As The Walking Dead heads into its ninth season and what new showrunner Angela Kang calls a “new chapter” in the series, we thought it would be worthwhile to look back on previous chapters of the series and reflect on the best episodes while also giving fans a quick streaming binge-watch (the show can be found on Netflix) roadmap.
In selecting the best 15 episodes (which, in many ways typify what we love the most about The Walking Dead), it’s difficult to find one particular theme, but I will say this: It’s not the villains. The best The Walking Dead episodes tend to highlight the hardest decisions, those moments when characters become the best versions of themselves, and the most heroic moments of the series. Deaths are obviously an important part of The Walking Dead fabric, but the ones that seem to matter most are those deaths that make the most sense from a storytelling standpoint.
Here are the 15 best episodes of The Walking Dead.
15. Better Angels (Season 2, Episode 12)
The Story: After Shane kills Randal, he and Rick engage in a showdown as the conflict between the two about the direction of the group comes to a head.
Why It’s On The List:
For a lot of viewers, this is where The Walking Dead really begins. This is when The Walking Dead transforms from a show about people vs. zombies to a show about people vs. people in the zombie apocalypse. After weeks of increasing tensions between Shane and Rick — the two people vying for leadership of the group — Shane loses it, kills Randall, and lures Rick out into the woods to assassinate him. Rick, however, ends up killing Shane, while Carl — who shows a lot of advanced maturity for his age in this episode — kills the reanimated Shane before Zombie-Shane can kill Rick. Better Angels is best known as the episode where Shane dies, but it’s also a hugely pivotal episode for the series, setting it off in a completely different direction.
14. Four Walls and a Roof (Season 5, Episode 3)
The Story: The group takes on the Terminus residents while Bob dies in Sasha’s arms.
Why It’s On The List: — The residents of Terminus — a group of cannibals — comprise a short-lived but memorable arc on The Walking Dead, ending in “Four Roofs and a Wall” in a bloody confrontation inside a church after the cannibals eat Bob’s infected leg. Rick and Co. brutally and quickly slaughter Gareth and the other members of Terminus, even as they are begging for their lives, illustrating how cold and ruthless Rick’s group can be when it’s necessary to the situation. The ease with which they kill Terminus members also makes Father Gabriel uneasy. Meanwhile, in the heartbreaking coda to the episode, everyone says their goodbyes to a dying Bob before he eventually dies in the arms of Sasha.
It’s also the episode before the group begins their journey toward Washington D.C. and eventually Alexandria.
13. The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be (Season 7, Episode 1)
The Story: Negan kills Glenn and Abraham before taunting and bullying Rick into submission.
Why It’s On The List: Arguably the last great episode of The Walking Dead of the Gimple era of the series, it paid off the biggest death in the history of the series (both TV and comics) but also began its slide into the All Out War that frustratingly dominated the seventh and eighth seasons. It was also the continuation of the introduction of Negan who — for better or worse — is one of the series most memorable characters and all-time greatest villain. The episode caught a lot of flack for the gratuity of its violence, but it also successfully depicted the brutality illustrated in the comics. It was a gut-wrenching episode to watch and achieved for the series its second best-rated episode ever, but it has been sliding ever since, so obviously, viewers have mixed feelings about the episode. However, any collection of the series’ best episodes would be remiss without including this one, arguably its most significant — and most highly anticipated — episode since the pilot. The one major criticism of “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be” may very well be that it over-delivered.
12. Thank You (Season 6, Episode 3)
The Story: The Wolves that Morgan let free attack Rick, while most of the Alexandrians are involved in an effort to steer a horde of hundreds of zombies away from Alexandria.
Why It’s On The List: For the purposes of this list, it’s important to assess episodes more individually rather than within the broader context of a season or the series, and while Glenn’s death scare at the end of the episode didn’t sit well with some viewers in the weeks after it aired, on its own, it was a wildly effective, intense, and heartbreaking episode of television which saw Nicholas calm himself and thank Glenn before shooting himself in the head, leading to what the viewers believe at the time is Glenn’s untimely demise (we find out several episodes later, however, that it was Nicholas’ body, on top of Glenn’s, that was torn apart by zombies, and not Glenn’s).
In addition to the drama surrounding Glenn, the episode also features a heartbreaking sequence in which a dying newlywed writes a farewell letter to his fiance, plus a fantastic showdown between Rick and five Wolves, ending with Rick on top of an RV surrounding by a growing herd of zombies, one of two cliffhangers in the episode.
11. A (Season 4, Episode 16)
The Story: Rick confronts Joe and the Claimers before his entire group (save for Carol) is locked into a railroad boxcar by the Terminus residents.
Why It’s On The List: In its way, the fourth season finale proved to be another turning point, one away from a more peaceful approach to existence advised by Hershel in a flashback and toward more violent means, regardless of what that means for Carl. In fact, Carl learns the hard way — after Joe and the Claimers threaten to sexually abuse both him and Michonne while making Rick watch — that his father is capable of extreme violence, as he sees when Rick tears Joe’s neck open with his teeth and then kills another Claimer with a pocket knife before disemboweling him.
The respite from the Claimers, however, is short-lived, because Rick, Michonne, and Daryl eventually find their way to Terminus where — after a brief gunfight — they are forced into a railroad car and reunited with the rest of the group, where they all await to become meals for the citizens of Terminus. The season, however, ends on a fist-pumping note when Rick proclaims, “They’re screwing with the wrong people.”
10. Conquer (Season 5, Episode 16)
The Story: The Wolves broach the walls of Alexandria, Deanna attempts to exile Rick, and Morgan makes his return.
Why It’s On The List: Often the super-sized episodes of The Walking Dead don’t merit the extra run-time, but the fifth season finale of the series was straight-up jam-packed. Following Rick’s breakdown, Deanna and the Alexandrians meet to vote on whether to exile him. Meanwhile, Daryl and Aaron get caught in a booby trap that unleashes a horde of zombies on them, only to be rescued by Morgan — making his first extended appearance since season three. Meanwhile, the Wolves — after finding Aaron’s backpack — locate Alexandria and release a zombie inside the wall, where Rick proves his worth to Alexandria by killing it. All the same, a drunken Pete tries to kill Rick, but accidentally kills Deanna’s husband, and she orders Rick to execute Pete, which is witnessed by Morgan, finally reunited with Rick. It’s a hell of a reunion.
Meanwhile, Nicolas and Glenn get in a violent confrontation, setting up “Thank You,” in the following season; Sasha is mired in a downward spiral after the death of Bob, which comes to a head in an altercation with Father Gabriel, while Abraham and Eugene also make up after a fight. It’s a stellar season finale that more or less establishes Rick as the new leader of Alexandria, introduces the Wolves (who become a bigger threat in season six), and adds Morgan back into the cast.
9. Beside the Dying Fire (Season 2, Episode 13)
The Story: The Greene farm is overrun by zombies, while the group deals with the aftermath of Shane’s death.
Why It’s On The List: “Beside the Dying Fire,” is where the “Ricktocracy” is established. After losing two members of their group (Patricia and Jimmy) to the horde of zombies overrunning the Greene farm, Rick has to snatch the leadership role away after the faith of the rest of the group in Rick is shaken when he admits to killing Shane. The episode basically establishes Rick as the leader, a position he doesn’t let go of over the next six seasons, while he also leans into his darker persona (he quickly abandons any idea of saving Andrea, who he leaves for dead).
Meanwhile, the episode also fully introduces Michonne (who saves Andrea’s life in incredibly bad-ass fashion), and it gives viewers their first glimpse of the prison in the closing seconds of the episode.
8. JSS (Season 6, Episode 2)
The Story: The Wolves invade Alexandria and Carol goes on a killing spree.
Why It’s On The List: After a flashback sequence filling in viewers on Enid’s backstory (she watches her parents get eaten by zombies), the action and intensity in this episode kicks in and doesn’t let up until the final seconds. “JSS” is anxiety-inducing, terrifying, and bloody episode, as a new threat — a crew of murdering thugs with no apparent motive beyond the desire to kill — break through Alexandria’s walls and raise hell. Melissa McBride is Peak Carol in this episode, taking a break from baking cookies to disguise herself as a Wolf, kill a number of them, and engage in an uneasy confrontation with Morgan over his philosophy of not killing. She pretends to hold Morgan hostage as she kills Wolves in front of him right after delivering a huge eff-you to Morgan when she shoots a Wolf in the head while he is tying him up. By the end of the episode, Alexandria has lost several more citizens, Enid has run away, the community is left in shambles, and Morgan and Carol are not on speaking terms.
7. No Way Out (Season 6, Episode 9)
The Story: As zombies encircle Alexandria, Rick and Company are trapped inside a house and must disguise themselves as zombies to escape among them. Meanwhile, Daryl, Abraham, and Sasha confront the Saviors.
Why It’s On The List: The sixth season premiere is the first time the Saviors are formally introduced, technically kicking off the All-Out War that would characterize the next two and a half seasons. Before embarking on that conflict, Rick, Jesse, her sons, and several others must escape from a horde of zombies who have breached the fence and encircled the home they are in. It’s not too often that the deaths of characters who are not villains bring viewers much in the way of joy, especially when it’s a kid, but the death of Sam — inadvertent or not — was one of the biggest crowd-pleasing moments of the series (even if she did bring Jessie down with him). Meanwhile, Sam’s brother, Ron, brought a major comic-book moment to the screen when he shot out Carl’s eye.
That alone might have been enough to redeem a sluggish front half of season six, but elsewhere, Daryl, Sasha, and Abraham obliterate a few Saviors before saving Glenn with an RPG launcher. They join Rick and the entire Alexandrian community spend an entire night killing zombies, giving Alexandria its first major victory as a community.
6. Pretty Much Dead Already (Season 2, Episode 7)
The Story: On the Greene Farm, Rick’s camp learns that Hershel is housing zombies in his barn, while Shane loses his grip on sanity after learning that Lori is pregnant.
Why It’s On The List: “Pretty Much Dead Already” is a statement from Shane referring to the way their humanity is slipping. Hershel — who believes that the zombies inside his barn are still people — represents the other side, clinging steadfast to that humanity while Shane increasingly shows little regard for it. The episode comes to a head when Shane — enraged after learning that Lori is pregnant with what he thinks is Rick’s baby — releases the zombies from the barn. Rick, Daryl, and company kill them as they spill out until, in the final seconds, Carol’s zombiefied daughter Sophia sneaks out. Only Rick can bring himself to kill Sophia, while everyone else stands stunned and horrified.
This is the episode — after floundering for much of the second season — that really put The Walking Dead on the map as a powerhouse series, revealing that it was more that just a zombie show, but one about how its characters wrestle with their humanity as the world around them falls.
5. Killer Within (Season 3, Episode 4)
The Story: Someone lets zombies in the prison, and Rick’s camp scrambles to contain them and protect themselves from the outside threat.
Why It’s On The List: This is the episode where Andrew lets in zombies, and all hell breaks loose. T-Dog ends up dying in order to save Carol (although, originally it was supposed to be Carol who died), while Maggie is forced to give Lori a lethal Caesarean section in order to save the life of her baby. Carl has to end his mother’s life before she reanimated into a zombie.
It was hard to imagine that anything in this series, at the time, could be even more upsetting that the death of Sophia, but The Walking Dead upped its game exponentially by killing off another major character, in Lori, while she is giving birth, and then compounding the agony by asking of Carl to put down his own mother. Rick’s hysterical reaction to the death of his wife only made it more agonizing, all in all delivering the series its emotionally potent episodes to date.
4. Days Gone By (Season 1, Episode 1)
The Story: Rick awakens from a coma, meets Morgan and Duane, and departs for Atlanta to find his family.
Why It’s On The List: This is the pilot episode that started it all, and though no one could have possibly predicted from the pilot that The Walking Dead would become a ratings juggernaut that would spawn a spin-off and run for nine seasons (so far), much of the DNA of the series comes in the pilot episode, including its brutality (Rick shoots a zombiefied child to death in the opening sequence), the gore, the great special effects, and of course, two of the most important characters over the series run, Rick and Morgan. Viewers were instantly hooked, and though it would take another season before The Walking Dead would start to live up to its potential, the Frank Darabont pilot remains hugely influential not just for the series, but for setting off another zombie craze in pop culture.
3. Too Far Gone (Season 4, Episode 8)
The Story: The Governor attempts to overtake the prison, but is thwarted before everyone in the prison flees.
Why It’s On The List: While “Too Far Gone” obviously deserves a top five spot on this list, it’s interesting that most of the best The Walking Dead episodes don’t involve the two biggest villains in the series, The Governor and Negan, both of whom overstayed their welcomes as villains. The Governor’s death, however, remains hugely satisfying, though even it is overshadowed by the painful loss of Hershel, the moral center of the series (and the absence of that moral center clearly affected all the remaining characters for seasons to come). The action-packed episode, punctuated with violence by both humans and zombies, gave viewers both heartbreak in Hershel’s death, a victory in The Governor’s death, and bittersweet feelings about the loss of the prison, which had made for a great setting but also limited the characters in what they could do.
2. No Sanctuary (Season 5, Episode 1)
The Story: With a major assist from Carol, Rick and the gang overpower the Terminus citizens and escape, while Tyreese holds his own against a group of zombies before saving Judith.
Why It’s On The List: It’s interesting to note just how many of the best episodes on this list owe a huge debt to Melissa McBride, and it is her character, Carol, who propels this episode, as well. After the events of “The Grove,” Carol leaves Tyreese and baby Judith behind so that she can help Rick’s crew, which is still trapped inside the railroad car after the events of “A.” Disguising herself as a zombie, she creates a distraction by blowing up a propane tank before letting a horde of zombies into Terminus, distracting Gareth and Co. — who are seconds away from bashing Glenn’s head in with a baseball bat — long enough for Rick’s group to take back the upper hand, kill several of the cannibals, and escape. The action-packed episode gains its emotional wallop with the reunion of Carol and the rest of the group, as well as the joy and relief Carl and Rick experience upon finding out that baby Judith is still alive.
There’s not a dead moment in the entire episode, as it traffics in mayhem, chaos and violence before ending with a huge win and a tearful reunion for the entire group. “No Sanctuary” comes in the midst of perhaps the best run of episodes in first eight seasons of The Walking Dead.
1. The Grove (Season 4, Episode 14)
The Story: Carol, Tyreese, Lizzie, Mika, and Judith come across a house in a pecan grove. Only three of them make it out.
Why It’s On The List: After Carol takes Lizzie under her wing and begins treating her like a second daughter, Lizzie’s mental state begins to deteriorate, and she can’t make the distinction between zombie and human. She treats zombies as pets, and after a conversation with Carol, Lizzie stabs Mika to death thinking that Mika will “come back” as a different kind of friend. In what may be the most anguishing scene in the entire series, Carol and Tyreese talk and realize that they have to execute Lizzie because her inability to grasp reality. A weeping Carol tells Lizzie to “look at the flowers,” and she shoots her in the back of the head, leaving viewers stunned into silence.
It’s a stellar episode not just for the keen, heartbreaking performance of Melissa McBride, but also for the nature vs. nurture morality tale at the center of it. Though it lacked for much in the way of action, “The Grove” stands out as one of the most emotionally resonant episodes of the entire run, an unbelievable episode where a kid is executed and we, the viewers, understand exactly why. “The Grove” is perhaps the best representative of the hard choices that the characters are forced to make in the zombie apocalypse, which — in a way — makes it the perfect distillation of The Walking Dead.