The final season of The Walking Dead is set to wrap in 2022, no less than twelve years after its debut. The series has shifted show runners, killed off countless characters, and thought up endless ways to pit humans against the undead, and, perhaps more importantly, each other. It might be the human drama that kept us tuning in for more, but this was never a series that let us feel too comfortable becoming attached to a character. Even fan favorites like Glen, Siddiq, and Beth were not safe from the zombie apocalypse, while central characters like Rick Grimes made pretty some controversial moves along the way.
Yet, much like zombies rising up from the graves of your family and friends, this is likely not the end of the franchise. Though we might be seeing the end of some character arcs, there has been plenty of discussion of further spin-offs, or even a Grimes-centered movie franchise. Regardless of where the series goes from here, The Walking Dead has built an incredible if mostly horrific legacy over its time on the air, and frankly, a lot of these moments still give us chills.
The Walking Dead – Season 1, Episode 1 “Days Gone Bye”
Waking up barely alive in a hospital where most of the staff is gone or deceased and having to put the pieces together to understand what exactly happened is one of the most frightening scenarios imaginable. That’s exactly what happens to Rick Grimes in the series debut of The Walking Dead. His family and loved ones are M.I.A., and he is stuck scrounging for sustenance as he tries to form a plan.
It’s easy to take this episode for granted as it sets up the show and delves into Rick’s past a bit. The first season of the show is not overall its best, but there are few greater cold opens in the history of television than this one. When Rick finds a horse and rides it into a seemingly deserted city, the poor animal is ultimately ripped out from under him and devoured by a swarm of “walkers” when he takes a wrong turn. Setting the stakes about as high as they could be right at the beginning helped set the tone for the series.
The Walking Dead – Season 6, Episode 2 “JSS”
This tells the tale of Enid, a kid who watched the visceral deaths of both her parents when they took a moment to perform some minor maintenance on a car and were instead ripped to shreds. This leaves her trapped in the car, but even when she manages to get free, she’s still lost. Repeating the mantra, “Just Survive Somehow,” she eventually makes it to Alexandria, but it’s a harrowing journey.
Otherwise, this is another episode in which the sliding morality of central figures is the major plot line, and it’s true that the “good guys” are out here committing murder in cold blood that they rationalize as being self-defense. To be fair, sometimes it is, but our crew is becoming a bit complacent in walking that line. Yet, scenes in which the group known as the Wolves burst onto the scene and cause rampant destruction are disturbing, to say the least, making this one of the most tightly-paced entries in the series.
Fear the Walking Dead – Season 4, Episode 3 “Good Out Here”
Featuring the infamous death of series mainstay Nick Clark, this is one that no fan is likely to forget. Yet, by using a child as its surprise antagonist, it delivers serious scares. Nick pleads with the young Charlie to stop doing what her brothers tell her to do, but it’s all to no avail. Meanwhile, Madison stops Nick from crossing a moral event horizon in killing Ennis, but he’s forced to eventually do just that.
There is a sense of destiny in this story that shows Nick’s fate is set in stone, which makes it all the more painful to watch as it unfolds piece by piece. Nick manages to kill Ennis after a fight in a silo, impaling Ennis on a set of deer antlers in a specifically grisly scene. Yet, Charlie is Nick’s surprising killer as she shoots him in the back. Again, this is one of the most famous death scenes of the Walking Dead mythos, and it doesn’t disappoint. Nick would continue to show up here and there in flashbacks, but for the ongoing narrative, this was his last stop.
The Walking Dead: The World Beyond – Season 1, Episode 7 “Truth or Dare”
The World Beyond sadly didn’t have much of a chance as it was canceled before the first episode even aired, but it has granted audiences two short seasons of killer character dynamics and surprise reveals that stand with the best of them. Perhaps no Walking Dead betrayal stings quite so much as that of Huck, who befriends the rest of the crew only to be revealed as the daughter of their primary antagonist.
This story tells how Huck got her facial scar, and it will come as a huge surprise to people expecting a lengthy fight scene. Instead, this episode places its weight on questioning the responsibility of a soldier, and whether she should have defied orders that led her to commit murder and betray her ethical code. Huck remains one of the more fascinating antagonists of the franchise, and this episode shows her at her absolute worst.
The Walking Dead – Season 9, Episode 15 “The Calm Before”
Villains come and go, but few to grace the screen have been quite so upsetting as Alpha. Leading a group of people called Whisperers who wear flesh suits and intermix with zombies, she travels in enormous groups and forces confrontations from the first moment she appears. As four communities come together to celebrate a period of relative peace, Alpha prepares to make a statement in a big way.
This entry is generally remembered for the shocking moment in which it is revealed that the Whisperers have killed and then taken the zombified heads of many friends and family members and put them on a series of pikes jutting up out of a nearby hill. Truly, that moment is devastating, but the reason it works so well is that there is quite literally a calm before it occurs. The group enjoying a social gathering and idly wondering where their friends is a major part of why the revelation is as crushing as it is.
Fear the Walking Dead – Season 7, Episode 3 “Cindy Hawkins”
It’s been noted elsewhere that Fear the Walking Dead may very well be the scariest offering of the franchise, and episodes like this one make that difficult to dispute. June and John are stuck in an underground bunker that belonged to the serial killer Teddy. They discover a room in which he tortured his victims, with the name Cindy Hawkins coming up as his apparent final victim.
Meanwhile, they can’t leave the bunker without extensive protection. Outside, John encounters strangers and shoots two of them with one making it inside the chamber. Chaos erupts, and they find out that what they believed to be the ghosts of Teddy’s victims were actually walkers. This is a layered episode, and it should be watched to be fully absorbed, but combining serial killers with zombies and the aesthetics of a nuclear holocaust all combines to create something uniquely bleak.
The Walking Dead – Season 7, Episode 1 “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be”
Negan has evolved into more of an antihero over the last many seasons, but his early appearances showed a man who was bent into something truly monstrous by his own personal tragedies. Prioritizing survival and riding the high of being the ruthless leader of a gang, he takes his baseball bat, named after his deceased wife Lucille, and bludgeons multiple cast members to death after a horrific game of “ennie, meenie, miney, mo.” This is to very little end other than to prove that he is capable of it and to force Rick’s group into compliant servitude.
This episode served as an impetus for many to leave The Walking Dead franchise behind, which is fair, considering the unrelenting brutality of the episode. Two recurring characters are slain, leaving families behind. Rick is nearly forced to cut Carl’s arm off, and, by the end of the episode, he is a shell of his former self. Maggie insists on vengeance, but it’s difficult to know what that could even entail after they all suffered so much at the hands of the Saviors. This was a turning point for many characters, and not everyone survived.
The Walking Dead – Season 2, Episode 13 “Beside the Dying Fire”
In season two, the group temporarily holes up at Hershel Greene’s farm, and it starts to feel downright cozy for a second if you ignore all the zombies. This episode proves that they are absolutely not going to be able to stay at the farm, and things start to get tense again. Rick killed his frenemy Shane in the previous episode, then was barely saved when Carl shot Shane’s reanimated form. This, however, called zombies to the farm.
This episode has a few claims to fame as it features a significant number of flashbacks that help flesh out some characters. It’s also the first appearance of the great Michonne, who would go on to be one of the break-out characters of the show and an eventual lead. Yet, scenes where Rick and Carl are trapped between a fire and a zombie horde remain absolutely chilling, even knowing they make it out.
The Walking Dead – Season 6, Episode 9 “No Way Out”
This is the kind of episode where every action shows an immediate negative reaction, and it just gets worse and worse as they go along. First, Daryl and crew are stopped by a group of Saviors, and he’s forced to kill them in an explosion. This would go on to have devastating effects in the near future, but even looking no further than the end of this entry, things are rough. Jessie Anderson’s son Sam experiences a breakdown, and it leads him to be devoured and her along with him, nearly causing Carl’s death, as well.
Naturally, this is all leading up to the season finale, which will see Negan’s mortifying domination of Rick’s group. This episode is clear proof that they were heading in a bad direction already, however, and they lose several people along the way. When one former friend pulls a gun on Rick, Michonne cuts him down, only for him to shoot out Carl’s eye. It’s that kind of chain reaction that powers through this entire episode, and it’s a doozy.
The Walking Dead – Season 11, Episode 6 “On the Inside”
There is a lot going on in season eleven, with a discomforting number of incredibly likable characters that we don’t want to see get eaten wandering around in highly precarious situations. Among them there is Connie, Kelly, and Virgil. This is an episode that should be experienced for the full effect, but the premise is that Kelly is searching for her sister Connie who is lost with Virgil. The two of them take shelter in a dilapidated cabin only to discover that it is inhabited by a pack of feral, cannibalistic humans. The rare episode in which zombies are far from the most terrifying threat.
Season eleven has had its slow moments, but it’s managed to deliver some serious horror elements while likewise tapping into the interpersonal connections that keeps fans tuning in. The premiere showed dusty, starved corpses springing back to life to devour our crew, and a following episode features zombies breaching the township during a storm, with Rosita walking out and fighting like a woman possessed to save a group of children in her care. It’s hard to say what direction the next episodes will take, but chances are there are more deeply unsettling moments in store.