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Grateful ‘Dead’: 10 Best ‘Walking Dead’ Episodes

As the AMC show returns for its fifth season, we look back at the series’ finest moments of high drama, horror and oh-my-god head shots

Walkers from 'Walking Dead'

Walkers from 'Walking Dead'

Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

Last season, AMC's The Walking Dead drew over 12 million viewers an episode — a huge audience for any show these days, but especially for one that each week sends its characters on a grim march toward certain death. Give credit to the show's writers, for making the gory saga of a zombie plague not just endurable, but meaningful. Following the lead of the Robert Kirkman, the creator of The Walking Dead comic (and one of the TV series' executive producers), the show traffics in both long, graphic-novel-sized arcs and the occasional short, stand-alone episode. That mixed approach has allowed the series to spend time exploring how its band of human survivors are struggling to rebuild a society — as well as take an hour here or there just to scare the crap out people.

These 10 standout Walking Dead episodes include some of the show's most chilling moments — warning: dead children ahead — but also represent what it does best, i.e. using ghastly carnage as the backdrop for intense character studies. These are the cream of the zombie-apocalyptic TV crop.

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‘Live Bait’ (Season 4, Episode 6)

A controversial episode among fans, "Live Bait" steps away from the action at the prison to catch up with the Governor (David Morrissey), who'd been MIA since the Season Three finale. In a mirror of the pilot, this chapter follows a dazed Governor trying to adjust to his new reality, before he finally finds comfort with a family that takes him in. For those with no interest in viewing the resident bad guy as a fully realized character, the episode may have seemed like the series was simply killing instead of walkers — but it actually sets up the final showdown between Rick and the Governor in Season Four's midseason finale. It also recasts the story of one of its main villains: a damaged man just trying to make a place for himself and for others in this fallen world.

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‘Walk With Me’ (Season 3, Episode 3)

The epic scope of the third season begins to come into focus in this episode, which brings Andrea (Laurie Holden) and Michonne to the thriving town of Woodbury, run by a deceptively charismatic man known as "The Governor." After the stiflingly spare locations of Season Two, "Walk With Me" adds another well-populated community to Rick's growing prison family, giving the show more conflicts to develop and different kinds of scenery to shoot. Yet it's most memorable for two moments: the reintroduction of the savage hick Merle (Michael Rooker), and the haunting final scene, which illustrates the Governor's insanity by showing him settling into a chair in his comfortable-looking living room, which is decorated with aquarium tanks full of decapitated zombie-heads.

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‘Tell It To the Frogs’ (Season 1, Episode 3)

After the pilot established the show's main theme as "man against nature" (with zombies as "nature”), series creator Frank Darabont spent the rest of the season making it all about "man against man." Rick finally found more survivors, and then quickly discovered that he was going to have more trouble getting along with humans than he'd had dispatching walkers. In "Tell It To the Frogs," the lawman is reunited with his wife, Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies), and son, Carl — and his best friend Shane, who's been sleeping with Rick's spouse in his absence — in a camp populated by a wife-beater and a pair of racist redneck brothers. Tension builds throughout the episode, as Shane stews back at camp, while one of the angry hicks, Daryl (played by the inimitable Norman Reedus), joins Rick on a mission back into Atlanta to rescue his peckerwood sibling. When Shane and Daryl finally explode into violence, it's because they've been driven to it by other people — not by zombies.

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‘The Grove’ (Season 4, Episode 14)

Midway through The Walking Dead's fourth season, the prison was finally overrun with walkers, and Rick and company scattered in a panic, losing track of each other. For the rest of the season, the show told smaller stories about the characters off on their own — resulting in some of the show's most memorable episodes. The series has never been bleaker — or more moving — than it was "The Grove," in which Tyreese (Chad L. Coleman) and Carol (Melissa McBride) find a relatively secure house in the country. Peace and stability seems to be at hand, until one of the children they've been looking after, Lizzie (Brighton Sharbino), becomes convinced that it would be better for everyone if they just died and were reanimated as zombies. Then Lizzie murders her own little sister, and Carol realizes what the humane thing is to do, in a scene that eerily echoes Of Mice and Men.

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‘Pretty Much Dead Already’ (Season 2, Episode 7)

The second season of may have admittedly stalled a little at first, as Rick and his fellow survivors spent as much time sitting around a farm bickering as they did killing zombies or restarting civilization. But its back half restored some urgency, beginning with this episode in which the group's farmer host Hershel (Scott Wilson) pushes them to leave, and they respond by trying to prove that his Christian compassion for walkers is going to be his undoing. In the brutal final scene, Shane breaks open the barn where Hershel has been holding the zombies he wants to heal, and everyone is shocked to see that among the undead is one of their missing friends, Sophia (Madison Lintz). When Rick executes zombie-Sophia, it's both a reminder of the stakes of the show and a foreshadowing of what's to become of Shane, who — as the episode's title implies — has been slowly losing his grip on humanity.

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‘Seed’ (Season 3, Episode 1)

George Romero's Night of the Living Dead movies didn't just invent the modern conception of a zombie; they provided a blueprint for how best to mount a zombie movie, by focusing on the futility of flawed human beings trying to collectively make a safe space for themselves. The Season Three premiere recalls Romero's 1978 masterpiece Dawn of the Dead by following Rick and his allies into an enclosed space — in this case, a prison — where they try to purge the undead and set up a permanent camp. Some of the best episode are process-driven, detailing the planning and hard work that goes into making it through another day of the apocalypse. "Seed" is a survivalist how-to with a few detours into how a community cooperates, both with each other and with any strangers they encounter. As a bonus, it also offers the first extended look at the fan-favorite character Michonne, who's out in the wilderness with her butchered zombie slaves, taking care of one of the group's lost companions.

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‘Clear’ (Season 3, Episode 12)

The show's third season has arguably been its most ambitious so far, splitting time between two warring human settlements and introducing about a dozen new characters. But the season's standout episode gets back to the show's roots. Rick, Carl, and the sword-toting zombie-slayer Michonne return to Rick's hometown, looking for weapons. There, they find Morgan (Lennie James) — the neighbor who helped Rick way back in the pilot. "Clear" quietly marks how much has changed since the story began, showing how the formerly level-headed Morgan has gone mad from watching his undead wife eat their son. And the chilling bookend scenes show how our hero has changed too, as he first refuses to pick up a hitchhiker, and later calmly retrieves that hitchhiker's gear when he comes across the man's dismembered body.

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‘Days Gone Bye’ (Season 1, Episode 1)

It might sound like a backhanded compliment to say that The Walking Dead's first episode is still its best, as if saying "Well, it's all downhill from here. But it's more a tribute to the staggering 67 minutes of television that is the show's bleak, almost self-contained pilot. Before the original showrunner Frank Darabont was shown the door, he set the tone for what the series could be, writing and directing a pilot episode as rich and gut-wrenching as a feature film, albeit with a cliffhanger instead of a climax. "Days Gone Bye" introduces Rick Grimes, a small-town deputy sheriff who wakes up from a coma into a world of zombified "walkers." Outside of a brief interlude involving a neighbor, the episode is mostly dialogue-free, following Rick as he makes his way alone to a rumored quarantine zone in Atlanta. The image of Rick riding into a devastated city on a horse — the last cowboy on Earth — hints at the way Dead would go on to fuse horror with other genres, from domestic melodrama to two-fisted action-adventure. And the overwhelming zombie hordes that greet Rick in Atlanta make it clear that from here on out, even the hero's best plans are going to end in mayhem.

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