It was just supposed to be a cool little zombie show. When Frank Darabont, the acclaimed writer-director best known for his Stephen King adaptations like The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, first discovered Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, a black-and-white comic about a small band of survivors trying to make a life for themselves in the wake of the undead apocalypse, there wasn’t yet even the small cult fandom that helped generate such attention for the TV project once it was announced. As he himself notes, Darabont discovered the comic almost five years before bringing it to the small screen, simply thinking at the time, “Oh, great! Maybe I can make a TV series out of this obscure little zombie comic that probably has 12 readers.” By the time the premiere hit AMC on Halloween night of 2010, the growing comic fanbase and a splashy promotional blitz by the channel resulted in more than five million people tuning in, making it the most-watched debut in AMC history and leading to its six-episode first season being the most-watched basic cable show that year in the all-important 18-49 demographic—a massive success for Darabont and AMC.
They had no idea how small those numbers would end up looking.
To quote Krusty the Clown’s brother Cecil, unless you’ve been living in a cave on Mars for the last decade with your fingers in your ears, you know about The Walking Dead. Over the course of its first five seasons, the show grew in popularity and viewership until it was not just the biggest show on cable, but arguably the biggest show in all of TV. By season three, it had already trounced even network TV’s highest-performing series, becoming the most-watched show among 18-49 year olds, period. AMC quickly capitalized on the momentum by creating Talking Dead, a live talk show immediately following the series on Sunday nights that further cemented the impression of Darabont’s adaptation as must-see appointment television. (To really understand how popular The Walking Dead was, consider the fact that, for a brief time, Talking Dead was the most-watched show on cable other than its namesake.)
The premise is so simple, even the undead themselves could probably understand it. After being seriously wounded in the line of duty, Georgia sheriff’s deputy Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) wakes up from a coma to an abandoned hospital—and a world that’s been overrun by zombies. (In one of the strangest creative choices from the books, they’re referred to as “walkers,” instead of the beyond-obvious sobriquet “zombies.”) Rick teams up with a pizza delivery guy named Glenn (Steven Yeun), and the pair manage to find Rick’s wife Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) and son Carl (Chandler Riggs), as well as his former partner Shane (Jon Bernthal), living with a small group of survivors just outside Atlanta. Rick quickly takes charge, and soon he’s the de facto head of a small, but occasionally expanding, group of people determined to stay alive—and maybe even craft some small semblance of a life in this apocalyptic world. Of course, the sometimes combustible personalities on display means that, every now and then, other humans are the things Rick and his companions should fear the most.
Though the show has followed many of the storylines from Kirkman’s comics, Darabont also revised his source material in plenty of ways—expanding or condensing story arcs, killing off people who lived in the comic and vice versa, and more. (One of his most enduring changes was the introduction of a character who never even appeared in Kirkman’s books—Daryl Dixon [Norman Reedus], the redneck tracker who’s become a cornerstone of the series.) However, Darabont soon wouldn’t be around to make any further alterations: In a very public and very messy split (and shortly after Darabont fired the entire writing staff from the first season), AMC fired the showrunner as production began on season two, eventually leading to a lawsuit over the show’s profits as bloody as anything onscreen. The channel quickly moved to install The Shield producer Glen Mazzara, who actually penned one of the non-Darabont-written episodes from season one (despite not being on the writing staff), as the new showrunner, and The Walking Dead got back to its viscera-filled work.
Mazzara’s tenure running the series got off to a rocky start, with a much-derided first half of season two (AMC had quickly moved to expand to a 13-episode season, broken into two parts, which then expanded again to 16 for every season since) that found the characters stuck waiting around a farmstead with little narrative momentum. Still, it had a stunning mid-season ender—the young girl everyone had been searching for all season turned out to have been dead the entire time, a zombie trapped inside the barn just adjacent to the home from which they’d been sending out search parties. It provided a narrative jolt that eventually ended the season with the group on the move and Rick forced to kill his increasingly unhinged former partner.
The show’s momentum continued into season three, which saw the introduction of one of the series’ most popular heroes (Danai Gurira’s Michonne) and most love-to-hate villains: The Governor (David Morrissey), a man who leads a seemingly insulated town called Woodbury, and who decides Rick and the others are a threat to the community he runs with an iron fist. Conflict erupts, with the Governor eventually losing, Woodbury destroyed, and its citizens living with Rick’s people by season’s end. The first half of season four followed the Governor’s mission of revenge (while a flu virus takes out a large number of the population), culminating with the death of the Governor and beloved character Herschel (Scott Wilson). Season four also marked Scott M. Gimple’s first season as showrunner, and along with season five, is often held up as the creative high-water mark of The Walking Dead. Encountering new survivors and strange new locations, these seasons generated some excellent episodes and rousing storylines, full of rich character study and exciting battles.
If season six began with the show at the apex of its powers, many also mark the conclusion of it as the beginning of The Walking Dead’s creative decline. Taking over control of Alexandria, Rick and his people soon encounter another nearby community called Hilltop, one that is struggling under the weight of an extortion-protection racket run by a group of marauders called the Saviors, and led by its mysterious leader, Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). After six ended with a cliffhanger murder of an unknown central character by Negan, effectively putting Rick’s people under his tyrannical control, the bleak seventh and eighth seasons comprising the “Savior War” narrative felt increasingly cartoonish. (The introduction of another community called the Kingdom, ruled over by a literal self-proclaimed “King”—Khary Payton’s Ezekiel—and his pet tiger didn’t help assuage that feeling.) By the time Negan’s people were defeated and he was locked in a cell by Rick (who lost his son Carl during the battle), the show’s energies seemed spent.
Despite getting a new showrunner in Angela Kang (a staff writer since that momentous season two), the show sputtered into a tailspin, first pretending to kill off Rick when Andrew Lincoln left the show, only to let him live (and announce a series of planned stand-alone movies for the character, none of which show any signs of appearing any time soon). Then, the show jumped ahead in time six years and began spinning its wheels, introducing a host of new characters and waiting too long to unleash any sign of creative rebirth. But when such a sign did arrive, it was a good one: The Whisperers, a menacing group of survivors who wear the skins of the undead and shamble along with them as a symbol of humanity’s surrender to the walkers.
Unfortunately, it’s a case of too little, too late: Viewers have been steadily checking out in droves since that dark seventh season, and this past year saw the show dipping below the numbers it earned in season one for the first time ever. Not surprisingly, AMC finally announced the show would be ending after an extended 11th season. Kang’s leadership has at least provided a creative stimulus, so hopefully it will go out as strongly as it arrived (or at least not as poorly as it was right before she took over) under her guidance. But despite its tarnished latter-day reputation, the series will endure as a massive cultural phenomenon that enjoyed years of creative and commercial success. Before its final bow occurs, here are 10 episodes that capture the breadth and scope—and horror—of which The Walking Dead, at its finest, was capable.
“Days Gone Bye” (season one, episode one)
Lots of shows have uneven pilot episodes, more a hint of the potential possessed therein than any demonstration of eventual quality. The Walking Dead, on the other hand, arrived with a first installment so good, this very site has speculated as to whether the series has ever topped it. Before the opening credits even run, Rick Grimes has wandered through the abandoned bodies and wreckage of this zombie-filled world, found a little girl, and shot her in the head after realizing she was the undead. That’s a gut-punch of a start to a show, and under Darabont’s scripting and direction, the rest of it is equally good, setting up the perpetual tension being the nightmarish reality of this dangerous world and the hopes for a better, more civil one still existing in the margins (represented by the generous man, Lennie James’ Morgan, and his son, who nurse an injured Rick back to health). It’s The Walking Dead in a nutshell, and its fraught drama sold audiences from the start.
“Pretty Much Dead Already” (season two, episode seven)
If the first half of season two struggled to overcome the torpor that set in from the bland farmstead setting, the mid-season finale sent it into overdrive. Having discovered landowner Hershel (Scott Wilson) has been keeping walkers alive in his barn under the kind but misguided belief he could “cure” them, hotheaded Shane throws it open, and our group opens fire, taking them all out as Hershel’s family looks on in horror. There’s a brief pause before the final walker shuffles out—and it’s Sophia (Madison Lintz), the missing daughter of Carol (Melissa McBride), the person Rick’s people have been frantically looking for all season since her disappearance in the premiere. Rick, knowing what has to be done, steps up and shoots her in the head. The reveal of just how merciless life in this universe could be—and thus, how unflinching the series would be in said depiction of it—demonstrated that this was a show willing to upend expectations of conventional storytelling.
“Clear” (season three, episode 12)
One of the things that really set The Walking Dead apart in its early seasons was the willingness to bring any tension-filled and successful narrative to a grinding halt if it thought there was something else worth exploring for an episode. And that’s what happens in “Clear”: Right in the middle of Rick and company’s life-or-death struggle against the Governor, Rick, Michonne, and Carl take a side mission back to Atlanta in hopes of finding weapons at the Grimes’ old residence. In a surprise turns of events, they find themselves confronted by Morgan—the very man who cared for Rick back in the pilot—isolated and half-mad with grief from the death of his son. In addition to making an unexpected narrative pivot, it showcases the series’ ability to play the long game with its storyline, never forgetting the vast well of past events from which it can draw, no matter how remote or seemingly insignificant.
“Live Bait”/“Dead Weight” (season four, episodes six and seven)
If “Clear” demonstrated the series’ ability to pause its narrative, “Live Bait” and “Dead Weight” highlighted The Walking Dead’s knack for abandoning its heroes altogether—in this case, to look into the past. This two-part story went back in time eight months, to the end of season three, in order to follow unhinged antagonist the Governor as he left his whole world behind, and seemed to find new purpose when he stumbles upon a family, the Chamblers, and ends up becoming an ersatz father figure of sorts. The first episode is his journey to free himself from his old persona, while the second sees his tragic fall and return to his old ways. Altogether, it’s practically a stand-alone movie, but the boldness the show exhibited in pursuing this potentially risky experiment makes it a prime example how just how daring and innovative the series can be at its best.
For a show that has built its reputation on intense action and visceral violence, most of The Walking Dead’s finest episodes have involved remarkably little spectacle. Instead, the show’s human drama has rightly taken center stage, and in some of the quietest moments resides its true power. This is exemplified by an especially meditative installment, “Still,” which finds Daryl and Beth (Emily Kinney) isolated and alone after losing contact with everyone during the escape from the prison. The remainder of the episode simply lets the two personalities bounce off each other, as they butt heads, explode, and finally reach an emotional catharsis… all without a single kill (mostly). Its spare, poetic structure isn’t quite a bottle episode, but it’s not far from one. There are other contemplative and emotionally raw episodes (one coming up shortly on this list), but this was the first time The Walking Dead really went there.
“Remember” (season five, episode 12)
As the show approached the end of its fifth season, it began a much longer commitment—one to a tiny little town. In “Remember,” Rick and his people arrive at Alexandria, which has managed to survive thanks to an intensely fortified wall that has allowed those living inside to remain largely peaceful, growing crops and possessing actual electricity. As they warily adjust to the surroundings and see actual evidence of another way of living (albeit one remarkably unprepared for danger), we learn just how hardened everyone has become in the wider world. It’s a fascinating transition—and an important one, because it sets up the next five years of the show, as our people make Alexandria the new base of operations all through seasons six to 10. Alexandria provides stability, at least geographically, though such a comfortable, long-standing location may have eventually weakened the show’s signature unpredictability.
“Here’s Not Here” (season six, episode four)
If there’s a high-water mark to The Walking Dead, it’s almost certainly “Here’s Not Here,” another episode that, like “Still,” slows down and settles in for an intimate character study. This time, it’s Lennie James’ Morgan, who found his way to Rick’s group in season five as a newly peace-loving man and often served as the voice of restraint. In this special 90-minute installment, we learn the backstory of how he came to be that way: by stumbling upon Eastman (superb guest star John Carroll Lynch), a practitioner of aikido with a resolute “no-kill” policy, who believes all life is precious. Slowly and empathically, he helps Morgan manage his PTSD over the death of his son, and teaches the future Alexandrian his philosophy (and yes, some aikido, too). It’s soulful and warm, with a pair of terrific performances and arguably the best distillation of the show’s thematic focus on what makes a life worth living in this new world.
“The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be” (season seven, episode one)
Let’s be clear: “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be” is not fun to watch, nor is it a particularly good episode of television. It’s an account of the first full meeting between Savior leader Negan and Rick’s group, two of whom won’t survive the encounter. Over the course of the hour, Negan breaks Rick down, both physically and psychically, showing him that he is outmatched in every way, and that resistance to Negan and the Saviors will result in nothing more than pain, suffering, and death. It’s grim, nihilistic stuff, and almost unrelentingly unpleasant. It marks the first real moment The Walking Dead began shedding viewers, but more importantly, it sets the tone for a good portion of season seven. There are other important milestones this season (the introduction of the Kingdom, the appearance of the oddball garbage-dump-residing Scavengers), but this is the series at its darkest, and while it’s not particularly enjoyable, it’s crucial for understanding the direction the show took during the Savior War.
“Warning Signs” (season nine, episode three)
Despite not really living up to its promise, the changes the series made in its ninth season—jumping ahead 18 months, building a society and introducing trade between all the outposts (including the ex-Savior’s home, Sanctuary)—made for some invigorating storytelling, none more so than “Warning,” an episode that showed the series could be just as exciting when it chose to focus on the kinds of primal politics and under-the-table infighting that occurs among people and groups jockeying for power and resources. Alexandria, the Kingdom, Oceanside… these may all be members of an uneasy alliance, but their respective citizens still put their own needs first. By depicting the ways mistrust and scarcity can upend even the most hopeful of arrangements, it brought a new kind of intensity to The Walking Dead, one that the series has only fitfully embraced since.
“Squeeze” (season 10, episode nine)
Even in its final years, The Walking Dead has remembered what made it such a compelling series in the first place—the emotional impact of seeing people dealing with constant fear and uncertainty in a world that could erupt with the undead all around them at any moment. That daring unpredictability was often sacrificed during the years in Alexandria, but this episode brought it back in a big (and much-needed) way. Samantha Morton’s Alpha traps Carol, Daryl, and several other members of the group in a cave, surrounded on all sides by walkers. With the barest of supplies and no visible exit, our heroes have to find a way through the undead threat and discover the way out. The claustrophobia and darkness are put to marvelous use, and generate a suspense too often missing in the series’ weaker seasons. But thanks to the underground ordeal (and some frisson generated by Negan’s entry into the Whisperer camp), The Walking Dead reminded its viewers what a thrill it could be.