This Walking Dead article contains major spoilers.
The Walking Dead is one of the most successful shows of all time for one reason: zombies. It's also a sometimes decent, sometimes great show because it knows exactly how to use said creatures. In any good zombie franchise, the zombies don’t act as villains. They’re a force of nature—just lumbering, amoral scenery. Trying to build a story where zombies are the bad guys would be like trying to make a six-season television show where the only antagonist was an avalanche or a mudslide week after week. Both of these threats allow for some great life-or-death circumstances, but you can’t rely on them to be the antagonists that carry along the story week after week.
Give or take a Moby Dick, humans usually make for the best villains because they can match wits with their hero counterparts. And at the very least, the viewer will be able to relate to their humanity. Or lack thereof. The Walking Dead, for all its faults (and sometimes they are many), understands that the best thing for its story is a solid revolving door of antagonists to define its merry group of protagonists.
Granted, it did take awhile to get to the human villains. It wasn’t until halfway through the second season that The Walking Dead even introduced any human threats to contend with, and even then, Rick Grimes made short work of Michael Raymond-James and his band of Nebraska-seeking douchebags. Still, the effect was immediately electrifying. Once other antagonistic human beings were introduced into the sea of shambling corpses, it was clear that The Walking Dead could never go back: it must always have some sort of human group oppose the Rick Grimes clan to produce interesting entertainment. Since the beginning of season three, with the introduction of the Governor, it largely has.
What’s particularly interesting is that these rotating groups of antagonists tend to come in bunches, and are never just one man or woman. The Governor was Rick Grimes' first true antagonistic foil after Shane, but he would not have been a legitimate threat without the town of Woodbury behind him. In the post-apocalyptic world, no one can make it on their own. Everyone needs a community. And as those communities spring up, they all tend to have different values, mores, and rules. The Rick Grimes group generally seems to operate under the rule of “Just Survive Somehow” and amass all of the strongest friends who also seem to have at least a slight vested interest in returning the world to the normal state of law and order.
Other groups…not so much.
Through six seasons, Rick’s crew has grappled with at least five other distinct groups by our count. They are: The Governor and Woodbury, Joe and the Claimers, Terminus, Grady Memorial Hospital, and the Wolves. Each has had their own philosophy that set itself apart from Rick’s group, and ultimately made it a collective antagonist.
Each group also has an intriguing real world analogue, whether it be a similar group from history or at least inspired by a real philosophical school of thinking. Let’s take the time to give each group its due by examining which real world events, people, and ideas they most closely resemble.Here are the antagonists in chronological order.
Philip Blake, aka The Governor, possesses an inherent skill that makes him a truly formidable adversary. He can create families out of thin air. Something about the Governor’s charisma, speech pattern, je ne se quois, whatever, gets people to not only follow him but trust him. With some walls and kind words, he created a completely functioning society shockingly early on in the zombie apocalypse.
Then later on, after he loses that society, The Walking Dead lets him start from scratch so we can see just how adept he is at getting people on his side. He influences the Chambers family into becoming his own, and then quickly gathers a new army to make a move on the prison yet again. The Governor, with all his skill in winning friends and influencing people, is not unlike a cult leader, and Woodbury is like his Jonestown.
Woodbury, with its white-picket fences and smiling neighbors, might not seem like a cult. But following a charismatic person who only goes by the honorific “The Governor” is a pretty tell-tale sign, as is the predilection to watch live prisoners duke it out in a pit of zombies as punishment. That doesn’t exactly follow the rule of law that most societies ascribe to.
Realistically, a world in which the dead literally roam the Earth is bound to be just lousy with cults. So it’s no surprise that the first antagonist group presented in The Walking Dead resembles one. The real world doesn’t have rotting corpses wandering around but can still be a confusing enough place that people are all too happy to pledge their lives to whoever can promise them salvation.
Jim Jones’ cult was officially titled the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project and began in Indianapolis before moving onto Los Angeles and San Francisco, eventually creating the unofficially titled “Jonestown” settlement in Guyana. 909 cult-members committed suicide with cyanide-laced Kool-Aid, at the instruction of Jones, after the cult murdered five people, including a U.S. Congressman who had come to investigate the cult.
Come to think of it, the Governor couldn’t even get his hand-selected soldiers to continue an attack on the Prison. As such, real life remains far more hardcore than fiction.
Daryl is the first to encounter “The Claimers” after the destruction of the prison in season four. They are essentially a loose band of brigands, led by their imposing leader in a motorcycle jacket, Joe. Their philosophy seems to be “travel around and take and do whatever you want.” Their only rule is that as long as you “claim” a found item, it belongs to you.
There’s a phrase from the Quran, of all places, that’s a pretty succinct distillation of everything that Joe and his group of “Claimers” represent: “highwaymen who menace the road.” Apparently, amorphous groups of bandits wandering around trade routes and looking to take stuff by force were historically a big enough problem to be addressed in religious texts. For what it’s worth, Allah says the punishment for this is "execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hand and feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land that is chief disgrace in this world, and heavy punishment is theirs in the hereafter."
Since the zombie apocalypse is kind of a hard reboot of world history, technically The Walking Dead exists in a kind of new biblical time. And wouldn’t you know it, highwaymen who menace the road are indeed a problem again. There isn’t any significant historical group or philosophical idea behind the Claimers aside from the oldest human one: just do what you want until someone forces you otherwise. They’re basically pre-history scavengers with an added wrinkle of having one rule: something must be claimed. In that way, they also resemble some parts of the Pirate Code. Pirate Codes were adopted by a group of sailors who had gone pirate and could govern all sorts of behavior. Chief among them, however, was usually rules for the division of goods after a theft.
Ok, the Terminans are really all over the place. Gareth and his cannibal friends did not last long on the show, but with the depth of their villainy in terms of cultural influences, they may represent the most interesting group of antagonists to ever appear on The Walking Dead.
These cannibals occupy an abandoned train station that they’ve dubbed “Terminus.” The etymological implications of that phrase alone are incredibly interesting. A “terminus” can be a railway or bus station that represents the end of that particular route. So Terminus literally means “end of the line” for any of the poor souls who make it there. Terminus was also the original name of the city of Atlanta, which comes from the Roman God of boundaries, Terminus.
This is one of those rare instances, where the name of something in the show is far cooler than it’s inspiration from the comics. The Terminans closest analogue in the comics are the Hunters, a group of cannibals who befriend and then eat humans because they are ironically terrible at hunting animals.
So let’s get the cannibal portion out of the way now. Yes, cannibalism is a thing that occurs in the real world with alarming frequency. Alarmingly frequent in the sense that it ever occurs at all. The reasons that humans commit cannibalism are myriad, ranging from needing to eat humans to survive in an extreme situation, like the Donner Party, to eating people because you're mentally ill. For our purposes, we’re looking for a group who commits cultural cannibalism, and while they exist, it’s usually in primitive society’s that do so for superstitious purposes. That’s not necessarily an ideal fit for Terminus. If anything, Terminus veers more towards the “cannibalism to survive” spectrum, but they have some added factors that make them even more unique.
One is their location itself. They’ve turned their abandoned train station into a kind of murder-maze to more easily trap and kill their human prey. And as weird as it may sound, “murder mazes” are not unprecedented in the real world. One of America’s first serial killers, H.H. Holmes, created a “Murder Castle” in an apartment in downtown Chicago with many different windowless rooms dedicated solely to killing human beings.
Then there is also the fact that the Terminans actually began as victims. Their message of “Sanctuary for all” was originally legitimate before violent men took them up on their offer, and then began raping and murdering them for their troubles. At some point, they were able to take back control of Terminus and either imprison or kill all of their captors. Terminus was revived under a new philosophy: “You’re the butcher or you’re the cattle.” In that way, they’re like many prolific serial killers throughout the years. Especially say someone like Aileen Wuornos, who was abused by the men in her life for many years before snapping and killing seven of them.
Terminus is equal parts cannibalism for survival, H.H. Holmes, and Aileen Wuornos. That’s how you create a fascinating group of antagonists.
There’s a phrase from another great science fiction TV show that applies well to the events at Grady Memorial Hospital in downtown Atlanta. (Which is actually a real hospital in Atlanta. Surprisingly few of the Google reviews mention being attacked by the walking dead.) Commander William Adama in Battlestar Galactica once said, “There’s a reason you separate military and the police. One fights the enemies of the state, the other serves and protects the people. When the military becomes both, then the enemies of the state tend to become the people.”
Well, at Grady Memorial Hospital, the police are the military…and they’re the guards, the senators, the judges, the presidents, the insurance adjustors, the everything. Grady Memorial Hospital is able to maintain some semblance of order in downtown Atlanta, even as everything around them has gone to hell. They actually have working electricity, some doctors, and some medical supplies. Unfortunately, all patients and guests must submit completely to the police in charge to “pay off their debts.”
Grady Memorial Hospital could represent one of two things, depending on how frisky and political The Walking Dead wants to get. On one hand, it might be commenting on the “prison-industrial complex” in the United States, where privatizing the prison system means that prisoners = profit. Therefore, more prisoners = more profit. The folks at Grady Memorial Hospital realize that “rescuing” people around the hospital means an inexhaustible supply of free labor.
On the other hand, Grady Memorial Hospital is just a textbook example of a society under martial law. Martial law is, of course, when the military (or whoever has guns and badges), takes over as head of government, replacing all previous executive, legislative, and judicial branches of power. Normally, this is done by force, but in the case of Grady Memorial Hospital, the force is the zombie apocalypse that effectively ended the civilized world. And in this new early society, drafting a constitution and stuff must have seemed like a real pain. So they just deferred to whoever had the guns.
Military juntas leading coup d’etats happen in the real world all the time. Right now, Thailand, a country you could conceivably want to vacation in, is actually being ruled by a military junta. Granted, it’s been a lot less violent and terrifying than Grady Memorial, but it’s still definitely a thing that’s actually happening.
Grady Memorial Hospital is an excellent example of how The Walking Dead relies on its antagonists to define its protagonists. For all their faults, Rick Grimes and his group at the very least hold a vain hope that they can establish a functioning society with rule of law one day. That sets them in sharp contrast against groups like Grady Memorial.
The Wolves seem like they would be the easiest of the Walking Dead antagonist groups to characterize. All you need to know about them is right there in their name. They’re wolves, they’re bestial, non-rational, move around in a pack, and are just generally hungry for destruction. But for a group of supposedly anarchic, bestial killing-machines, fuck are they chatty.
When Morgan captures the lead wolf and attempts to convert him to a more peaceful society, the Wolf is all too happy to chat with him about the pointlessness of the attempt. The new way of the world has made him wild and uncontrollable. This wildness, combined with a self-consciousness about his own wildness, doesn’t really have a comparison to any group throughout history. Instead, it’s more philosophical.
The Wolves appear to be through and through nihilists. The term “nihilism” is staggeringly huge. Its most basic definition is that life has no meaning. But that’s such a big concept that it can and has been broken down into tons of different kinds of nihilism, from metaphysical to existential to political to really everything.
Still, the Wolves stay pretty active for a group that believes in nothing. Walking Dead director Greg Nicotero said in an interview that one of the group’s goals was to build up a zombie army. If nothing matters, what’s the point of that? On another occasion, one Wolf says they don’t want survivors living in safe societies like Alexandria as it’s an absurd thing to do during the apocalypse.
If that’s the case, the Wolves closet cousins may actually be another fictional group: the Guilty Remnant from HBO’s The Leftovers. The Guilty Remnant is a religious cult that has taken a vow of silence, wears all white, and chain smokes cigarettes all day. The purpose of this is to be a living reminder to all the citizens of the world that there was an apocalyptic event that they cannot ignore. In that example, the Guilty Remnant are actually not nihilists. They believe there is a purpose to life and that purpose is to remind people that God wanted the world to end.
Maybe the Wolves aren’t nihilists either, after all. Maybe they’re the post-zombie apocalypse version of the Westboro Baptist Church. They carve "W"s into their head and attack safe communities to remind them that God hates them and the evidence couldn’t possibly be more abundant.
AGAIN, MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD.
All of the various groups introduced thus far have their own way of doing things and their own ways of antagonizing Grimes group. Soon, however, we’ll get to see a group with the most devastating historical comparison yet: the atomic bomb.
Like most former students who didn't pay attention in World History, I now know most of what I know about history from Dan Carlin's epic history podcast, Hardcore History. And in one particular episode, he says the violence, devastation, and proficiency of one specific civilatization can only be compared to that of the atomic bomb in the modern world. That civilization is the Mongol Empire. Negan and his group of so-called Saviors are Walking Dead's version the Genghis Khan and the Mongols.
The Mongol Empire was a powerful society that originated in Mongolia in the early 1200s. Under the leadership of the brilliant and ruthless Genghis Khan, they eventually conquered almost all of Asia and about half of Europe. Cities and societies that encountered the roaming hordes and armies of Mongolia had one choice: submit or die. Most ended up going with the latter.
The Saviors can't come nearly as close to the Mongols is size, scale, or effectiveness; and Negan, for all of his villain bonafides, is still no Genghis Khan. But in the smaller scale of post-zombie apocalyptic wasteland around the District of Columbia and Virginia, the Saviors may as well be a Mongol Empire. The Saviors and Negan represent a terrifying threat because they're just so good...at nearly everything.
Sometimes, a great villain has flaws to make them seem more relatable and human. But sometimes a great villain doesn't need any flaws at all, because the enormity of how proficient, skilled, and smart they are make them larger than life and terrifying. Negan and the Saviors belong in the latter category, much like Genghis Khan and the Mongols once did. Negan is smart enough to understand that violence equals power in this new world. He's also strong and athletic enough to be beyond effective in executing violence. It's like putting Stephen Hawking's brain in the Mountain's body. It's a terrifying combination that only knows how to do one thing: grow, expand, kill, conquer.
The shock of the world ending has begun to pass on The Walking Dead, and now the groups are beginning to catch up to where we are in the real world. It’s a testament to our strange collective human history that the world of The Walking Dead seems just as volatile and violent. And we didn't even need a zombie apocalypse to get that way.