Since 2010, The Walking Dead has built on its original comic book fan base and amassed millions of devoted followers worldwide. And it’s done so by creating and maintaining one of the most exciting fictional realities on television today. Sure, there have been some low points throughout the series’ seasons. But the show has also been responsible for some of the most thrilling and thought-provoking moments on network TV. Here are 10 of the best The Walking Dead episodes so far — but there are major spoilers ahead, so be careful!
1. “Days Gone Bye” (Season 1, Episode 1)
It’s the episode that started it all. And to this day, “Days Gone Bye” remains one of the most gripping installments of The Walking Dead. The episode’s strengths lie in its ability to draw the viewer into the bleak and terrifying reality of the series’ zombie-infested universe. It does so through the eyes of Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), who wakes from a coma in a deserted hospital to find that the world has gone to hell.
His desperation to find his wife Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) and son Carl (Chandler Riggs) fuels a frantic search around the seemingly war-torn streets of Atlanta, where Rick encounters zombies and a tough-as-nails fellow survivor, Morgan Jones (Lennie James). From the character introductions to the emaciated, feral undead that stalk Rick until the episode’s final moments, “Days Gone Bye” lays the thematic groundwork for the whole series, and gives viewers more than one reason to stick around.
2. “Pretty Much Dead Already” (Season 2, Episode 7)
Season two of The Walking Dead wasn’t one of its’ strongest. But it had some standout moments, including this killer mid-season finale. Fans complained that there wasn’t much action in the season’s first few episodes, which focused on Rick’s group of survivors looking for Carol’s (Melissa McBride) missing daughter Sophia (Madison Lintz). But “Pretty Much Dead Already” more than made up for that criticism. It features tense arguments between Rick, his best friend Shane (Jon Bernthal), and their gracious but naive host Hershel (Scott Wilson). And to top it off, the episode’s final moments include one of the series’ most powerful sequences to date. The raw, palpable emotion that each group member feels when they find out that Sophia is a zombie serves as a somber end to the characters’ debate over whether walkers are worth saving.
3. “Better Angels” (Season 2, Episode 12)
The conflict between Rick and Shane reached a breaking point several times during The Walking Dead’s second season. But it reached the point of no return in “Better Angels,” and the series was changed forever as a result. Not only is this episode packed with drama that was sometimes lacking during the rest of the season, but it also features some of the most intense moments of the series period. It shows us the former best friends’ final confrontation and Carl’s emotionless decision to put an end to Shane’s short time as a walker. And it gives us the revelation that everyone, not just those who are bit, come back from the dead. In every way, “Better Angels” is a series highlight and a game changer.
4. “Killer Within” (Season 3, Episode 4)
This episode brings together all of the elements that The Walking Dead does best — high drama, character development, and tons and tons of gore. “Killer Within” has a split storyline, with one following Andrea (Laurie Holden) and Michonne (Danai Gurira) in the Governor’s (David Morrissey) too-good-to-be-true, allegedly zombie-free haven of Woodbury. But the real drama of the episode happens in the main gang’s new digs, an abandoned prison. There, our favorite survivors are separated after a disgruntled inmate releases walkers inside the gates. What transpires leaves us down two core characters. T-Dog (IronE Singleton) sacrifices himself for Carol and Lori gives up her life to make sure her unborn child makes it into the world. By this point in the series, we’re used to loss — but the way the other characters, particularly Rick, fall apart is particularly hard to bear.
5. “Clear” (Season 3, Episode 12)
Some fans complain that The Walking Dead sometimes lacks in the bone-chilling, zombie-mayhem-fueled action that drew them in. But occasionally the series is at its best when it takes a step back and gives the characters a chance to assess the damage around them. That’s definitely the case with “Clear,” which reunites Rick with Morgan and gives Michonne and Carl a chance to bond. We learn that the psychological damage of the zombie apocalypse has taken a huge toll on Morgan — and more on Rick than he’ll admit. As a result, “Clear” is every bit as horrific an episode as those jam-packed with zombies, even though there’s minimal action.
6. “Too Far Gone” (Season 4, Episode 8)
Whenever Rick ends up in a major confrontation, you can expect a fair bit of bloodshed. In “Too Far Gone,” our protagonist tries to reason with the exceedingly unreasonable Governor. Instead, he watches the beloved Hershel meet his maker and comes close to doing the same in the ensuing battle between the prison residents and the Governor’s crew. And the result is one of the most devastating and electrifying hours that The Walking Dead has ever produced.
7. “The Grove” (Season 4, Episode 14)
One of the most interesting character arcs in The Walking Dead has been Carol, who transformed from a timid domestic abuse survivor to a confident leader and skilled killer. In “The Grove,” we see all sides of her as she comes to the horrifying realization that young Lizzie’s (Brighton Sharbino) obsession with the undead has to be put to a stop. The episode is a series standout, thanks to the powerful performances from McBride, Sharbino, and Chad L. Coleman as the kind-hearted Tyreese. The Walking Dead has tried on more than one occasion to explore how growing up in such a violent world could impact children. Never has it done so more effectively, and with tragic consequences.
8. “No Sanctuary” (Season 5, Episode 1)
Sometimes, this horror series takes its time getting a season going. That wasn’t the case with the fifth season, with opened with a literal and figurative bang. “No Sanctuary” finds our survivors in some seriously dire straights at the hands of a gang of cannibals. But between Rick’s newfound resolve not to negotiate with enemies, and Carol’s take-no-prisoners attempt to save her friends, all hell breaks loose. Interspersed within its numerous action-packed sequences are some of the series most touching moments, too — including a long overdue reunion between Carol and Daryl (Norman Reedus). “No Sanctuary” is a bloody, bold episode that set the tone for one of The Walking Dead’s strongest seasons so far.
9. “What Happened and What’s Going On” (Season 5, Episode 9)
Usually when a character dies in The Walking Dead, it’s quick and incredibly painful. The latter part was true when we lost Tyreese in “What Happened and What’s Going On.” But the episode, breaking from the show’s traditional narrative, instead focused more on what was going on in his mind as his body gave out on him. This episode divided some fans, as it experimented in new ways and left us with the glimmer of hope that Tyreese might survive. But it’s a gripping hour that brings back familiar faces, allows Coleman to showcase his dramatic talents, and deals with the more spiritual side of death and dying.
10. “Conquer” (Season 5, Episode 16)
“Conquer” is the most effective season finale The Walking Dead team has ever produced. It perfectly balances action, tying up the plot’s loose ends, and introducing just enough excitement for what’s to come. Many find themselves fighting for their lives against enemies and allies. We have powerful moments with Carol, Daryl, Morgan, and Glenn, and we watch Rick reach a breaking point — again. As a result, “Conquer” represents everything that makes The Walking Dead such a groundbreaking show.
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