For a show all about the dead coming back to life, it’s fitting that The Walking Dead stubbornly marches on, despite losing its main star and suffering a major decline in viewing numbers.
It’s ten years since we first saw Rick (Andrew Lincoln) wake from a hospital bed into an undead apocalypse, so it’s as good a time as any to celebrate a few of the show’s most iconic episodes. This isn’t a best-of list – there’s so many of them. Instead, it’s reflection on the episodes that kept me coming back.
This list could equally be titled the seven sub-genres of The Walking Dead, as it has found ways of moving between monster-horror to viral to teen-slasher, and it’s here that the answer to its longevity can be found. But I think the title I’ve given it is a little more fitting. Without further ado, for its 10th anniversary, here are the seven resurrections of The Walking Dead, the bloodiest, emotional, and most resurgent episodes that kept the show alive for a weary fan.
‘Killer Within’ (Season 03, Episode 04)
The show hasn’t always handled its character send-offs well but the brutally tragic ‘Killer Within’ isn’t one of them.
In a flash of Shakespearean inspiration, the writers handed Carl’s tiresome teen angst an unpinned grenade when his mother Lori went into a bloody labour; the show exploding back into life – in a boiler room, funnily enough, and it’s on Carl’s young shoulders – not Rick’s – to guide Lori through a harrowing birth.
Intensely performed by everybody involved, the atmosphere is sweltering with the knowledge that Lori is dead by the time baby Judith comes screaming into the world, courtesy of Maggie’s despairingly bleak caesarean. Unsatisfied with the worst day of his life, Carl steps up to shoot his mother in the head so she can die a second time. It’s off screen, and you only hear the gunshot, but the solitary echo rattles its way to the heart.
What lingers the most, though, is the final shot of Carl carrying his baby sister out of the prison. The camera focuses on Rick’s utterly distraught face upon the realisation that his son has killed his mother, with the secondary casualty of Rick knowing he never got to say goodbye to his wife, all under the bitter-sweet umbrella that is Judith’s miracle birth. It’s a lot.
‘No Sanctuary’ (Season 05, Episode 01)
Immediately following the season 4 finale, the opener to what would become one of the best seasons, ‘No Sanctuary’ finds Rick and the gang all in the same awful place: awaiting execution inside an eerie cannibal factory.
Tense, gruesome, and with Carol’s explosive Rambo-esque assault half-way through, ‘No Sanctuary’ finds The Walking Dead at its exhilarating, fan-pleasing best. It’s no surprise that it pulled in record viewing numbers – drawing in an incredible 17 million viewers. The episode is a remarkable high point in the series, grappling for spotlight against the likes of Game of Thrones, proving the show could slug it out with best and biggest when it was firing on all cylinders.
However it may seem, gory action is not what defines The Walking Dead; it’s the balancing of despair and hope that bring out the show’s most arresting moments. Even among the bodies, ‘No Sanctuary’ finds space to reflect and breathe. At the end, when the smoke clears, all the characters finally reunite, new and old; Rick finds out baby Judith is alive, Carol and Daryl embrace – it’s the first time, in a long time, that the show felt like it could start afresh and go anywhere.
‘No Way Out’ (Season 06, Episode 09)
Like many of the best episodes, ‘No Way Out’ delivers thrilling action and emotional returns. It starts off with a fiery bang, Daryl making satisfying use of a rocket launcher to blow several Negan worshipers to smithereens.
What unravels from here is an utterly enthralling conclusion to the dismal mid-season finale: Rick loses another woman he loves – Jessie and her youngest son are eaten alive because they couldn’t be quiet – and in the same moment, Carl loses an eye from the gunshot of Jessie’s eldest son… who is simultaneously impaled by Michonne’s sword. All of this happens in a sort of soundless daze, conveying the brutal trauma of all involved.
But that centrepiece familial carnage only makes up for half of the episode, with rest dedicated to gritty guerrilla encounters in the Zombie-ridden suburbs, one of which is the return of Glen, who was presumed dead, only to leave viewers despairing for his safety again with another lover’s sacrifice. If the episode began well, it ends even stronger. In the closing moments, ‘No Way Out’ sets down an emphatic marker for the rest of the season with its fist-pumping crescendo, the core cast descending upon the camera in a blood-swept montage that shifts our POV to the undead. This is The Walking Dead at its furious, inventive best, mixing campy horror with real shock and awe.
‘The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be’ (Season 07, Episode 01)
After the hatchet job on the season six finale, leaving fans cold with a clumsy cliff-hanger – fake blood and all – the season seven premiere had its work cut out. And yet, the show pulled it off, with Director Greg Nicotero unleashing one of the most distressing hours of television I have ever seen.
Fans of the comic series already knew who was ending up on the other end of Negan’s bat – or Lucille as he creepily adorns it. That moment in the comics is an iconic stunner as Glen’s head pops with the excruciating tension of a turning page. The show’s answer was to recreate the iconic scene, in as ghastly detail as the network would allow, whilst delivering a curve ball by killing two major characters instead of one.
The episode goes further to subverts expectations by scrambling the order of events, opening with the bloody aftermath of Negan’s brutality and revealing the carnage in nail-biting flashbacks that heighten the terror instead of undermining it.
Jeffery Dean Morgan’s exhilarating performance as Negan cemented itself as a defining moment, only bettered by Andrew Lincoln’s stunning portrayal of an utterly broken and beaten hero. Most premieres serve as rewards for the fans that have suck around but ‘The Day Will Be When You Won’t Be’ is practically an endurance test for those still left. In one of the most accurate self-reflections of any show, Negan ends his torment with ”Welcome to a brand-new beginning, you little shits.” A new beginning indeed – for better or worse, the show never fully recovered from this skull-splitting trauma.
‘What Comes after’ (Season 09, Episode 05)
Bucking the trend of leaving the big shocks to finales, ‘What Comes After’ dropped early in season nine and marked the emotional farewell to the show’s protagonist, Rick Grimes – the role that turned Andrew Lincoln into a global star.
Both a nostalgia trip and heart-wrenching goodbye, the episode echoes the landmark pilot with a wounded Rick wandering alone on horseback as an army of the undead track closely behind. As it moves between dream sequences and feverish memories, beloved characters return from the past to guide Rick to his final moments, including poignant returns for Jon Bernthal as Shane, and Scott Wilson as father-figure Hershel (Wilson’s final scenes tragically anchored in the actor’s sad passing in the weeks leading to the episode’s launch).
Poetically framed on opposite sides of a bridge, the episode and Rick’s spiritual journey comes full circle at the end when Rick’s chosen family, Michonne, Daryl and all the others, helplessly watch his defiant last stand. I suspect the tears were real for this one.
A refreshing break from violent nihilism, ‘What Comes After’ finds The Walking Dead balancing on a tightrope of grief and hope. And before the cheeks had time to dry, the episode boldly jumps forward years into the future with the arrival of new cast members and a grown-up Judith. It’s a tear-off-the-plaster moment and fitting restart for show on its last knees, meditating on mortality, love, and the ways in which everything, at some point, has to simply move on.
‘The Calm Before’ (Season 09, Episode 15)
In the episodes following Rick’s departure, The Walking Dead understandably struggled to find a way forward. The arrival of a new threat in Alpha (played with delightful menace by Samantha Morton), gave the show the scary focus it needed, but the overall bite appeared to have faded in the black hole left by Andrew Lincoln’s exit.
Astutely directed with grace and dread, Laura Besley’s penultimate episode in season nine finds the show returning to the top of its tragi-horror game. During a festival between the communities, Alpha infiltrates as an unassuming bystander so she can put her terrifying end-game plan into action. ‘The Calm Before’ handles the expected nastiness off-screen, choosing to reveal Alpha’s devastation in the closing moments of the episode, and thereby turning a private slaughter into a haunting display of power.
Carol, Daryl and Michonne emerge from the treeline with a bloodied Siddiq, seemingly spared from Alpha’s cruelty, only for the camera to pan to the top of the hill where a row of severed heads gnaw hopelessly into the wind. Among the victims are long-time characters Enid and Tara, but the final twist of the knife comes with Carol realising her adopted son, Henry, is among the butchered.
Regardless of how many times it might stumble, under the guidance of new showrunner Angela Kang, The Walking Dead showed that nine seasons on it could still conjure thrilling moments of horror and beauty. If Emily Bronte wrote a zombie drama, it might look something like this.
‘Stalker’ (Season 10, Episode 10)
Less powerful than any episode on this list, but with enough creativity in the tank to make a satisfying impression, ‘Stalker’ is a good example of where the show finds itself ten years down the line. Fittingly, it’s an episode divided into two parts.
The first concerns a daytime fight to the death between Daryl and Alpha, two opposing leaders, one that’s been around from the beginning and the other a villain that’s only recently taken the spotlight. The second half finds the show revelling in its horror genre roots, doubling down on its strengths with a nightmarish throwback to John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978).
‘Stalker’ gives a much clearer understanding of what the show is like with Daryl as its leading man. His showdown with Alpha is akin to the riveting clash of heads that we saw so often with Rick throughout the years. The choreography is exciting, the action tense – finally, Norman Reedus had worn in those old shoes left by Andrew Lincoln’s departure.
But it’s the second part of the episode that sticks. Filmed with a reverence for classic horror, Alpha’s lumbering henchman, Beta, climbs out of a pre-dug grave and goes on violent rampage through a sleeping Alexandria. Striking and stylishly recalling the teen slasher films of the 80s, it’s a thrill to watch Beta creep from room to room, knife wet with blood, Ryan Hurts’ imposing shadow framed as a monster among men.
And there you have it, those are the episodes that kept me from walking away. The best years may be long gone, but for loyal fans there’s enough heart running through its ghoulish veins to see it to the end, which might actually be around the corner. AMC have recently announced that the show will finish after an eleventh and final season – although, again, this isn’t as final as it seems. Current showrunner Angela Kang is set to oversee two spin-off shows, following adventures led by fan-favourites Daryl (Norman Reedus) and Carol (Melissa McBride), due to launch in 2023. There is also the Rick spin-off films to look forward to. The end is never really the end in The Walking Dead.