In light of last week’s rather uneventful episode, Now, it’s important to take a moment to catch our breath and get some perspective on what is arguably the best thing to happen to the zombie genre since George A. Romero’s Dead trilogy. As Rick Grimes navigates through a post-apocalyptic world full of diminishing resources, dictators, cannibals, murderers, and undead walkers searching for sanctuary, AMC’s TV adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s hugely popular comic series The Walking Dead has managed to stay fresh, exciting, scary, and among the best dramas currently on TV since it began six seasons ago. For those of us who tune in every week to see how the story progresses, we may forget which episodes held some of the most tumultuous, emotionally heartbreaking, and terrifying moments that keep us addicted. Thus, I look back to the episodes that I feel represent the best of what this show has to offer. Here are my picks for the top ten episodes of AMC’s The Walking Dead:
10. JSS – Season 6, Episode 2
It’s too early to tell how Season 6 will rank in the overall quality of the show, but the second episode took the show to new levels of greatness. Starting with a new character’s backstory and subsequent arrival in Alexandria, the show also establishes a new threat to Rick and his group: a pack of savages who call themselves The Wolves. Their invasion of Alexandria marks the first real tragedy that has befallen this town, and the timing of the invasion – while the combat proficient members of Rick’s group were off trying to stop a hoard of approaching walkers – was perfect. One of my favourite characters, Carol, who has had the most interesting development of any character in the show, was the show’s heroine. Her actions in this show solidify her as one of TV’s most badass female characters.
09. Judge, Jury, and Executioner – Season 2, Episode 11
Season 2 was one of the most character heavy seasons of the show. What drove it was the mounting tension between Rick and his best friend Shane. As the entire group debates whether to kill an unarmed young prisoner for their own safety, the episode examines the motives Rick and Shane have for their respective positions. But the focus of this episode moves to Dale, who up to this point has been the moral centre of the group. Dale is profoundly against the killing of this human being. Jeffrey DeMunn, an incredible actor, embodies Dale with the qualities that make us all good people. In turn, the show suggests that these qualities prohibit our ability to survive at all costs. This episode was one of the first to create a truly human conflict and examine what must be done in order to live in this kind of world. The episode’s final five minutes are truly heartbreaking.
08. Days Gone Bye – Season 1, Episode 1
Frank Darabont is responsible for bringing The Walking Dead to the small screen. And while Darabont has not been involved with The Walking Dead since Season 1, he is responsible for establishing the show’s tone, and the characters who we have all come to love. Thus, Days Gone Bye is the episode that started it all. Focusing primarily on Rick Grimes, who wakes up in a hospital, the audience learns about the zombie apocalypse through the eyes of Rick. This series premiere could have easily ended up as a cheap knock off of the film 28 Days Later, but Darabont fuses the show with its own style and energy. All of the show’s central themes were established here, particularly through the story of Morgan and his son. Suspenseful, intriguing, and emotionally deep, few episodes have been able to surpass the quality of the series premiere.
07. Pretty Much Dead Already – Season 2, Episode 7
In this episode, the group confronts the elephant in the room – that Herschel is keeping a barn full of walkers. Herschel believes that the walkers are in fact sick people who can be cured. In a fit of rage, Shane sets out to prove Herschel wrong, and in an incredibly climactic final act, Herschel’s world crumbles in front of him. And as Shane and the rest of the group kill every walker in the barn, including Herschel’s wife, the episode’s final reveal remains one of the most haunting scenes of the entire show. Up to this point, the mystery of Sophia’s whereabouts have been a central focus of Season 2. When Sophia emerges from the barn as a walker, it not only brings a chillingly cruel end to this plotline, but it creates a legitimacy to Herschel’s attitude towards the walkers. If there was a chance that Sophia could be cured, would they keep her alive? Unfortunately, the group had set out to prove the opposite, forcing them to do the inevitable.
06. Killer Within – Season 3, Episode 4
Killer Within remains one of the most gut-wrenching episodes of The Walking Dead as two of the show’s most important characters meet grisly fates. It also examines the group’s desperation to find and keep a sanctuary. Now that they have found the prison, Rick and the group feel that they could build a permanent home here. But first, they have to rid the prison interiors of any and all threats – human and walker alike. The characters who sacrifice themselves in this episode do so because they believe that such a sanctuary is possible. The themes of death and hope are heavily intertwined, adding a lot of depth to Killer Within’s exciting, thrill a minute storyline.
05. Too Far Gone – Season 4, Episode 7
I was among the many disappointed fans who felt cheated by the finale of Season 3. The entire season was building towards a shootout between the prison and Woodbury, but what we got was a wimper instead of a bang. That’s because the showdown was merely being postponed until Season 4. After two episodes that focused on The Governor – one of the show’s most ruthless villains – Too Far Gone is the face off between Rick and The Governor that had been building since the beginning of Season 3, and it did not disappoint.
04. Conquer – Season 5, Episode 16
The Alexandria storyline is one of the show’s best subplots. As a town filled with people who have been largely sheltered from the world around them, Conquer really emphasizes how Rick has transformed as a character. It examines his strengths as a leader as well as the darker side of his character as he takes it upon himself to come between a woman and her abusive husband. It also creates another layer of depth to the relationship between Morgan and Rick. When Rick last saw Morgan, Morgan was insane, killing anyone to keep himself alive. And as Morgan’s journey to Alexandria is explained in Season 6, Morgan’s reunion with Rick is over cold blooded murder.
03. The Grove – Season 4, Episode
“Look at the flowers, Lizzie” is now a pop culture quote. It comes from one of show’s most daring episodes, as it features not one, but two deaths of children. Focusing on Carol and her desire to change the way Lizzie views walkers – as friendly companions as opposed to dangerous threats – The Grove is a character driven piece that also shows that acting is a big part of the appeal of this show. Melissa McBride gives an incredible performance that is worthy of an Emmy. Chad Coleman as Tyreese is also incredible. But the performances of the episodes two young actresses – Brighton Sharbino (Lizzie) and Kyla Kenedy (Mika) – are what make this episode so gripping. You sympathize with both characters and their own personal conflicts. And like Carol, you may not like what has to be done, but you understand that is has to be done. It also serves as the backdrop for a confrontation between Tyreese and Carol that had been building from the start of Season 4.
02. What Happened and What’s Going On – Season 5, Episode 9
Only The Walking Dead would have a mid-season finale that kills off a major character, and then subsequently air a mid-season premiere that kills off another major character. But in this mid-season premiere, this character’s death takes up the entire episode. It examines the final thoughts of this character who is succumbing to a walker bite through hallucinations, returning characters, and an emotional send off. This is an episode that sees little zombie action and plot development, but the dramatic pause it takes to thoroughly reflect on human nature, which remains one of The Walking Dead’s most central themes, is not only a daring experiment, it reveals that The Walking Dead is after more than just gore and epic zombie kills.
01. No Sanctuary – Season 5, Episode 1
Intense, action packed, and ending with one of the most thought provoking final scenes of the entire show, No Sanctuary is my favourite episode. Beginning with Rick and his group’s full on assault of the cannibal town Terminus, viewers are given the most gleefully entertaining and viscerally exciting episode of The Walking Dead ever. But it bookends this assault with a side story regarding the inhabitants of Terminus. It shows that they were not always evil, but circumstances and the need to defend their own people turned them that way. This is reflected throughout Season 5 as Rick constantly justifies his actions as for the good of the group. No Sanctuary suggests that anyone, including Rick, is capable of going too far. Even in the wake of amazingly gruesome zombie kills, epic gunfire, and Carol being awesome, The Walking Dead never fails to leave you with something truly thought provoking.
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