This article contains spoilers for every season of The Walking Dead.
When a black and white comic book series titled The Walking Dead premiered among Image Comics’ monthly offerings in 2003, few would have guessed that it would spawn the multimedia franchise we know it as today. As one among many works that capitalized in a cultural resurgence in the zombie subgenre in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, The Walking Dead might have been a flash in the pan were it not for its world-building and revolving ensemble cast, which allowed for it to go mainstream with AMC’s 2010 TV adaptation.
The main series will have clocked in at 177 episodes by its Nov. 20, 2022 conclusion, making it one of the most prominent TV sagas of the modern era. Even here in the eleventh hour of the eleventh season, there are bound to be many excellent episodes on the way before all is said and done. Before we head off to spinoffs like Isle of the Dead, we’re taking a moment to look back over what made The Walking Dead the cultural landmark we know it as today.
Season 1 Episode 1 – “Days Gone Bye”
Looking at the epic legacy of The Walking Dead, it’s easy to glance over its first episodes as necessary blocks that got the story moving. However, there is no understating what a compelling pilot the series had with “Days Gone Bye.” Opening up on a chillingly familiar small town landscape fundamentally changed by the zombie outbreak, protagonist Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) wanders the remains of a town, plagued by memories of the time before. Having woken up from a coma in an empty hospital (minus the undead), he is forced to try and piece together the events that led to post-apocalypse he now finds himself in. That sense of uncertainty makes for an essentially perfect first episode, with the hero of the tale starting off on uneven ground and never fully righting himself.
Season 2 Episode 7 – “Pretty Much Dead Already”
Named after an offhand remark from the never-pleasant Shane (Jon Bernthal), “Pretty Much Dead Already” shows Glenn (Steven Yeun) revealing to the group that the Greene family barn is full of walkers, which patriarch Hershel Greene (Scott Wilson) defends by insisting that he believes there will be a cure. Much of this episode revolves around the way that Shane demoralizes the group as a whole, asking to end the search for Carol’s daughter Sophia (Madison Lintz), fighting with Rick over every order, and defiantly shooting a walker after Hershel insisted they be left alone. This is made worse by the fact that, in one instance, he’s actually right. As the zombies Shane released file out of the barn and the group is forced to put them down, a zombified Sophia emerges, destroying the group’s hope that she might still be alive.
Season 2 Episode 13 – “Beside the Dying Fire”
The beginning of “Beside the Dying Fire” takes a step back to show us a horde of zombies leaving the ravaged city of Atlanta, taking to the countryside to continue the search for food. This introduction is an exceptionally astute pacing move as the prior episode ended with Rick’s son Carl (Chandler Riggs) shooting a reanimated Shane, one of the series’ big mic drops. The shot is heard by the horde, and draws them to the Greene family farm. Ultimately, the group is forced to abandon what was a temporary but idyllic retreat from their lives on the run. Reeling from loss, Rick tells the others that they will do as he says or they will leave his camp. This episode introduces Michonne (Danai Gurira) in silhouette form as she helps Andrea (Laurie Holden) escape certain death by slicing and dicing her zombie pursuers, which remains perhaps the best character debut in the franchise.
Season 4 Episode 8 – “Too Far Gone”
Concluding the prison era, in which Rick’s group holed up in what was once a high-security compound, and the conflict with the insidious Governor (David Morrissey), “Too Far Gone” is a delightful mess from beginning to end. When the Governor arrives at the prison with Michonne and Hershel captive, Rick and Hershel attempt to negotiate with him. Instead of complying with their attempts at peace, he attacks and kills Hershel as Michonne escapes. While a small-scale war erupts, Rick fights the Governor, only for Michonne to step in and take out the man that manipulated and killed her friend, Andrea. Forced to scatter, the episode ends with nearly everything up in the air, making for a brutally effective finale for a storyline that lasted throughout much of the third and fourth seasons.
Season 4 Episode 13 – “Alone”
After the cast scattered in “Too Far Gone,” a subgroup of Bob (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.), Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green), and Maggie (Lauren Cohan) formed in order to survive the wilderness with few resources and a zombie horde trawling for survivors to feast on. Each attempts to go off on their own, with Maggie departing to search for Glenn and Bob attempting to carry on to the mysterious town of Terminus. Yet, much of the focus of the episode is about the need to rely on one another, with Sasha refusing to let Maggie go it alone and Daryl (Norman Reedus) elsewhere teaching Beth Greene (Emily Kinney) important survival skills before putting his own life on the line to track her down after she is abducted. Bob and Daryl are both survivors, but their need for community, whatever that might mean for them, defines this episode despite its title.
Season 6 Episode 2 – “JSS”
This episode takes its title from the story of Enid (Katelyn Nacon), a young recent addition to the township of Alexandria. In the opening, we discover that she watched her parents die and was forced to fend for herself, scrawling the letters JSS (Just Survive Somehow) to keep herself on track. Much of the plot revolves around the survivors in Alexandria, with a moral conflict forming between Carol (Melissa McBride) and Morgan (Lennie James) over whether or not murdering members of the gang called The Wolves is warranted. Carol believes it is, and when the group attacks her turf, she disguises herself as one of them and wages war on the infiltrators. This is one of the show’s most fast-paced episodes, with a number of deaths and the stakes higher than ever as the crew attempts to “JSS.”
Season 6 Episode 9 – “No Way Out”
When an episode kicks off with Daryl blowing people up with an RPG Launcher, you know it’s going to be good. When they are captured by members of the Saviors, Sasha, Abraham (Michael Cudlitz), and Daryl have their weapons confiscated, but Daryl frees himself and kills their opponents just in time to save his friends. This episode sees the death of Jessie (Alexandra Breckenridge) and her teen sons, as well as the loss of Carl’s eye when one of the boys attempted to kill Rick for previously killing his father. With Carl in an apparent coma, Rick chooses to begin a no-holds-barred battle against an invading horde, inspiring the rest of the group to draw up arms and help him. Showing the central crew at their most hopeless and most inspirational all in one episode, this all-timer celebrates the familial bonds they have formed.
Season 7 Episode 8 – “Rock in the Road”
Much of season 7 is spent with the cast reeling from the deaths of Glenn and Abraham as well as the aftereffects of his very public psychological torture of Rick. “Rock in the Road” shows the group as it begins to bounce back, and introduces us to the great King Ezekiel (Khary Payton), a fan favorite who has survived into the eleventh season. In an attempt to get the surrounding communities to ally with him in the fight against the Saviors, Rick and Michonne have perhaps their most epic moment as a couple as they fight to recover dynamite amid a swarm of the undead. Despite everything, the unspoken trust between them is very much on display during their fight, which ends with them blowing up hundreds of walkers. Very romantic!
Season 9 Episode 6 – “Who Are You Now?”
The previous episode, “What Comes After,” is a phenomenal lead-in, and indeed, these two episodes deserve to be enjoyed as a two-parter. Though we know by its end that Rick survived, this episode shows us that six years later his family and community still believe him to be deceased. Introducing some of the best characters of the series with Magna’s (Nadia Hilker) group, including Yumiko (Eleanor Matsuura), Luke (Dan Fogler), Kelly (Angel Theory), and Connie (Lauren Ridloff), the plot follows a jaded and protective Michonne doing everything in her power to protect her people, even if that means turning away survivors. However, Rick’s daughter Judith (Cailey Fleming), who Michonne has become mother to, convinces her to let down her defenses long enough to give people a chance. This episode succeeds by showing where Michonne is at by highlighting the dynamic between her and her children, all the while giving a glimpse at how the crew has thrived with her in a leadership role.
Season 9 Episode 15 – “The Calm Before”
Alpha (Samantha Morton) and her Whisperers remain perhaps the most genuinely disturbing big bads of the series, donning strips of flesh and undead face masks to blend in with and control the walkers while committing seemingly random acts of brutality on local communities. When the group takes her daughter Lydia in to protect her from her mother’s wrath, Alpha infiltrates and spies on the community leaders as they plan their defense against an inevitable retaliation from the Whisperers. With a fair intended to bring the communities together underway, Alpha unleashes a devastating attack, killing several recurring cast members and leaving them to be found by their loved ones in one of the most jaw-dropping sequences in the series’ history.
Season 10 Episode 9 – “Squeeze”
The prior episode ends with Carol and Daryl’s group trapped in a cave by Alpha and her Whisperers, and it only gets worse here. The poorly thought out plan goes even further awry as the team struggles to free themselves while Whisperers and walkers alike surround them on every side. Even given the terrifying circumstances, this is an excellent highlight for the unity between the crew, with relative newcomers like Magna and Connie apparently sacrificing everything to protect the others. Though much of the excellence of this episode lies in the terrifying cave sequences, there is also the small matter of an undercover Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) hooking up with Alpha to stay on her good side, continuing their short-lived, extremely weird, surprisingly charming dynamic.
Season 10 Episode 22 – “Here’s Negan”
After killing Abraham and Glenn and breaking Rick, Negan was eventually knocked from his position of power and imprisoned. Still, with time jumps and growing familiarity on his side, he ultimately became a member of the crew. Telling the story of how he became the ruthless leader of the Saviors through a flashback episode, we see that once he was an immature husband faced with losing his wife during the zombie apocalypse, not to any outside threat, but to cancer. Devastated with the knowledge that he would soon lose her, he pushed her further away, and the acts of violence he witnessed in his attempts to save her life unleashed his bad side. Even after everything he did, there is still something tragic and occasionally even wise in Negan, and this episode shows all of his many sides.
Season 11 Episode 6 – “On The Inside”
Connie and Virgil (Kevin Carroll) have long been separated from their crew, and this episode shows their attempts at survival. On the run and in need of rest, they find a seemingly abandoned house. Connie, who is deaf, sees an eye looking at her from a hole, but fails to convince Virgil that the threat is real. However, it’s clear that whoever inhabits the house is an expert at ensnaring unlucky travelers, and Connie and Virgil are quickly separated and trapped. The episode becomes a full-out horror show when we see that they’ve been caught by a group of feral cannibals, and the two barely escape with their lives.
The third and final part of The Walking Dead‘s final season premieres Sunday, Oct. 2 at 9 p.m. ET on AMC.