[Warning: This story contains spoilers through the season seven midseason finale of AMC's The Walking Dead.]
Given its seven seasons and counting on the air, and given the violent randomness of the world it inhabits, AMC's The Walking Dead has produced a vast assortment of characters over the years — many of them long since dead and gone, some of them more recently (and dearly) departed than others.
With 20 series regulars on the roster entering its seventh season, the very prospect of distilling the Walking Dead cast down to its 30 best characters is a daunting one, to put it mildly. It allows very little room for the show's shorter-term characters. (Apologies to IronE Singleton's T-Dog, again lost in the shuffle.) It's bound to produce some major snubs, with at least one or two series mainstays not making the cut. (At least you still have the one eye, Carl!) There's an astonishing amount of characters on the board, and someone's bound to get left behind, just as others are bound to rise higher than expected.
The Ricks (Andrew Lincoln) and Daryls (Norman Reedus) of the world are guaranteed their spots on such a list, but who else makes the cut? Here's our answer, as The Hollywood Reporter presents its rankings of the 30 best Walking Dead characters, through six and a half seasons of the show.
30. Baby Judith
There's no better way to kick off this list than with the aptly nicknamed Little Ass-Kicker. Unlike the rest of the cast, Judith's entire life has been surrounded by the apocalypse. She is literally a baby, and yet she somehow cries less than everyone else in her family. When Walking Dead enters its 27th season in 2036, we fully expect Judith to be the very best character on the board.
29. Tie: Lizzie and Mika Samuels (Brighton Sharbino and Kyla Kenedy)
The show's fourth season was marked by a tragic tale of two orphaned sisters struggling to accept the new world order, with fatal consequences for both. "The Grove" is often talked about as one of the very best Walking Dead episodes, and while it's rightfully identified as the best Carol (Melissa McBride) episode up to that point, it's simply not possible without the audience's heartbreaking connection to the Samuels sisters.
28. Father Gabriel (Seth Gilliam)
If this list had been conceived during season six, Father Gabriel wouldn't even register as an honorable mention. But eight episodes into season seven, the reformed coward has emerged as a surprise MVP contender, standing strong alongside his true allies, volunteering for night watches, creeping the heck out of Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan)...; you get the picture. For someone who used to be one of the show's most loathed characters, Gabriel's star is certainly on the rise.
27. Bob Stookey (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.)
When a Walking Dead character starts whistling about the brighter side of life, you know that person is toast. Such was the case for Bob, who spent his final days in season five looking out for the rare blue skies in a fogged up world. Optimism is often a death sentence on Walking Dead, but it also yields some compelling closing arcs for the departing characters. Bob is no exception — and his incredibly memorable exit via tainted meat only helps his case.
26. Deanna Monroe (Tovah Feldshuh)
With all due respect to Reg (Steve Coulter), there's no one better to carry the banner as the lone Monroe on this list than Deanna, leader of Alexandria from the time of its inception right until her untimely demise. In her final acts, Deanna effectively played matchmaker with Rick and Michonne (Danai Gurira), and successfully inspired Rick to have faith in the Alexandrian people. And that's not even mentioning her ambitious dreams of turning the community into a bountiful producer of wheat, grain and sorghum. Deanna's legacy will live on in all the Spaghetti Tuesdays that have yet to come.
25. Denise Cloyd (Merritt Wever)
Controversial death notwithstanding, Denise was a delightful addition to the Walking Dead ensemble while she was around. Her relationship with Tara (Alanna Masterson) was touching, her two-episode arc with Benedict Samuel's Wolf was morally interesting (indeed, the Wolf might have even made this list, given a couple of extra spots), and she possessed a relatable outlook on the insane world around her. As a performer, Merritt Wever is always going to bring it, and her brief time on Walking Dead is no exception.
24. Gareth (Andrew J. West)
There's no better example of the short-term Walking Dead villain than Gareth, the leader of the flesh-hungry cannibals that stalked Rick and company through the end of season four and the very beginning of season five. As a newly minted series regular and as a confusingly handsome person for such a vicious cannibal, West's Gareth appeared poise to wreak long-term terror on the Grimes Gang. Not so. Instead, he was vanquished within the first three episodes of season five, his purpose on the show finally clear: Gareth really did screw with the wrong people when he picked a fight with Rick Grimes. It was a much needed reminder, with a great actor playing the role of the ill-fated messenger.
23. Edwin Jenner (Noah Emmerich)
He barely lasted more than one episode before literally flaming out, but the CDC scientist's short time on Walking Dead was more memorable than some characters who lasted years. Not only did Jenner provide Rick with key information about how the zombie virus works, he also provided an example of a different type of apocalypse survivor — the kind who has lost the will to go on. It's no surprise that Emmerich, so terrific on The Americans, turned in a fantastic performance as he helped close out the show's first season.
22. Paul "Jesus" Rovia (Tom Payne)
Given time, Jesus stands to rise quite high in these rankings. The acrobatic ambassador of the Hilltop is one of the most beloved characters from the comic books, certainly of the modern era. If the show follows suit (and that's far from a guarantee), then Jesus has a very bright future as Walking Dead starts moving into the territory of "All-Out War" and beyond. For now, Jesus is still about as cool as a character can get on this show.
21. Aaron (Ross Marquand)
Aaron, like Bob, is one of the more optimistic characters in Walking Dead history, and he's still standing through six and a half seasons of the show. He's the reason Rick and company are even still alive these days, as the man who recruited them into the Alexandria fold. He's naturally likable and more than willing to stick his neck out on the line time and time again. Is Aaron one of the most exciting characters on the show? Certainly not. But he's definitely one of the most pleasant.
20. Tara Chambler (Alanna Masterson)
Season seven's standalone Tara episode worked better for some than it did for others. No matter the response to the divisive showcase, it's hard to deny Tara's appeal. Once again, she's one of the few characters who exudes positivity in a deeply negative universe, often serving as a tension-breaker when the show needs it most. Without Tara, there's no GREATM. Without Tara, there are far fewer fist bumps. Who wants to live in a Walking Dead world without GREATM and fist bumps? Nobody, except maybe the Oceansiders; they don't seem to want much to do with Tara, or anyone outside their community for that matter.
19. Tyreese Williams (Chad L. Coleman)
Easily one of the most beloved characters from the comic books, the show's version of Tyreese was destined to have a softer impact than his source material counterpart. In the comics, Tyreese serves as Rick's closest confidant, a role the show gave to newcomer Daryl Dixon. Even without so many of the aspects that made him such a standout on the page, The Wire veteran Chad L. Coleman played Tyreese with enormous strength and an even bigger heart. His death in the midseason five finale remains one of the most touching and classy sendoffs any Walking Dead character ever received.
18. Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan)
You can picture an indignant Negan reading this list, insisting he's not that mad that he only clocks in as the 18th best character ...; only to follow-up with the harrowing punchline: "But Lucille, on the other hand? She hates this list!" Credit where it's due, Jeffrey Dean Morgan is a fantastic addition to the Walking Dead cast, giddily chewing scenery as the big bad bat-wielding Negan. But it's hard to know how the show wants viewers to feel about the villain. Are we supposed to laugh at his one-liners? Should we find him charming? Or should we be furious at his violent tendencies toward Rick's group and other communities, sickened at how he views his cadre of "wives" and the family they've left behind? Negan is a complicated character, perhaps unnecessarily so. He's perhaps an over-hyped character as well, with a strong argument that season six's sole purpose was building up to a nightmare figure who inevitably couldn't live up to expectations. Negan is certainly someone who needs a full season under his belt before a final judgment call. For now, at the risk of invoking the wrath of a thousand barbed-wired baseball bats, Negan ranks just outside the middle of the Top 30 pack.
17. Simon (Steven Ogg)
He's the Negan of the Hilltop, the same man who tossed roadblock after roadblock at Rick and the crew, and the one who issued the prophetic warning: "What if it's the last day on Earth for you?" With only three episodes under his belt, Steven Ogg has already proven himself to be one of the most magnetic performers in Walking Dead history, bringing a manic energy and time bomb quality to Simon. Every single one of his scenes, especially his quietly dangerous showdown with Gregory (Xander Berkeley), has been a treat thus far, and with any luck, the future will contain just the right amount of Negan's top lieutenant moving forward. (The head canon that Simon is actually a Witness Protection version of Trevor from Grand Theft Auto V only helps this new villain's cause.)
16. Dale Horvath (Jeffrey DeMunn)
There is a universe in which Dale, the show's original elder statesman, survived all the way until season five. We do not live in that universe as the actor asked to exit the drama after longtime friend Frank Darabont, who cast him on the zombie series, was pushed out. But the short time we had with Dale was still sweet, what with his signature hat and his reliable RV always ready to roll in case of an emergency. For comic book fans, Dale's death was the show's first extraordinary departure from the source material, terminating someone who not only lasted much longer on the page, but was a decisive fan-favorite there as well. But in death, Dale provided a cruel warning to fans of all shapes and sizes: no matter what you've read before, you never know what's coming up next.
15. Andrea (Laurie Holden)
It's fitting that Andrea ranks alongside Dale, as she's yet another character who lives much longer in the comics than she does on the show. (Indeed, she's still alive in the comics, in a committed relationship with Rick.) She and Dale also had a passionate romance that didn't make it onto the show. Ask diehard comic book fans what bothers them most about the Walking Dead adaptation process, and the treatment of Andrea is bound to come up sooner or later. With that said, Laurie Holden's take on the character was captivating while it lasted, even if it was tragically shortened at the end of season three.
14. Merle Dixon (Michael Rooker)
His younger sibling rightfully gets most of the credit, but never forget that we once lived in a world with two Dixon brothers. In fact, for a period of time, Merle's fate was the show's biggest lingering question, ever since he disappeared without a trace (severed hand notwithstanding) back in season one. The erstwhile Guardians of the Galaxy star was one of the show's first antiheroes, typically leaning toward the "anti" side of the equation. Before his death, however, Merle was allowed one final episode of redemption, punctuated by an incredible sendoff at both the Governor (David Morrissey) and Daryl's hands.
13. Morgan Jones (Lennie James)
There are many Morgans. There's the man who showed Rick the ropes about how to survive in the new world order. There's the lunatic who lost his son and every last shred of humanity, dedicating himself to clearing any and all living beings in his path. There's the reformed killer who became a pacifist thanks to a cheesemonger and a goat. Now there's the person who has learned to kill again, willing to take a life to save a life. As one of the last remaining day one players still on the show, Morgan has been through a remarkable journey, even if some of his storylines have been more successful than others. For his old-school status and the incredible work on Lennie James' part alone, Morgan more than earns his keep.
12. Hershel Greene (Scott Wilson)
The mastermind of Spaghetti Tuesdays and the person who sheltered Rick's group on his family farm for far too long, Hershel inherited Dale's mantle as the group's resident veteran of life, not to mention their resident veterinarian. Hershel boasts one of the most memorable deaths of any character in the series, beheaded by the Governor, subsequently sending the group into several directions. Legacy aside, Hershel's greatest asset was always his gentle manner, and the way he grounded Rick and the others with a sound moral compass whenever they needed it most. Plus, he earns major points for lasting as long as he did with only one leg.
11. Sasha Williams (Sonequa Martin-Green)
Perhaps too high for some viewers' liking, but Sasha has always resonated with this writer as one of the fiercest warriors in Walking Dead lore. Like Maggie (Lauren Cohan), she has suffered through an enormous amount of loss: her boyfriend Bob, her brother Tyreese, and a kindred spirit in Abraham (Michael Cudlitz). She's a mirror image to Maggie in so many ways, a sister not by the blood they share but by the blood they've seen spilled. Sasha's protective instincts over Maggie speak to the character's ferocity, and the fact that she inherited Andrea's sharp-shooting skills from the comics only adds to the cool factor. (Also worth noting: Former showrunner Glen Mazzara created the role of Sasha specifically for Martin-Green after she auditioned to play Michonne.)
10. Maggie Rhee (Lauren Cohan)
She's the last surviving member of the Greene family, and it's easy to see why. From her very first appearance charging into the thick of battle on horseback, Maggie has long been one of the show's strongest characters. It's seen time and time again as Maggie loses more and more people she holds dear: the vast majority of her family on the farm, Hershel at the prison, Beth (Emily Kinney) at the hospital, Glenn (Steven Yeun) in the season premiere ...; and somehow, she holds it together, often stronger on the other side of adversity. Maggie is a serious contender for the show's most emotionally resilient character.
9. Abraham Ford (Michael Cudlitz)
Negan somewhat occupies the personality void left behind by Abraham's death, but really, this red-headed tank of a man can never be replaced. The spitting image of his comic book counterpart, Cudlitz played Abraham with palpable relish, savoring every single one of the mustached man's increasingly inventive one-liners. Although it was tough to see his iconic comic book death applied to a different character, Abraham's demise on the show still packed a hell of a wallop, one that the show is still reeling from half a season later.
8. The Governor (David Morrissey)
Comic book fans will always wonder how the Governor would have played out on screen if he more closely resembled the source material's version of the character. But what we got instead in David Morrissey's charming psychopath was still pretty fantastic. He dominated the screen for an entire season and change, leading the charge on what's easily the most climactic moment in the series to date: the midseason four finale's prison assault, an iconic moment that marked the end of one Walking Dead era and the beginning of another. Hate on the double-feature Governor flashback episodes all you want, but there's no denying Morrissey's contributions to the show while he was still in play.
7. Eugene Porter (Josh McDermitt)
Father Gabriel, take comfort: Eugene is living proof that an initially cowardly character can rise the ranks and find their special place in the heart of the fandom. Long before he officially became a "Stage Two Badass," Eugene was already well on his way toward the upper crust of the Walking Dead pantheon, thanks to his witty dialogue, his over-detailed rants, and his blunt demeanor in the face of danger. Sure, Eugene lied about knowing how to stop the apocalypse, but given enough time and the proper resources to manufacture some bullets, he can now unironically make the case that he's one of the show's most valuable assets.
6. Michonne (Danai Gurira)
Few characters on The Walking Dead are as instantly iconic as Michonne. As soon as Andrea encountered a hooded woman with a samurai sword at the end of season two, comic book enthusiasts became immediately amped up for the proper debut of this fan-favorite figure. But the Michonne of the show has been a surprise in several ways, some of them truly delightful. She's more emotionally open than she is in the comics, for one, so much so that she's become Rick's lover in addition to one of his most trusted allies. Michonne's softer sides don't come at the expense of her deadly methods, either: she's still as likely to slice someone's head off and ask questions never as she ever was.
5. Glenn Rhee (Steven Yeun)
If it's possible, try to move past "Dumpster Gate." Put that ill-conceived storyline in the trash and set it on fire. Do not let its putrid odor smog over everything else that was so great about Glenn, the former pizza delivery boy who became one of the group's bravest and most valuable contributors. There's no better marriage of actor and comic book character on Walking Dead than Steven Yeun and Glenn, one of the show's best and earliest examples of nailing the adaptation process. While the writers toyed too much with Glenn's fate in his final stretch on the show, nothing takes away from all the times Glenn had previously saved the day — whether it was dangling in front of the well walker, racing off to find Maggie while wearing a veritable suit of armor, or any of the other number of times Glenn put his life on the line for the sake of his people.
4. Shane Walsh (Jon Bernthal)
How does someone who only lasted two seasons rank this high? If you have to ask, you don't get Shane, perhaps the single most polarizing figure in Walking Dead lore. Some fans love him. Others hate him. Based on his placement on this list, you can guess where we fall in that spectrum. For a time, it was impossible to imagine Walking Dead without Jon Bernthal's brooding intensity, despite the fact that he actually lived much longer than his comic book counterpart. He almost single-handedly saved the show's slow-going second season, providing viewers with a front row view of a good and true friend rapidly losing his mind in the face of a crumbling world. Shane's death paved the way for Rick's new life as a take-no-prisoners badass; a worthy sacrifice to be sure, and one that capped off what's arguably the most complete and satisfying arc of any Walking Dead character before or since.
3. Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus)
It's a game of inches among the top three characters, all of whom have a strong case to make for why they're the best of the best. For our purposes, Daryl will have to settle for ranking at the top of the list when it comes to Walking Dead characters who have never appeared in the comics. Invented specifically for the show, Norman Reedus' bow-wielding badass has become the zombie drama's poster boy, standing front and center in all of the marketing. Indeed, his fans might be rioting as we speak, furious that he's not our definitive first place finisher. He would certainly earn that status, if not for the existence of two other heavyweights.
2. Carol Peletier (Melissa McBride)
Technically, Carol comes from the comics. But the show's version of the character boasts little in common with the original Carol, aside from the same name and the same daughter. Melissa McBride's constantly underestimated Carol started coming into her own right around Sophia's (Madison Lintz) death, progressively heating up until her riveting role in season four's "The Grove." Since then, she single-handedly wiped out a cannibal compound, systematically dismantled another renegade group of survivors, successfully infiltrated the Alexandrians as an unassuming housewife, and issued a cookie-crumbling threat that's still the source of so much nightmare fuel. No one has had a more impressive transformation than Carol, and if it were not for some missteps with the character in recent episodes, she might be at the very top of the list. As it stands, that honor goes to ...;
1. Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln)
It takes a few episodes for Rick to find his footing. Really, some would argue that it's not until Shane exits the scene that the show finally allows Rick to go "Full Grimes." He hasn't looked back since. From season three onward, it's been a nonstop thrill to watch Andrew Lincoln's incredibly impressive work shouldering the load as the Walking Dead lead. Whether it's a full-blown breakdown, a storm of quiet fury, or a violent assault against the threat of the day, Lincoln is constantly required to act on extreme mode; there are no other difficulty settings when it comes to this character. Rick is just as often frustrating as he is rewarding, but on performance alone, Lincoln more than earns the top spot ...; but, again, he's just keeping the throne warm until Judith steals the crown a couple of decades down the line.
Watch the video below for our Walking Dead Season 7B predictions:
How would you rank your top Walking Dead characters? Who are some of our most glaring omissions? Let us know in the comments, and head to THR.com/WalkingDead for our full coverage of the show.