When a show airs for longer than a decade, it stands to reason that some of its seasons wind up being better than others. It’s unusual for a programme to continuously improve on what came before (although it can be done, eh, Bates Motel fans?) instead of the quality fluctuating a little. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t excellent episodes hidden in less-than-perfect chapters.
As The Walking Dead gears up for its final season, this self-proclaimed superfan – who thinks that most seasons of the show are pretty darn great, actually – has taken a look back and celebrated the best of the bunch within each outing…
Season 1: Days Gone Bye
Frank Darabont’s influence across The Walking Dead’s first season – a intimate, tense slowburn which is undeniably different to the bigger, more action-packed show it’s gone on to become – is palpable, and no more so than in pilot episode ‘Days Gone Bye,’ which throws its audience in at the deep end and trusts they’ll be able to catch up.
It opens with Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) driving around Georgia in search of fuel for his car, and sees him kill an undead bunny slipper-wearing little girl, before flashing back to before the apocalypse when he was wounded attempting to apprehend a trio of gunmen with his partner and bestie Shane Walsh (Jon Bernthal). As he wakes up in hospital sometime later it becomes clear that he was unconscious during the outbreak, and has now been separated from his wife and son.
Discovering the desolation and horror through Rick’s eyes points to more character-driven zombie-filled fare and helps to skip past any disaster movie style scenes you’ve seen a million times over. It’s an effective way to get viewers to understand the stakes too, while setting him up on a mission to find his family makes you want to keep watching… You know, to see if he does manage to or not (the episode confirms they are alive, having been helped out of the chaos in King County by Shane). Also, Lennie James is in it! In short, it’s arguably one of the best first episodes of any show, ever.
Honourable mention: TS-19
Rick, Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies), Carl (Chandler Riggs), Shane and co travel to Atlanta’s U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) in search of answers and perhaps – more importantly -hope. There, they’re let in by a strange doctor who explains that he’s the only one left and no one – no scientist around the world – is working on a cure.
Noting that the power will soon run out, and the building self-destruct, the doctor suggests they all stay put and accept their fate: “It’s better this way,” he says. Some of them agree, but most of them scramble to escape, simultaneously cementing their status as ‘survivors’ and the drama’s unapologetic bleakness.
Season 2: Pretty Much Dead Already
Since it began airing in late 2011, season two has proved divisive among fans. Some claim it’s uneventful, suggesting it concentrates too much on group dynamics as fellow survivors Hershel (Scott Wilson), Maggie (Lauren Cohan) and Beth (Emily Kinney) welcome the original gang to their farm. It’s hard to imagine caring about the characters as much as we go on to do, though, without witnessing the bonds being forged between the group here – most notably, the romance between Maggie and Glenn (Steven Yeun) and the friendship of Carol (Melissa McBride) and Daryl (Norman Reedus).
The latter blossoms following the disappearance of Carol’s 12-year-old daughter Sophia, as Daryl takes it upon himself to try and find her. After days of searching the tragic storyline culminates in the terrible realisation that Sophia has actually been dead the whole time, bundled in with all the other walkers Hershel has collected and imprisoned in his barn.
After Shane breaks down the doors and he, Andrea (Laurie Holden), Glenn and Daryl dispatch each and every ghoul that shuffles out, the group stare wide-eyed as a half-rotten, snarling Sophia emerges. Carol runs towards her wailing, but Daryl stops her in her tracks and the pair fall to the floor. Rick then steps forward and shoots Sophia in the head.
The performances all round are superb: it’s gut-wrenching and one of the most distressing death scenes of the show’s entire run. It may not have been the first death within the group (RIP Andrea’s sister Amy) but it was the one that proved no one – not even a child – is safe.
Honourable mention: Better Angels
Rick’s relationship with Shane is a huge part of The Walking Dead’s first two seasons, as they go from being close friends pre-apocalypse to love rivals vying for Lori’s affections, to hero and villain in some respects. The tensions between them, and Shane’s hot-headed approach to keeping the gang safe, boil over in season two’s penultimate episode when Shane goes against everyone’s wishes and kills an untrustworthy, injured stranger and attacks Rick.
Besting him in the brawl, Rick stabs Shane to death before Carl puts a bullet between the eyes of his reanimated corpse. It’s a fabulous instalment that sees Rick’s morals start to cloud, causing the audience to question what the terms ‘good guy’ and ‘bad guy’ really mean.
Season 3: Killer Within
Those who have watched more than a handful of The Walking Dead episodes know that when things look like they’re going not-so-badly for the gang, it usually means something horrendous is right around the corner: ‘Killer Within’ is the perfect example of that pattern.
It comes after Rick, Hershel, Maggie and co stumble across a prison and clear it of walkers so they can set up some sort of – albeit a bit bleak – home. But things take a dramatic turn when one of the inmates, whom they believed they’d dispatched, sets off the alarms and several biters came a-knocking. In the ruckus T-Dog (IronE Singleton) sacrifices himself to save Carol and, elsewhere, a heavily pregnant Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) goes into labour whilst locked in a boiler room with Maggie and son Carl.
The trio soon realise that Maggie is going to have to deliver the baby via Caesarean section, which will kill Lori, and shortly after the littlun arrives Carl has to shoot his mother to stop her from turning.
It’s a real crisis point for all of the characters on the show, as their hope regarding new life is shattered by the loss of someone dear to them. Most notably, of course, it shakes Rick and Carl – the latter especially, leading to him losing his grip on his own morals across subsequent seasons.
Honourable mention: Welcome to the Tombs
Season three’s finale sees the bloody conclusion of Andrea’s efforts to thwart The Governor (David Morrissey) and his plans to attack the prison. Whilst her warning to Rick enabled them to prepare for a fight and defend their territory it also led to her death, as The Governor captured her and locked her in a room with an undead Milton. Rick, Michonne (Danai Gurira) and the group attempt to save her but arrive too late and – refusing to succumb to a bite – Andrea takes her own life.
In any other show, finales tend to have the good guys best the big bad and win – but not The Walking Dead…
Season 4: Too Far Gone
Hershel’s death at the hands of The Governor is a sequence not easily forgotten, and marks the first time in the show where a human inflicts violence on another in such a brutal, scarily random way. Sure, Rick killed Shane, but he felt he had to keep everyone else safe; and The Governor orchestrated Andrea’s demise, but that was because he believed her to be a traitor and a threat to his beloved Woodbury.
While murder is murder, those acts are kind of justifiable when looked at through the characters’ eyes. Here though The Governor decapitates Hershel in a blind rage, angered by Rick’s insistence that redemption is something that can be achieved by anyone, no matter what you’ve done in the past.
“Liar,” he whispers under his breath as he pulls back Michonne’s katana and swings it into Hershel’s neck. Carl and Daryl stare wide-eyed from the safety of the gate, as Beth and Maggie cry out in despair.
What follows is a gripping siege between The Governor and his mob vs the prison peeps, ultimately proving the resilience of the latter. Forced to split up and leave their former safehouse also sets up a very different season five too.
Michonne gets revenge later as well, when she plunges her sword into the eyepatch-wearing villain’s chest, but it’s all still so tough to watch.
Honourable mention: The Grove
‘Look at the flowers’ has gone down in history as one of The Walking Dead’s most memorable lines, and it’s not hard to understand why. Spoken by Carol in ‘The Grove’, it marks the moment she executes a physically healthy young girl named Lizzie, who appeared to have a worryingly casual attitude towards walkers.
Having been separated from the group, Carol and Tyreese (Chad Coleman) had been looking after Lizzie, her younger sister Mika and infant Judith. But when Lizzie fatally stabs Mika – desperate to see her turn – and threatens to do the same to the baby, the pair realise she’s too dangerous to be around others. After shooting Lizzie in the head, Carol confesses to killing Tyreese’s sick girlfriend Karen back at the prison, believing she was doing right by trying to contain the illness, and admits that the outbreak has hardened her in ways she could’ve never imagined. It’s a real tearjerker, and so beautifully acted by McBride and Coleman.
Season 5: Coda
Beth’s death is one of the most upsetting on the show for two reasons; one, she got cut down just as she was beginning to step out from her father and sister’s shadow and two, it was an accident – something that rarely happens on a show where everyone is out to get everyone else.
The episode sees Rick manage to negotiate with Dawn Lerner, the former police officer forcing Beth and Carol to work in her Atlanta hospital, by suggesting she trade the pair for two of her colleagues. But just as things look to be resolved, Beth goes to attack Lerner to avenge Noah, and Lerner’s gun goes off, firing a rogue bullet through Beth’s head.
Shocked, Daryl shoots Lerner – one of the few non-zombified humans he actually kills! – but it’s the moment he walks out of the medical facility, with Beth in his arms, that is seared into our brains. Maggie’s face perks up slightly when she first spots her sister, but as the group gets closer and she realises her body is limp, she falls to the ground in sorrow. Having not long lost her father, it’s a terrible loss for one of The Walking Dead’s best characters, made all the more tragic by the fact that it didn’t have to go down that way.
Honourable mention: Them
‘Them’ sees the group, shaken by the deaths of Beth and Tyreese, embark on a trying trek to Washington DC in search of shelter and supplies. Having just sat through a string of episodes where they are all separate, it’s wonderful to see the core characters back together again, even though it’s under dire circumstances – heck, they even trap, kill and eat some dogs at one point. Needs must!
Episodes like this underscore just how much these people mean to one another now, and how much of a family they’ve become. As great as the BIG instalments are, these quieter ones are just as important… and sometimes, even more special (plus, Rick’s beard has never looked more impressive than it does here, and for that alone, ‘Them’ deserves recognition).
Season 6: The Same Boat
Whilst The Walking Dead can do a big battle-heavy episode better than most, some of its best are the ones that deviate slightly from the overarching plot and concentrate on just a few of them at a time. ‘The Same Boat’, season six’s highlight, is one such example.
It mostly follows Carol and Maggie after they get kidnapped by a handful of the Saviors. McBride goes toe-to-toe with guest star Alicia Witt, who is always great in everything she pops up in, as Carol pretends to be a meek religious type in order to fool, and subsequently one up, their captors.
It doesn’t do much in the way of progressing the main story, aside from exploring Carol’s conflicting need to do certain things she believes to be righteous in the moment, only to reflect on it later and hate herself. But it’s a gritty, claustrophobic bottle episode that allows its actors to really prove their chops.
Honourable mention: Last Day on Earth
Negan’s presence within the show hung over our heroes like a dark cloud long before Jeffrey Dean Morgan portrayed him onscreen, and his much-anticipated introduction does not disappoint.
At the time, many people were irritated by the fact that this episode left the identity of Negan’s victim – something that had been teased for months – a secret, but if we had seen them his arrival would have been eclipsed by viewers’ mourning. Instead it put audiences on equal footing with the characters: we can’t escape this new baddie’s control, just like Rick and the rest of the gang.
For the majority of ‘Last Day on Earth’, Negan teases and torments the group, enjoying himself while doing so. It made complete sense that the narrative made us feel like we were being beaten and teased, too.
Season 7: The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be
There’s no denying that ‘The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be’ is the most controversial episode The Walking Dead has ever aired. Despite all of the build-up leading to Negan’s introduction, and the fact that one of the deaths played out similarly in the comics, no one could have prepared themselves fully to see Glenn and Abraham’s heads bashed in by the leather jacket-sporting sasspot.
A lot of longtime fans actually dropped off shortly after, unable to see past the gratuitous violence and their own shock – heck, this writer did for a while. There is some wonderful stuff in the episode however, particularly Morgan, Lincoln, Cohan and Sonequa Martin-Green’s performances.
Up until now Rick had been fairly confident about his abilities as a leader, and perhaps more accurately a protector, to those closest to him, but this episode changed the game forever. “You meet a man who’s powerless, terrified for his own life and his son’s family’s life, and everybody else beside him,” Lincoln explained to Entertainment Weekly at the time. “And he realizes that there’s a new world, a much bigger, scarier, and formidable world.”
There had been significant deaths before, sure, but this was when viewers realised that nothing was off the table and that our “heroes” weren’t always going to win. Sometimes, they lose and the depths of their despair are deeper than you ever imagined.
Honourable mention: Say Yes
While most of the episodes listed here are memorable because of their more dramatic moments, ‘Say Yes’ stands out due to its sweet scenes with Rick and Michonne as the pair leave Alexandria to go on a supply scavenge. Sure, it has a fakeout moment where Michonne thinks Rick has been eaten by walkers. But their joy at finding the abandoned carnival and their giddy giggles whilst enjoying a much-needed meal on the floor of a high school gymnasium? Worth it.
Season 8: Wrath
While season 8 is widely considered one of the show’s weakest chapters, finale ‘Wrath’ stands out because of how unpredictable it is. After two whole seasons of communities being introduced, and Rick’s group aligning themselves with them to take down Negan and his allies, the fight comes to a surprising head when Rick slashes Negan’s throat, only to have Siddiq (Avi Nash) immediately tend to his wounds – much to Maggie’s dismay.
Rick chooses to spare him while remembering Carl’s hopes for a better world; one where there is peace and one, perhaps most importantly, that allows for mercy, hope and change. Of course, his decision doesn’t sit well with all, and it creates cracks within the OG gang which are fascinating to watch unfold in season 9. It also encourages the audience to think about what they would do if they’d been in Rick’s shoes, and the fact that it’s so hard to know definitively showcases what truthful storytelling this is.
As the series has gone on, some of the characters have been known to become a little one note or more action hero-like in nature, so it’s always a welcome treat to see that sense of humanity and nuance that TWD thrived on in the beginning make a comeback.
Honourable mention: Honor
Whilst the ending of the season was unexpected, ‘Honor’ – aka The One Where Carl Dies – foreshadows it somewhat, opening with a flashforward to a bloodied Rick whispering to himself “My mercy… prevails… over my wrath.”
It sandwiches the horror of losing Carl in between dream sequences that see a white-haired Rick raising Judith with Michonne, in an idyllic and thriving Alexandria: a promise of what’s to come? Or a painful tease of what might never be, similar to that dinner party dream sequence following Glenn and Abraham’s deaths?
Season 9: What Comes After
In TWD’s early seasons it seemed impossible to imagine it without Rick Grimes. So when Andrew Lincoln announced he was leaving the show back in 2018 fans struggled to comprehend what his exit might look like – and worried whether it’d be any good. Turns out they needn’t have, as his final episode is not only season nine’s best but one of the show’s greatest overall.
Having been impaled on a metal rod at the end of the previous episode, ‘What Comes After’ sees an increasingly woozy Rick battle delirium as he tries to stop a horde of walkers from reaching Alexandria and the other communities. In a series of hallucinations he imagines being on patrol with Shane, who praises him for murdering Joe and Gareth, and questions why he spared Negan; conversing with Hershel and Sasha; being back at the hospital and kissing Michonne.
Realising that the only way to keep everyone safe is to detonate the dynamite on the bridge he’s on, Rick spots Michonne, Daryl, Carol and Maggie down below and – whispering to himself that he’d “found” his family – fires at the explosives, proving himself the ultimate hero after all. The gang cry out, assuming he’s been killed in the blast, but unbeknownst to them a helicopter picks him up along with Anne, formerly known as Jadis (Pollyanna McIntosh), and whisks them away to an undisclosed location.
As if all that isn’t exciting and emotional enough, the episode concludes with a six-year time jump that introduces instantly likeable newbies Yumiko (Eleanor Matsuura), Magna (Nadia Hilker), Connie (Lauren Ridloff), Kelly (Angel Theory) and Luke (Dan Fogler), as well as a grown-up Judith Grimes (Cailey Fleming). Fast-forwards such as this can be jarring, but this one feels super smooth, using shots of the land to create the illusion of time passing and seeming so natural as the show closes Rick’s chapter for good.
Honourable mention: The Calm Before
‘The Calm Before’ is a tough episode, and that’s saying something: an exquisite exercise in quiet dread, which harks back to the Darabont days, it sees Samantha Morton’s menacing villain Alpha infiltrate the Kingdom’s trade fair.
There, she and her Whisperers kidnap several survivors – including Enid (Katelyn Nacon), Tara (Alanna Masterson) and Carol’s adopted son Henry (Matt Lintz) – before slaughtering everyone but Siddiq, leaving their still-moving heads on pikes to mark their territory’s border. Alpha left Siddiq alive to relay the horror of what went down to the group, but instead he tells the story of their bravery and how they fought to protect one another in their final moments. Powerful, harrowing stuff.
Season 10: Here’s Negan
Due to the global pandemic, showrunner Angela Kang decided to postpone production on season 11 and produce six “bridge” episodes instead, which could be filmed with much smaller casts and crews. One of those instalments was ‘Here’s Negan’, a flashback-heavy outing that details the demise of the former bat-swinging baddie’s wife Lucille.
First it goes back 12 years, to a time when Negan was scouring the area for chemotherapy drugs to help Lucille (Morgan’s real-life wife Hilarie Burton). Then it goes back even further, as she’s informed about her cancer diagnosis – alone, due to the fact that Negan’s busy hooking up with her best friend.
The most accomplished aspect of this heart-breaking episode is that it humanises Negan, a character whose redemption arc hasn’t always seemed justified, without making him out to be a great guy. Negan loved Lucille, as she did him, but their past proves he let her down a lot. Burton is good but Morgan is brilliant, channelling a man who wants to do well but often finds himself putting his own needs first, suggesting his performative personality and present-day hang ups over Lucille’s death are just a manifestation of his own guilt.
Honourable mention: Squeeze
‘Squeeze’ sees a bunch of our faves try to escape an enormous cave filled with walkers, after Alpha led them to it and trapped them inside. It’s a claustrophobic thrillride that ends up fracturing the group, as a frightened Carol detonates some of the dynamite they stumble across prematurely and the collapse leaves Magna and Connie no time to get out.
Daryl, who had been growing close to Connie, dismisses Carol’s tearful apologies outside as Connie’s sister Kelly breaks down. It’s the beginning of a big storyline for Carol – who has struggled to come to terms with Henry’s death at the hands of Alpha – and deftly explores the cost of vengeance.