick Grimes is the one Negan decides to take off the board. Admittedly, seeing a member of the group who is so tough and has survived so much be violently killed while his friends are helpless to do anything about it is hard to stomach. However, all that tension and purpose gets thrown out the window when, in the season seven premiere, Negan murders Glenn in the exact same way.
Perhaps it’s not for us to compare characters, but come on. Glenn had been around since the second episode of the series. He has a wife pregnant with their first child, who is forced to watch as he is unceremoniously beaten to death. Glenn’s death might very well be the most gut-wrenching demise on an already bloody show — Abraham simply doesn’t deserve to share the spotlight with him at that pivotal moment. Moreover, this choice does a disservice to Abraham’s character. Despite the character arc that his death at Negan’s hands brings to a close, he’ll forever be remembered as the guy who dies before Glenn.
While some of the best character endings come as the result of a cathartic story coming to a worthwhile close, others make the list simply because it’s fun to see an incredibly vile character go down. For two long seasons, Beta acts as leader of the Whisperers. He carries out ruthless attacks, proving himself to be truly unhinged when it comes to navigating the post-apocalyptic world. Although he pays deference to Alpha and follows her with almost dog-like loyalty, her death does not put a stop to his wicked ways. He carries out her legacy by unleashing a horde of zombies on some of the only remaining non-Whisperer human beings in the area.
After murdering, threatening and making life a living hell for our heroes for several years, Beta finally bites off more than he can chew when he leads his horde against Daryl and Negan. After losing what’s left of his mind at the sight of Negan, the man who killed Alpha, Beta throws a walker on him before slamming him onto the ground several times. Just when it looks like it’s lights out for Negan, Daryl swoops in and jams two knives into Beta’s eyes. Blinded and bleeding, Beta is subsequently devoured by the very walkers who gave him protection all these awful years. If that’s not a satisfying end to a villain, we don’t know what is.
Worst: Rick Grimes
The season nine episode "What Comes After" serves as an hour-long goodbye to The Walking Dead’s main character, Rick Grimes. Unfortunately, it doesn’t make a ton of sense. In his ongoing effort to unite the groups he now leads after the war with Negan, Rick is wounded while desperately trying to lead a herd away from the living. Bleeding out and driven only by his desire to save the people he loves, he continues to lure walkers away as he hallucinates some of the most emotional moments of his life. Visions of Shane, Hershel, and Sasha ensue. Curiously absent from his poignant hallucinations, however, are his recently deceased son, his very much alive daughter, and his long-deceased wife, Lori.
Those odd absences aren’t the only weird thing about "What Comes After." The entire episode plays out like a colossal victory lap for the character, but it’s completely unclear exactly what the victory is. His people are far from safe — in fact, they’re more divided and in need of leadership than ever. His son has recently died in the war, whose fallout he is still trying to fix. Despite the hero’s ending he gets by blowing up a bridge of walkers, Rick doesn’t exactly leave on a series high note. So why does the episode feel like one? It’s a triumphal exit the show simply doesn’t earn.
Best: Sasha Williams
When Sasha first arrives in season three, the show spends a lot of time not quite knowing what to do with her. Her life takes a major turn when she begins to develop feelings for Abraham, which he reciprocates. Unfortunately, their romance is cut short by Abraham’s death. Similar to Maggie, Sasha spends what is left of her life enmeshed in the war with the Saviors, seeking bloody revenge. But unlike Maggie, Sasha isn’t pregnant, and is thus able to really inflict some damage. She and Rosita embark on an assassination mission, determined to get revenge for Abraham. Before they’re separated, Sasha eulogizes her late love interest by remarking that Negan denied him the honor of going out fighting. She will avenge this crime, or die trying.
Sadly, her assassination attempt fails off-screen. She’s captured, and Negan makes it clear that he plans to use her to get Alexandria to surrender. Locked in a cell, disarmed, and having had all hope removed, Sasha still manages to hatch a pretty stellar plan. She convinces Eugene to give her a suicide pill, so that, when Negan makes his big reveal of having taken her as a prisoner, she can attack him as a walker in front of all of Alexandria, making it clear that he showed up to their front gates without a lick of leverage. Although she fails to exact the revenge she sought, she still manages to honor Abraham by going out fighting.