Warning: Some possible spoilers ahead. I try to discuss episodes in a way that does not ruin anything, but consider yourself warned.
I know lists like this are subjective. I am a fan and a writer of zombie fiction. I am a full time writer. I have written multiple zombie novels. I have an ongoing series, The Dead Song Legend. I have written multiple zombie short stories including pieces in Permuted Press’s Fat Zombie, Best Horror of the Year volume 5, and Prime Books’ Zombies: More Recent Dead. I’m not the end all of Walking Dead trivia, but I’ve put in my ten thousand hours on zombies, I think.
I enjoy the comic and the show. There are a lot of great episodes. Some of my favorite moments in the series are not in my top ten episodes. The entire first season is full of great moments that locked in the audience for the long haul. The pilot is brilliant. The second episode is a classic with great action. Merle’s monologue while chained on the roof is incredible. The attack on the camp and the aftermath is great. The opening with Andrea and Amy in the boat discussing their father and fishing is beautiful. In later seasons, Shane demonstrating how zombies work and the opening of the barn is classic. Twelve Angry Dales is an important episode. A burning barn. The fall of a prison. The CDC. A busy highway. Daryl with a rocket launcher. Shocking and heart wrenching character deaths are peppered throughout the series.
A lot of the episodes on my list tend to be ones that stand alone. They have meaning within their respective seasons and story arcs, but they are also powerful on their own. I’ll try to make the argument for each episode that made the list.
10) Live Bait (season 4, episode 6)
This episode flashes back to the Governor being cut off and left on his own. He is hollowed out and broken. This is the episode that introduces Tara and her family. The Governor is one of the most iconic villains of the franchise. The show does not take him as far as the comic did. The show does not quite portray him as crazy as he comes off on the pages. Still, he is the baddest of bad guys up to that point. This episode plays with the audience in trying to explore whether such a man could be redeemed. It leads into the next episode where his arc of attempted redemption is played out. There is powerful character work all around in this episode. Strong story telling.
9) This Sorrowful Life (season 3, episode 15)
Rick is struggling with his moral compass. He is considering what should be an unimaginable trade with the Governor. He goes to Merle to suggest this unthinkable act in a way to set it in motion and somehow divorce himself from the dirty work. Merle goes for it and we have interesting scenes between him and another important character. Rick reconsiders too late and Daryl goes to stop his brother. Merle confesses that he is doing what he is doing because he does not feel he can ever be part of the group. He releases his captive, but continues on a collision course with his destiny in a uniquely Merle Dixon fashion. He remains who he is, but seeks out his final redemption. Great action and heartfelt moments with some beloved characters.
8) Save the Last One (season 2, episode 3)
We see the end of things and then go back to get the story. This is a big step in the descent of Shane. Rick and Lori are in a dire state unable to do much of anything to save their son, but to wait. Shane and Otis continue their desperate run at the high school to bring back what will save Carl. They both get hurt and come to a moment of decision. Shane briefly offers himself up. Otis makes a more noble decision. Then, Shane makes a dire choice that changes him and changes the show. The audience is left to grapple with the morality of it all.
7) JSS (season 6, episode 2)
This is probably my most controversial pick. It gives the back story of Enid. As of the mid point of season 6, she is the pariah of the show for many fans. We find out why she is a kindred spirit to Carl and his group in a way. JSS stands for a motto she developed while out in the world. This is the episode where the wolves arrive. We see violence fall on Alexandria in a way they are not prepared to handle. Carol is still playing the housewife cover and planting seeds of fear in Sam’s mind. As the world comes apart, Carol and Morgan prove to be equally capable of standing up to the threat while being polar opposites in their philosophies. It is written and acted brilliantly. The first half of season six is highly compressed in real time and an oven timer serves to demonstrate the swiftness of the violence in this episode. Other characters have strong moments through this episode as well. Choices of characters in this episode carry consequences later on.
6) 18 Miles Out (season 2, episode 16)
The group has someone they saved that they have to get rid of. Shane and Rick go out to drop off the puppy in hopes that he won’t come home. Rick confronts Shane about his choices and his relationship with Lori. They arrive at the drop only to discover that there is a problem with the plan. Shane wants to go with a deadly solution and Rick fights to stop him. Their fight becomes about everything else and turns quite violent. Zombies join in and Rick has a chance to leave Shane behind. Maybe this was about dropping off a different problem 18 miles out. He sees something that changes his mind and he goes back for Shane. None of their problems are solved in the end. The B story focuses on the female characters. Maggie struggles with the meaning of her relationship with Glenn. Beth is trying to decide if she wants to go on. Lori and Andrea argue over the role of women in the new world. Andrea takes an unconventional approach to dealing with Beth and ends up pushed out further from the group. The whole episode is great for action, story, and character.
5) What Happened and What’s Going to Happen (season 5, episode 9)
This is about taking Noah home. The group is on the move farther than they have ever gone before. This ends up being Tyrese’s episode. We see his past, his current strength, and his struggle with where he fits in the world. We get a hint of a new violence in the world that is not yet understood. Past characters lost along the way are included in Tyrese’s unique struggle. It is a powerful episode that takes its time in dealing with great losses in the world of the undead. It is well told.
4) Here’s Not Here (season 6, episode 4)
Morgan is testing the limits of redemption. We see his journey from where he was lost in “Clear” to where we meet him again in Alexandria at peace with himself looking upon a bloody Rick Grimes at the end of season 5. We meet the Cheese maker and see the bumpy journey to healing. Lennie James’s acting chops are a big part of why Morgan centered episodes are so powerful.
3) Clear (season 3, episode 12)
Rick, Michonne, and Carl are going back to the Grimes family home town to get more guns. The show is book ended by a choice about who to help and who to leave behind. Michonne is not trusted yet. Carl wants to get a piece of his past for Judith. We find Morgan at a low and strange mental state played brilliantly. Michonne proves to be part of the group in this episode. Morgan is still lost, but Rick reached out to him and Michonne in a way that he is not willing to do for just anyone. It is expertly written and acted. Of all episodes, it may be the strongest on exploring death, the fragility of life and the mind, and the tenuous nature of trying to hold ground against those that want to take it.
2) The Grove (season 4, episode 14)
The group has been scattered and each fragment is finding its way to Terminus. Carol, Tyrese, baby Judith, and young sisters Lizzie and Mika find a farm. They stop for a while and consider staying in this peaceful haven much longer. Each character is damaged in their own way when it comes to death and dealing with the undead. Some are incapable, others won’t see, one is dealing with terrible choices already made, and some feel insufficient to the task. These conflicts threaten the peace. Carol has to face the idea that she may be incapable of protecting children in this world. Terrible choices are made and Carol is forced to act. She confesses past sins to Tyrese and he demonstrates his character in deciding whether to forgive her or not.
1) No Sanctuary (season 5, episode 1)
There are a lot of great action episodes in the series not included on this list. This may be the highest stakes of the series up to the point this episode aired. Everything is on the line. The group proves their iron. Rick’s watch and the fate of a minor character are discovered again. Rick makes a promise that is delivered on later in the season. Carol shows what she is made of and is key in saving everyone. She is reunited with the group and Rick and Carl are reunited with Judith. In an episode of great violence, it contains such powerful hope. Tyrese deals with a Termite in a brilliant exchange on survival and what it takes to make it in the current world. We see the enemy and how they became what they were. Everyone and everything in this episode has depth.
Honorable Mention: Chupacabra (season 2, episode 5)
This episode falls in the midst of the search for Sophia. This is a story arc in season 2 that splits fans. Daryl takes this search very personally. Here he finds the strongest clues yet and takes a spill that tests what he is made of. We see into his past as he has visions. He proves what he can accomplish through sheer force of will and faces down Rick. A misunderstanding nearly costs him everything. The character conflicts throughout this episode create great tension and cross purposes.
Let me know what you think of my choices and where your favorites may differ.
— Jay Wilburn, writer
Jay Wilburn lives with his wife and two sons in Conway, South Carolina near the Atlantic coast of the southern United States. He has a Masters Degree in education and he taught public school for sixteen years before becoming a full time writer. He is the author of many short stories including work in Best Horror of the Year volume 5, Zombies More Recent Dead, Shadows Over Mainstreet, and Truth or Dare. He is the author of the Dead Song Legend Dodecology and the music of the five song soundtrack recorded as if by the characters within the world of the novel The Sound May Suffer. He also wrote the novels Loose Ends and Time Eaters. He is one of the four authors behind the Hellmouth trilogy. Jay Wilburn is a regular columnist with Dark Moon Digest. Follow his many dark thoughts on Twitter, Instagram, and Periscope as @AmongTheZombies, his Facebook author page, and at JayWilburn.com