After 11 seasons, 176 episodes, countless spin-offs and more character deaths then we’d dare to count, The Walking Dead finally comes to a close this Sunday (or Monday if you’re watching on Disney+ in the UK). Ever since the show first debuted on Halloween Night back in 2010, TWD has become a mainstay of modern popular culture, spawning legions of new fans and traumatising viewers regularly with its hefty mix of zombie action, gory splatter and terrifying survival horror. Over the course of the last decade, we’ve seen characters come and go in spectacular fashion, we’ve seen all-out war rage between multiple factions of survivors, we’ve seen hoards and hoards of zombies descend upon our heroes on countless occasions, and perhaps most importantly, we’ve seen some of the most ambitious television drama of all-time play out across our screens.
As Robert Kirkman‘s zombie drama prepares to return to the grave from whence it once rose, we’ve taken a look back at the last twelve years and picked out what are arguably the show’s all time greatest episodes. What follows is our choice for the show’s all time greats – all well worth a revisit as we prepare to sit down and say goodbye to The Walking Dead once and for all.
WARNING: Spoilers Ahead!
10. Warning Signs (9×03)
There’s a lot of great stuff in Season 9 of The Walking Dead. Between the dramatic departure of Rick and the introduction of the terrifying Whisperers, the show’s ninth year felt like a creative shot in the arm, one that re-energised the characters and offered up storylines that felt fresh and exciting. Warning Signs may not be the most memorable of episodes in a season chock full of big, game-changing moments, but it stands out as the best through it’s gradual build towards a shocking twist that forces the audience to question two of the show’s most popular characters and their subsequent controversial decisions (in this instance, Daryl and Maggie’s discovery that former rehabilitated members of Negan’s gang are being mysteriously executed and their decision to let it continue).
It’s a welcome return to the kind of storytelling that the show had largely forgotten about over the years – putting characters we know and love into difficult, morally questionable situations and watching them make justifiable but conflicting decisions that will have grave consequences in the future. Warning Signs signals a return to the show’s heyday, and the events that followed certainly delivered on what this episode promised.
9. Killer Within (3×04)
It would be too easy to just fill this list with episodes that feature a prominent character’s death. And to an extent, those episodes do feature prominently in the list of fan favourite episodes. The Walking Dead‘s bread and butter is those exact moments – the idea that no character is truly safe and that anyone could kick the bucket in this cruel new world provides 99.9% of the show’s drama. When done right, it truly is unmissable, effective television.
Killer Within is notable in this respect for the double-whammy deaths of both T-Dog (IronE Singleton) and Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) – not just because they died so horribly in close proximity to one another, but also in how the deaths came seemingly out of nowhere. Killer Within initially feels like typical, talky mid-season filler as Rick and co. deliberate over whether to allow prisoners Oscar and Axel to join their group – so far, so business as usual. So when the shocking carnage suddenly comes, the resulting casualties hit harder than ever. T-Dog’s death is both horribly sudden and heroically tragic, which in turn mirrors Lori’s stunning sacrifice as she dies giving birth to daughter Judith amidst the turmoil and terror of the Walker infestation. Both Singleton and Callies are on fine form, as is Chandler Riggs as young Carl, who is ultimately forced to execute his own mother in order to stop her from turning into one of the undead.
Killer Within is relentless but unmissable drama. The closing moments of the episode may have been subsequently memed to the point of ruin, but watched in context, it’s a perfect coda to what is one of the show’s rawest, most soul-destroying entries.
8. Here’s Negan (10×22)
Negan Smith is a monster. Introduced in memorable fashion at the end of the show’s sixth season, the wise-cracking killer with the baseball bat was instantly elevated to legendary status among the pantheon of TWD big bads with just a few swings of ‘Lucille’. Over the years since that impressive and controversial introduction though, the character has slowly morphed from psychotic killer into something a lot more recognisable and human. The monster isn’t gone completely, but the humanity within has begun to claw towards the surface.
Here’s Negan offers some tantalising insight into how this monster came to be. Blessed with a powerhouse performance from Jeffrey Dean Morgan and culminating in a final shot that sends tingles down the spine, it’s a largely flashback-driven tale that attempts to peel back some of Negan’s layers. In doing so, writer David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick poses some tough questions to the viewers. Can a man so monstrous truly be capable of redemption? Is he worthy of any sympathy, despite his horrific crimes? This episode doesn’t begin to definitively answer the first question, but it certainly offers up some worthy arguments for the second. Overall, it’s a memorable episode for its tantalising glimpse into the psyche of arguably the show’s most memorable character.
7. No Way Out (6×09)
A regular criticism of the show’s later seasons is ‘plot armour’. By a certain point in the show’s run, it was clear that certain characters were safer than others, and that essentially the death of a character was largely decided by an online popularity contest. In essence, No Way Out should be a prime example of this – the entire town of Alexandria is overrun with Walkers, the group are scattered and trapped, and there’s seemingly no way out (hence the title). Yet by the end of the episode, pretty much all of our main cast (barring guest stars Jessie, Ron and Sam, whose days were numbered anyway) live to fight another day, having overcome impossible odds and taken out an entire hoard of Walkers together. Carl even survives a bullet to the eye, for Pete’s sake!
Ridiculous and implausible as it seems, No Way Out works for a number of reasons (the eventual solution had been seeded in previous episodes), but the episode mostly succeeds for what it represents. For the majority of Seasons 5 and 6, we’ve seen the chasm of mistrust between the Alexandrians and Rick’s group widen significantly, the tensions ultimately arising from their different views on how to survive in the new world. Here though, after plenty of dramatic build-up, we see them united for the first time, and the closing moments of the episode as they come together to fight against overwhelming numbers of flesh-eating killers are pure punch-the-air excellence incarnate, accompanied by what is arguably composer Bear McCreary‘s finest work on the series.
Yes, it is pretty incredible that there are no casualties (someone surely would have got bitten), but it matters not when the moment is as powerful as it is here. For once, the plot armour works in service of the story and there’s a rare happy ending for everyone involved.
6. This Sorrowful Life (3×15)
Merle Dixon (Michael Rooker) is the focus of This Sorrowful Life, the penultimate episode of Season Three – a story which on the surface is little more then a lead-up towards the big final confrontation with the Governor and the people of Woodbury. Yet looking beyond the build-up and taking it as a single story in its own right, This Sorrowful Life delivers a fascinating insight into one of the show’s most unlikeable characters and goes some way towards humanising him (though never completely). It’s a story The Walking Dead will do again and again over the coming years (both the Governor and Negan have had their characters explored in greater depth since this episode first aired), but here it’s a remarkable novelty to delve deeper into one of the show’s more unsavoury characters.
A misogynistic, racist scumbag through and through, Merle makes for an excellent antagonist throughout his various appearances in The Walking Dead‘s early seasons, serving as the devil on brother Daryl’s shoulder, a constant temptation for him to abandon his friends and go back to their marauding ways. However, This Sorrowful Life, which sees the character meet his untimely end at the hands of the Governor, goes some way toward peeling back the layers of the character and revealing what makes him tick. Is he really as bad as everyone else thinks or is some of it just a tough guy act, put on for show?
Naturally, Michael Rooker is a huge part of why the episode works so well. His performance is superb throughout the episode, slowly revealing a greater degree of vulnerability to Merle that we’ve seldom seen up to this point. By the time we reach the final bloody confrontation between Merle and the Governor, we’re firmly on the side of Merle, which makes the episode’s final moments all the more crushing. This Sorrowful Life may not provide anything close to redemption for Merle, but it certainly makes the case that even the bad guys are occasionally worthy of compassion.
5. What Happened and What’s Going On (5×09)
A cerebral episode that takes us through the effects of a Walker bite, What Happened and What’s Going On is still incredibly powerful despite multiple rewatches. A melancholy standalone that sees the shocking and sudden departure of fan-favourite character Tyreese (Chad L. Coleman), showrunner Scott M. Gimple‘s script throws in some surprise cameos from a few long-dead faces and plenty of self-introspection as Tyreese succumbs to a Walker bite, ultimately choosing to let go rather then live on in the cruel, unforgiving world he’s been forced to live.
The direction from the legendary Greg Nicotero goes big on the metaphor, from the use of the radio and the images of train tracks to the haunting funeral scenes that open the episode and the hallucinations of long-dead friends and foes that are peppered throughout. It’s philosophical, inward-looking and far talkier then most other episodes from this period of the show, but it’s all the better for it thanks to the excellent script and a powerhouse performance from star Chad L. Coleman. By the end of the 45 minutes, there’s a sense of release for both the audience and Tyreese, despite the inherent tragedy and sadness of the character’s demise.
As character deaths go, What Happened and What’s Going On is a strong contender for one of the best, thanks to inventive storytelling and excellent acting from all involved.
4. Pretty Much Dead Already (2×07)
The first half of The Walking Dead‘s sophomore year certainly dragged in places, largely in part to its more soap-based approach and the rather laborious hunt for the missing Sophia, but Pretty Much Dead Already wraps up a lot of these ongoing character arcs in superb, gut-wrenching fashion. Various threads like Shane’s growing paranoia, Glenn’s barn discovery and Daryl’s desperate search for the missing child all come together in a simple but ingenious way, which ultimately culminates in one of the show’s most brilliant and utterly heart-wrenching rug-pulls. The cast are all on fine form here and the closing moments where we discover the fate of Sophia remains one of the biggest punch to the guts the show has ever inflicted upon us.
Without a doubt, it’s this episode that cemented the show’s reputation for uncompromising twists and dramatic exits, and despite numerous shock moments akin to this one over the years, there’s no beating the sheer ballsiness of this episode’s final, shocking reveal. The Walking Dead works best when it takes no prisoners and Pretty Much Dead Already makes a strong case early on that no-one on this show is safe.
3. Too Far Gone (4×08)
Too Far Gone is arguably The Walking Dead‘s most action packed episode, and certainly the one with the highest stakes. The Governor (David Morrissey), with Michonne (Danai Gurira) and Hershel (Scott Wilson) as his hostages, rocks up at the survivor’s prison sanctuary with a small army and a big Tank in tow. What follows is a nail-biting battle for survival as all-out war breaks out, and the resulting battle is one of the best ever made for television. Arguably one of the biggest moments from the comic books, the production team do Robert Kirkman‘s original storyline justice and then some, as the Prison falls in spectacular fashion against an onslaught from one of the show’s best villains. David Morrissey is pitch perfect as the hate-filled despot, and his sudden execution of beloved father-figure Hershel represents not just one of the show’s saddest deaths, but also the death of the group’s moral conscience.
This shift is immediately felt as Rick and Carl are forced to use violence after desperately trying to leave those ways behind in the wake of the Season 3 finale. Morally, what happens here is justified, but there’s a clear sense throughout this episode that we’ve reached a major turning point and that there’s no going back for any of our main cast in the wake of such unwarranted cruelty. As the title states, they’re too far gone! It’s an incredibly well told and tragic descent, delivered via excellent direction and a perfect turn from Andrew Lincoln‘s as Rick pleads for peace before ultimately succumbing to violence (albeit out of necessity). The icing on the cake is the final confrontation between Rick and the Governor, a savage fight that leaves you on the edge of your seat every time.
Remarkable for both its scale and for the subsequent narrative shifts that push the show and its characters forward into the unknown, Too Far Gone is superb human drama played out across extraordinary action sequences, bolstered by strong dramatic turns from David Morrissey, Scott Wilson and Andrew Lincoln. One thing was certain, nothing would ever be the same.
2. Days Gone Bye (1×01)
The one that started it all. Legendary filmmaker Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Mist) opens the series with a perfect mini-movie that introduces Rick Grimes and plunges him headfirst into the end of the world, taking him from an abandoned hospital to the overrun streets of Atlanta in memorable, gory fashion.
Watching Days Gone Bye back all these years later is fascinating viewing, not least because it offers up tantalising glimpses as to what might have been had Darabont remained in creative control of the series. But in the wider context of the show, it’s terrific storytelling that takes its time and concentrates on character drama first and foremost, utilising the zombie action minimally and effectively when required. Two powerhouse performances from Andrew Lincoln and Lennie James raise the bar considerably for all the other regulars, and the score, effects and direction are second-to-none compared to other television shows of the period.
There’s a lot of restraint on display here, something that the show would quickly abandon in subsequent seasons, but there’s also a remarkable degree of beauty and tragedy to the horror. Darabont finds time to explore and play with audience sympathies, not just through the trauma of survivors like Morgan and his son, but also through the undead monsters themselves, as seen through Rick’s interaction with the Bicycle Girl and Morgan’s reluctance to finish off the undead wife that continues to haunt him. From the off, we have a gory zombie show that’s also intelligent, thought-provoking, emotionally engaging and bloody entertaining all at once. As pilot episodes go, The Walking Dead‘s is arguably one of the best ever made. As episodes of The Walking Dead go – it’s pretty much perfect!
1. The Grove (4×14)
The Walking Dead‘s finest moment is also, quite rightly, it’s most controversial. Easily the show’s most unsettling episode to date, The Grove is a tour de force from all parties involved, but it’s also easily one of the most uncomfortable, unrelenting episodes of television ever made.
Separated from the group in the aftermath of the Governor’s assault on the prison, Tyreese (Chad L. Coleman) and Carol (Melissa McBride) have been left to fend for young orphans Lizzie, Mika and baby Judith on the open road. Finding sanctuary in an abandoned grove, events take a disturbing turn when it becomes apparent that Lizzie is simply unable to grasp why the Walkers are a threat. What follows is terror beyond anything anyone could have possibly imagined, as Lizzie engages in disturbing experiments which ultimately require Carol to make a devastating choice.
In simple terms, The Grove is The Walking Dead at its most intelligent and thought provoking. Showrunner Scott M. Gimple‘s excellent script has plenty to say about the concept of trauma and nature vs nurture, and uses said-concepts thematically to drive the story in incredibly interesting and gut-wrenching directions. Gimple goes to discomforting lengths to portray how the psyche of impressionable children would be affected by the trauma of the dead rising and takes the idea right to the edge of what’s acceptable, even on cable television, in what is arguably the show’s most brutal and memorable scenes. The episode’s climax is shocking and disturbing, but also incredibly realistic in the context of the show and the nightmarish world the characters inhabit, which ultimately adds to the horror of it all.
This is all well and good on its own, but it’s the way The Grove also manages to keep events centred on the main characters’ journey which makes it so brilliant. At the beginning of Season Four, we discovered a colder, more battle-hardened Carol that was willing to go to terrible lengths to protect her own. In The Grove, that worldview is put to the test and the consequences of Carol’s best intentions are laid bare so as for her to question her actions. The scene where she confesses her secret to Tyreese is a beautifully underplayed moment, but also huge in terms of drama, and both McBride and Coleman do a fantastic job in underplaying what is arguably one of the biggest turning points for both their characters. Just like the shocks, the smaller character moments here hit hard.
The Grove is a shining example of the show’s uncompromising, daring nature. Full of excellent character development, strong performances and powerful, though-provoking horror that feels uncomfortably real, it’s easily the best episode of the show by a country mile, but on a deeper level, it’s also the antithesis of what makes The Walking Dead such a juggernaut when it’s firing on all cylinders! As the show prepares to ‘look at the flowers’, it’s episodes like The Grove that make us realise just how much the show will be missed