WARNING: It should go without saying, but not only are there a TON of spoilers about The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones in this post, but also some graphic video embeds. Very graphic and NSFW. You have been warned.
It is a world where the dead have returned to eliminate the living. A world where you have to remain on high alert and death can be waiting around any corner.
I’m talking, of course, about The Walking Dead. Or is it Game of Thrones? I always forget.
Obviously I’m kidding about actually getting the two shows confused. They’re very, very different. After all, as the great Ian McShane reminded us recently, one of them has t*** and dragons. But it is kind of amusing that two of the most popular, most impactful shows of the past several years (at least in a pop culture sense) are both essentially zombie dramas.
There are other areas where the two shows are similar as well. Both tend to be dark and brooding. Both kill off main characters willy-nilly. And both are often shockingly, cringe-inducingly brutal in their depiction of violence and death.
Naturally, I decided to write an article about that last similarity so that we can finally answer a vitally important question: which of these two shows features the most painful, most difficult-to-watch death scenes due to how grisly and gruesome they are.
Before we do, though, let’s get something clear. To me, there is a clear answer to the most gruesome, most painful death in either of these worlds. Problem is, it currently only exists in the comic book version of The Walking Dead.
It could have existed in the TV show as well (if they even decide to go that route), but the creators decided it was far more fun to completely f#$% with us in the season-ender this year by making the likely death of a main character the equivalent of “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” way back when on The Simpsons. And as much as I didn’t hate this decision the way many fans seemed to, I predict the reaction will be largely the same: “Oh, it was Maggie? Huh.”
(To be clear, I’m talking about the fact that – 20-year-old SPOILER! – Maggie Simpson shot Mr. Burns, not predicting that pregnant Maggie will be the one to die on The Walking Dead.)
But back to my point… the death of that character and the way it is shown to us in the comic book – that’s what I’m talking about when I look at these painful, gruesome deaths. Yes, gore is a big factor, but it’s just as important that you feel that character’s pain. This doesn’t mean these deaths have to involve a main character, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.
So here’s how this is going to work. First we’re going to examine some of the best (or worst, depending on your point of view) deaths from each show and assign (completely random) points, then we’ll tally up said points to declare the most arbitrary winner in the history of writing about pop culture. Because it’s fun!
Ready? Let’s do this!
The Walking Dead
“The world we know is gone. But keeping our humanity? That’s a choice.”
– Dale, The Walking Dead, shortly before being featured in one of our below clips.
Oh, They Really Did That
It’s kind of surprising that one of the most impactful deaths in the history of The Walking Dead occurs off-screen. I’m talking, of course, about those two girls no one really cared about, Lizzie and Mika. Until, that is, Lizzie proved how truly messed up she was by murdering her sister so that she would “come back” as a Walker.
Not gruesome because we don’t see anything, you say? Oh, but we do.
We see the bloody knife in Lizzie’s hand. We see her sister’s dead body lying behind her. We see the horrified expressions on Carol and Tyreese’s faces as they take in what has happened and process how to deal with it. In this case, it is the whole concept that is gruesome moreso than the actual death, and it is a doozy.
Dale’s Got Guts
Despite – or perhaps due to – its existence in the absolute worst season of this show, Dale’s death stands out as one of the most gruesome both because it hurts to see him die and because the death itself is bloody, gory, and disgusting.
Is it just me or have the zombies gotten easier to kill in recent seasons? Or are we supposed to think that Dale is just that weak?
The End of Hershel (Takes a Long Time)
Hershel’s death makes the list not because he’s a beloved character (though that doesn’t hurt), but because of the way it plays out. The Governor attempts to cut his head off, but at first only halfway succeeds.
Because of this, Hershel continues to slither and squirm while the fighting rages until the Governor again finds him and proceeds to finish what he started, hacking away at the dying man. But it doesn’t end there, as we later see Hershel’s disembodied head all zombified. Poor guy.
Glenn Can’t Hold on to Noah
This isn’t the first time on The Walking Dead that we’ve seen someone grabbed by a horde of zombies and feasted on by them, and it won’t be the last. But this one is particularly grisly because he begs Glenn not to let go of him right before being ripped away and turned into a meal, something we get to watch in detail as the Walkers slam him up against the glass.
But as bad as things are for Noah, Glenn has to watch his friend be ripped apart before his eyes… and then go back to working with the worthless douchebag that got Noah killed in the first place because he’s such a weasel.
You know – mostly – that the main characters aren’t going to die in this scene. It’s even set up so that a few “red shirts” can be offed to build up tension without having to sacrifice someone we care about.
But man oh man does this scene play like gangbusters. The most gruesome thing about it isn’t how the people have their heads bashed in and their throats cut to bleed them out into the basin. Oh, no. That honor belongs to the little details: the splashguard worn by the butcher, the way the leader talks business throughout.
If it wasn’t painfully clear before, we see here that they have done this many, many times before, and that it’s something they consider pretty mundane. It is their utter lack of humanity that makes it so gruesome.
Total score: 35 points
Game Of Thrones
“Ten is too young to see such things.”
– Catelyn Stark, Game of Thrones, long, long before being featured in another of our clips.
Viserys’ Golden Crown
This one is on here as much because of what we can imagine as because of what we see. After all, the clip just has him getting a thick liquid poured over him, screaming and shuddering, and then dying.
That clank as he hits the ground is a great touch though. It really cements the fact that we just watched someone have molten gold dumped onto his head. Is his skin boiling under there? His brains? Holy s#$%! In a show that frequently features limbs being chopped off and endless stabbings, I still find this to be one of the most gruesome deaths.
Ros Gets Cross-bowed
Unfortunately, embed is disabled on the actual YouTube clip of Ros’s death, but this at least gives you an idea of what’s coming. It leaves some points on the table because we don’t actually see it happen onscreen, but coming in on Joffrey just sitting in his chair with his crossbow and looking intently at something… then panning over to see that “something” is a bound Ros riddled with crossbow bolts…
It’s gruesome not because there’s a lot of gore, but because we saw her helplessness in the above scene as she was forced to beat her friend, and can imagine Joffrey killing her slowly, shooting a bolt, reloading, winding, shooting again – and the whole time she just has to hang there knowing what is coming and unable to do anything about it. Remind me again why no one killed the little pissant earlier?
The Red Viper’s Amazing Exploding Head
Has Oberyn Martell never watched a horror or action movie before? You don’t stand gloating over the “dead” guy because they always come back. And in this case you frigging well knew he wasn’t dead!
Perhaps the goriest scene in an often gory show, it’s not all the time that you get to see someone have his eyes shoved into his eye sockets as a precursor to the real gore. Ah, Game of Thrones, this is why we love you.
As gruesome as it is, though, the scene is mostly shock value because it’s so over the top. The following two deaths are far more difficult to watch because they carry emotional heft as well as blood and guts.
Cat Stark’s Resignation
On its own, a throat getting slashed is only maybe a 5 on the gruesome scale. But this gets bumped up for a number of reasons. First, because of how she just stands there, utterly lost and forlorn, barely able to even process that it is happening. And second, because it comes as the final beat in the grim operatic ballet that is The Red Wedding.
Everything we’ve seen in the last few minutes – Robb’s pregnant wife getting repeatedly stabbed in the belly, Robb becoming a pin cushion, Cat’s failed plea/threat to save Robb’s life, followed by her slashing the throat of Lord Walder’s wife – all of that is contained in her eyes as the life bleeds out of her.
The Failed Beheading of Ser Rodrik
Though this is a comedically exaggerated version of Theon’s apparent inability to cut off a head, it doesn’t actually feel that far off. I’d show the real thing, but embedding has been disabled on all of those YouTube clips. Lame.
If The Red Wedding is the high point of Game of Thrones’ horrific opera of violence, this is the grim, down and dirty counterpoint. Like everyone involved in the scene, you just want it to end – but it won’t.
Total: 36 points
It’s Game of Thrones by Tyrion’s Nose!
See what I did there? I little book humor for you readers out there.
Because Tyrion’s nose gets cut off in the books.
And jokes are funnier when you explain them.
Anyway, it probably isn’t surprising that Game of Thrones won this battle. Just from the standpoint of what each show is allowed to, you know, show, Game of Thrones has a huge advantage being on HBO. It’s actually impressive that The Walking Dead made it such a close contest.
But it also speaks to the power of story and emotional attachment and a willingness to let moments be real. That may be a strange thing to show about two fantasy shows, but both of them frequently attempt to ground their worlds in reality by letting moments play out in unexpected ways and allowing characters to mess up – often with horrible repercussions. The most gruesome thing about both of these shows typically isn’t the gore, but how flawed and how terrible people are.
Josh Weiss-Roessler worked in the entertainment industry in Los Angeles for almost a decade, and has written about it for even longer. His work has appeared on Tubefilter, PinkRaygun, Tor.com, and more. In his "real" job as co-owner of WR Writing, he helps all kinds of businesses create useful and relevant content that enables them to connect with people and just plain be more awesome.