The Walking Dead is the zombie show that is dominating the television landscape. With ratings blowing away everything else on the planet, the TV show based on the long-running graphic novel has established itself as a juggernaut, and a cornerstone of AMC’s schedule for years to come. For your consideration, we present ten of what we consider the best, most important, or just plain necessary episodes of The Walking Dead that represent the key elements of the show, for a variety of different reasons.
And before you get too upset about the order, we’ve listed the episodes chronologically, so people who haven’t quite caught up can stop before they get to the episodes they haven’t seen yet.
WARNING: This list will contain spoilers for the plot of every season of The Walking Dead
10. Season 1, Episode 1 – “Days Gone Bye”
The first episode of the show, and the one that hooked a nation of TV viewers. We meet Rick Grimes, find out how he ended up hospitalized and unconscious. Then, through Rick, we’re introduced to the rest of the world, after civilization has already ended. We also meet Morgan, who will become an important figure later on, but for now, serves as a survivor who can explain, both to Rick and us, everything we need to know about the walkers that now infest the planet. Just a powerful start to the series, and one which ranks among the best first episodes of any show.
9. Season 1, Episode 6 – “TS-19”
With only six episodes in the first season, the show speeds through a lot of plot, a lot of information, and a lot of victims. The final episode of the first season, as the survivors end up barricaded inside the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, provides a much-needed moment to relax and take stock. It’s only a quick moment, though, because the CDC is on a countdown to explode (to keep the diseases inside contained) and completely locked down. In between relaxation and panic, we learn about how the walker infection starts, and in the closing moments, Rick learns the horrible truth, which he wouldn’t reveal to anyone for a long time, but which drives his character motivations going forward: “Everyone is infected”.
8. Season 2, Episode 13 – “Beside The Dying Fire”
The second season takes a lot of flak for spending so long at the farm location, as well as the “shaggy dog” story line that is the search for an already-dead Sophia. With that said, the season finale almost makes up for the extremely slow pace of the season, sending a horde of walkers in the general direction of the farm, allowing for an entire episode full of fire, death, and gunshots. Also, Shane finally tries to take over by removing Rick from the equation, forcing Carl to make up for an entire season of sneaking away from his parents. He’s still an irritating kid, but at least he can handle a gun.
7. Season 3, Episode 12 – “Clear”
With tensions involving the Governor about to come to a head, Rick goes in search of more guns and ammunition, and manages to find an unexpected face from the past. Morgan has fortified a small town, and in the process of trying to defend it, has slowly gone insane, both from the constant threats and the fact that his inability to kill his undead wife inadvertently led to the death of his son. Rick tries to bring his friend back from the brink, while Carl and Michonne bond over evading walkers. This episode is pretty much considered the favorite of the majority of the Walking Dead fan base.
6. Season 3, Episode 13 – “Arrow on the Doorpost”
Rick and The Governor have a meeting on neutral ground as Rick tries to find a peaceful way out before a war breaks out. This episode was an excellent opportunity for both Rick and The Governor to absolutely steal the show, both offering impassioned speeches from opposing viewpoints. In the end, the Governor asks for one thing to broker a truce: Rick must hand over Michonne, who killed The Governor’s infected daughter. Even though there’s a distinct possibility that the Governor would never truly honor such an agreement, Rick still asks for time to consider the matter.
5. Season 4, Episode 6 – “Live Bait”
After a disappointing first attempt at an episode devoted to an assault on the prison, the writers would take a second stab at it during the next season, and end up with a much more satisfying conclusion to the prison arc. This isn’t that episode, however, but the one before everything happens. It follows the footsteps of the Governor after his failed attack, as he burns down Woodbury and wanders through the world, seemingly directionless. After coming across some new survivors, he tries to start over and maybe be a better person. However, the lure of revenge against Rick and his people is too strong, and he soon organizes another group of desperate people willing to stage a second assault. An excellent solo episode for David Morrissey, the actor playing The Governor.
4. Season 4, Episode 14 – “The Grove”
With everyone scattered to the winds following the fall of the prison, the second half of the fourth season featured several episodes focusing on each of the individual groups who escaped. In this episode, Tyrese, Carol, two young girls named Mika and Lizzie, and the baby Judith find a cabin to spend some time and re-group. During her time in the prison, Lizzie became obsessed with walkers, and starts to believe that they’re just like real people. While Carol works up the nerve to confess to Tyrese that she killed his girlfriend to prevent an outbreak at the prison, Lizzie continues to grow dangerous, eventually killing Mika to “prove” that zombies aren’t dangerous. With Lizzie clearly too unstable to keep around, Carol is forced to make an incredibly tough decision before they continue on. An incredibly powerful episode that goes places most shows wouldn’t.
3. Season 5, Episode 1 – “No Sanctuary”
On the heels of the entire group (save Carol and Tyrese) being captured in Terminus, everyone works on an escape plan. Thanks to the combined effort of Carol outside the train depot and the rest of the group inside, their escape is accomplished in appropriately spectacular fashion, leaving Terminus in ruins (and inadvertently setting up a new group that will become a problem for Rick and company later in the season). Also, Tyrese continues to come to terms with his new-found pacifism, even as a captured member of the Terminus survivors threatens himself and Judith.
2. Season 5, Episode 4 – “Slabtown”
After first being separated from the larger group during the prison attack, and then being taken from Darryl during a walker assault on the funeral home they were hiding in, Beth finds herself waking up inside a hospital with a group of survivors who seem to survive while maintaining a system of paying back debts in exchange for services. The only problem is, the debts never seem to get paid off, and the former police officers in charge seem to be ridiculously corrupt. This episode takes a lesser-used background character who had actually been part of the group since the second season, and makes her the center of an entire episode, forcing her to grow into a main character role, and the results are pretty interesting.
1. Season 6, Episode 1 – “First Time Again”
The first episode of the sixth season utilizes time jumps, with a black-and-white filter to signify past events, to create an exciting and fast-moving story that is one of the best of the series so far. Now safely ensconced in positions of power inside Alexandria, Rick’s group discover a quarry full of walkers that threatens to burst open and send the horde straight towards their newly-adopted home. Rick must win over reluctant townspeople and organize a plan to deal with the new threat. Then, after he’s accomplished all that and sets out on a test run of the plan, everything goes straight to hell, setting up the events of the first half of the season, all which take place over only a couple of days.