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Braaaaains! 11 essential 'Walking Dead' episodes to binge before the series finale
From Rick waking up in the hospital all the way down to Negan's backstory!
The end is here for The Walking Dead. Currently wrapping up its eleventh and final season, the long-running series is preparing to literally ride off into the sunset this weekend with Daryl Dixon and and Carol Peletier after a 12-year run on AMC. Despite being set in a world overrun by walking corpses, The Walking Dead (based on the comic by Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore, and Charlie Adlard) actually outlived the network's other prestige television programs like Breaking Bad, Halt and Catch Fire, Low Winter Sun, and Into the Badlands.
Considering so much has happened since Rick Grimes woke up in that hospital bed all those years ago, it's high-time we took a look back at the show's biggest story beats. Head below for our guide on the 11 episodes to check out before The Walking Dead shambles into its final resting place.
***WARNING! The following contains major spoilers for the entire show!***
"Days Gone By" (Season 1, Episode 1)
Ah yes, the episode that cracked this entire franchise wide open. This jumbo-sized series opener (written and directed by original showrunner Frank Darabont) is not to be missed by any means. After a shootout gone wrong, Georgia police officer Rick Grimes wakes up in a fallen world occupied by hordes of the living dead. His confusion is our confusion as Darabont — who can expertly find the grounded humanity in any genre he tackles — makes it clear that the zombies... excuse us, walkers... are not the main draw here.
They’re just the proverbial icing on the decomposing cake.
The real focus of The Walking Dead has and always will be the people and how the end of civilized society pushes them to their absolute limits. Rick, who has barely seen a fraction of the horrors in this new reality, is determined to find his family while Morgan, who’s been living with the walkers since the very start, is nearly out of optimism. All he wants to do is keep his son safe and find the strength to put his undead wife out of her misery.
Rick’s horseback journey down an empty highway toward an abandoned Atlanta is still one of the most iconic shots of the series. Bonus points for the unexpected use of Wang Chung’s “Space Junk” at the end of the episode. (The song would be reprised for Rick’s exit eight seasons later.)
“Pretty Much Dead Already” (Season 2, Episode 7)
Did Season 2 kind of spin its wheels on Hershel’s farm? Sure. Can't really argue on that. Did the Sophia-centric storyline keeping the group on the farm wrap up in the best way possible? Hell to the yes! Twists don't come much better than this one.
The reveal of Carol’s daughter being among the walkers locked up in the barn achieved several things at once. Here's a quick rundown: it gave us closure on the fate of a missing character in a shocking way, severed Carol's last emotional connection and turned her into a hardened badass, brought Shane’s frustrations with Rick and Hershel to a boiling point, and made Hershel realize that walkers are not sick people in need of a cure.
“Killer Within” (Season 3, Episode 4)
Judith's birth comes at a great cost. This episode represented a major turning point for young Carl Grimes. He’s no longer a kid relying on his parents to protect him from the dangers of this new world. By killing his own mother before she can turn, Carl is forced to come of age before his time. His actions underscore one simple fact: the presence of walkers will always force a person to make difficult — and sometimes unthinkable — decisions.
“Too Far Gone” (Season 4, Episode 8)
The Governor just couldn’t leave well enough alone. He destroys the prison and adds insult to injury by beheading Hershel with Michonne’s sword in front of the man's daughters. It’s a gut-wrenching death made all the more tragic by Hershel’s momentous character growth from Season 2. He started off as a kind, yet hard-headed, farmer to being one of Rick’s most trusted confidants. Hershel spends most of Season 4 selflessly trying to save lives and is rewarded by losing his own. In case you needed a reminder of what the basic urge for survival does to human beings... here you go.
“Remember” (Season 5, Episode 12)
After so much running and uncertainty, our heroes step through the gates of the Alexandria community led by Deanna Monroe. This collection of furnished homes powered by solar panels seems like a paradise, the likes of which no one has seen since the start of the walker outbreak. Rick and the others get a chance to settle down and relax, but the only problem is they’ve been on survival mode this whole time, and it’s not that easy to switch off. The people of Alexandria are sheltered and unprepared for the dangers of what lurks just outside their walls. It’s a sham, a farce, a proverbial piece of tissue paper trying to hold back the flow of a fireman’s hose. Rick and the others see this truth right away, though it’s not unfair to say they sort of ruined Alexandria’s perfect game by turning up.
“Last Day on Earth” (Season 6, Episode 16)
This right here. This is how you introduce a villain, folks! Nothing has even come close to topping the slow-burn menace of Negan’s grand arrival into the world of The Walking Dead. Jeffrey Dean Morgan goes for the full swing of the bat (pun very much intended) — savoring every line delivery, every pregnant pause, every s***-eating grin. The leader of the Saviors is instantly detestable, but also strangely charismatic, and it’s this gross dichotomy that strikes uneasy fear into the hearts of those watching at home. Couple that with the looming uncertainty over which member of the group is about to get some quality time with Lucille, and you’ve got yourself a one-way ticket to pee-pee pants city.
“Sing Me a Song” (Season 7, Episode 7)
One of the best things about Negan is his undying respect for Carl Grimes, which originated here. Carl attempts to take out the lead Savior, but instead of murdering his would-be assassin, Negan gives the boy a tour of the Sanctuary. Having seen Negan beat Abraham and Glenn to death at the start of the season, we already know this guy is capable of killing anyone at anytime. Is he just toying with young Grimes? Is he going to make good on the threat of cutting off the boy’s arm? The mounting tension keeps the audience on tenderhooks, especially when Negan shows up at Alexandria to play house with Carl and Judith. But hey — at least he made spaghetti.
“Honor” (Season 8, Episode 9)
Nothing prepares you for the death of an OG character. Carl always seemed like the person who’d stick around for the duration of the show. Had things gone differently, he might’ve settled down with Enid. Sadly, the universe has some kind of twisted grudge against the the Grimes family and needed to give Rick another kick between the legs, if you know what we mean. Nevertheless, Carl's final moments show just how far he's come; how brave he is in the face of infection and subsequent suicide.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the Saviors lay waste to Alexandria for its insubordination. The only upsides are the arrival of Siddiq and a burning desire to take down Negan once and for all, which Rick eventually does by the season's end. However, it’s the teachings of mercy learned from his son that convince the former cop to spare Negan and lock him up for the rest of his days.
“What Comes After” (Season 9, Episode 5)
The Walking Dead needed to send Rick off in style and for the most part, this episode delivers on that front. Delirious from an injury, the world-weary leader finds himself haunted by visions of deceased friends like Shane and Hershel. It's a great way to bring back fan favorite characters in a genuinely organic way. Our only complaint is that Steven Yeun doesn’t make an appearance as Glenn. Even so, “What Comes After” is a fitting swan song for Mr. Grimes while still leaving the door open for that movie trilogy we keep hearing so much about.
“Here’s Negan” (Season 10, Episode 22)
This episode wasn’t part of the original lineup for Season 10. It was produced as a bonus entry once the show returned from its extended hiatus caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite being more of an afterthought, “Here’s Negan” feels more essential than anything related to the Whisperer War storyline. The character study of a flawed high school gym teacher who did everything to protect his cancer-stricken wife in the middle of a zombie apocalypse is heartbreaking and imparts an important lesson that not all monsters are born in a vacuum. Seeing Negan as a desperate man trying to do the right thing for selfless reasons proves that he once felt the terror and loss he'd later inflict on Rick & Co. And if he could feel that once, then it means he can feel it again.
“Out of the Ashes” (Season 11, Episode 5)
“Out of the Ashes” harkens back to the fight against the Saviors, one of whom alleges that our heroes are not the good guys they think they are. That idea comes back around when Carol, Aaron, Jerry, and Lydia discover a number of Whisperers hiding out in the smoldering ruins of Hilltop. They tie one up and interrogate him for information on the whereabouts of the rest of Alpha’s followers.
The distraught prisoner insists that the Whisperers are no longer a threat, though Aaron doesn’t buy it and allows a walker to bite the man’s hand. It’s something the Governor or Negan might’ve done, but not the characters we know and love. With the civility and order of the Commonwealth now in the mix, someone needs to fill that barbarous void. Fortunately, Aaron comes to his senses and allows the prisoner’s hand to be amputated before the infection can spread.
Still, we’re left with a major question: at what point do we become like those we claim to despise?
Seasons 1-10 of The Walking Dead are currently streaming on Netflix. The series finale airs Sunday on AMC.