I have to laugh at the idea that this show is willing to dispatch "its most beloved characters." I mean, really? If they kill off Beth, Hershel and Judith it'll be Amy Mk.2 (sweet character that was never given the chance to do much, worse in Beth's case), an infant that - while shocking to lose - hasn't had a chance to really become beloved, and Hershel who genuinely fits the bill.
Merle - not beloved
Lori - not beloved
Prison guys - who?
T-Dogg - who?
Shane - HA!
Dale - not beloved (missed potential; became Hershel)
Sophia - sweet, but didn't get to do much
Jacqui - who?
Amy - see above
Rampaging Fuckwad Wifebeater - HA!
I'd have to argue a couple of those:
Merle -- yeah, you had to hate him..but at the same time, was good for some laughs, and some needed tension amongst the group. As you've read -- people were actually sad at his death, and respected it.
Dale -- SOME people here did not like him...but i sure did, and was VERY sad when he died. He created some necessary character conflict without destroying the group or being stupid. He brought up legitimate alternative points of view, and was certainly right when it came to Shane. (He also saved Andrea's life..which again, would be debateable, depending on if you liked her character or not).
i'd also dispute the "anyone could die" theory. Until Rick dies, that isn't necessarily true. And Darryl would be the top person it owuld be very dangerous to kill off (as far as viewership; it'd have to be a big colloborative effort to make it worthwhile)