Eleven seasons and innumerable spin-offs later, The Walking Dead finally shuffles off this mortal coil. Here's our ranking of the worst to best installments of the landmark series.
Advertisement

It may be difficult to recall, 12 years on, how innovative and positively shocking the first season of The Walking Dead was when it aired on AMC in October through December of 2010. The inaugural season accomplished many things, amongst them launching the careers of Jon Bernthal and Steven Yeun, reinvigorating that of Norman Reedus, and proving that Andrew Lincoln could play more than the world's creepiest sign twirler

In addition to bringing us some of our most beloved actors, not to mention characters, The Walking Dead introduced a new watermark for television violence, pushing the acceptable standards from the stylized, benign realm of CSI and 24 into full-on NC-17 territory. Mad Men, along with Breaking Bad, may have introduced the era of peak TV, but it was The Walking Dead that made the most indelible and immediate impression, a show that became a consistent ratings juggernaut and would shape the television landscape into the present. Just consider, the words "midseason finale" did not exist before Rick Grimes and his crew came onto the scene.

Throughout the cast departures (and returns), heartbreaking deaths, and innumerable Zombie Kills of the Week, The Walking Dead has continuously captured the collective imagination and kept fans on their toes with a cascade of unexpected revelations. The series returns for the last eight episodes of its 11th and final season on October 2 on AMC and AMC+, but that won't be the last you'll hear from this undead universe. Fear the Walking Dead was recently renewed for an eighth season, while anthology series Tales of the Walking Dead recently began its first season. Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus) will have his own as-yet-untitled spin-off as well, while The Walking Dead: Dead City will follow the unlikely pair of Maggie (Lauren Cohan) and Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) to a post-apocalyptic Manhattan. Of course, Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) himself will return along with Danai Gurira's Michonne in a six-episode series set to air on AMC+ in 2023. To commemorate the final stretch of the final season of the flagship series, we've ranked all 11 seasons of The Walking Dead below, from worst to best.

TWD_801_GP_0509_0374-RT
Credit: Gene Page/AMC

Season 8 (2017-2018)

Much like a human pursued through the night by ravenous walkers, the eighth season of The Walking Dead rounds home twitchy, exhausted, and out of ideas. The All Out War thread ultimately builds to very little, making one realize that even at its previous, most clickbait-generating nadir (see below), the show at least had the decency to be fitfully interesting.

The return of family-man Morales from the first season is the greatest indication that the creative minds are out of ideas. In the intervening years, Morales has lost his wife and daughter and joined up with Negan's Saviors. That's a compelling arc that the show does absolutely nothing with, instead trotting him out for a limp reveal before Daryl murders him just as quickly. It's cheap, nasty stuff — unfortunately, not in a good way.v

TWD_716_GP_1111_0242-RT
Credit: Gene Page/AMC

Season 7 (2016-2017)

Many die-hard fans were outraged when it was revealed that both Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) and Glenn met Lucille at the end of season six, but it was a move largely in step with the no-one-is-safe ethos The Walking Dead has forever cultivated. The biggest problem with that revelation is that season seven seems to have nowhere to go after the secret has been told.

Though the addition of Negan, one of the more charismatic characters on the show (perfectly played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan), injects a bit of flavor to the proceedings, most of the episodes meander around compelling ideas without ever embracing them. The Oceanside storyline, in particular, is woefully underserved. Worst of all, there seems to be difficulty assigning meaningful action to each member of the expansive cast, one of the show's great skills in its earlier seasons.

Steven Yeun walking dead
Credit: Gene Page/AMC

Season 6 (2015-2016)

This is the season in which The Walking Dead seemingly became too aware of its cultural impact, with the inventive subversion of the previous installments now replaced with goading trickery designed to inspire reactions from everyone rather than satisfaction for anyone.

Glenn's "death." summarily followed by his reappearance, was sloppily handled both on and off camera. (Removing Steven Yeun's name from the credits will likely go down in TV history as the primary example of creative attention being put in all of the wrong places on a juggernaut series.) Likewise, the ultimate cliffhanger at the end of the season feels devised simply to spark conversation rather than serve as a natural conclusion to the season's arc. Coming on the heels of season five and the escalating quality of the series to this point, season six was a particular letdown.

The Walking Dead
Credit: Josh Stringer/AMC

Season 11 (2021-2022)

Though still unfinished as of this writing, season 11 has started off on a strong note. Thus far, it has given us the series' greatest all-out horror episode with "On the Inside", which finds Connie (Lauren Ridloff) and Virgil (Kevin Carroll) fighting for their lives in an abandoned house against a deadly crew of feral cannibals. The full scope of the show's long-running status has come into clear focus with these episodes. Outside of soap operas, it's hard to find a non-comedic television show that has allowed its cast to develop their characters over such an extended period of time. The fruits of this labor are most vivid in Maggie's surprisingly rich character arc; her reentry into the community only to find Negan (who, let us not forget, killed her beloved Glenn) as an ally, is one of the sharpest narrative turns the series has taken.

With eight episodes left to go, the jury is still out on where "The Final Season Trilogy" will permanently rest on a best-of list, but at this point it is far stronger than anyone could have anticipated an 11th season of The Walking Dead would be. If it continues to deliver spiky character development (and resolution) along with the grand guignol thrills of its more horror-leaning episodes, there's no reason to think this season won't be one of the most well-regarded overall.

The Walking Dead
Credit: Jackson Lee Davis/AMC

Season 10 (2019-2021)

Arguably the series' most-assured mix of high-octane, gory action and slow-burn story development, season 10 proves that The Walking Dead is very much reanimated from its mid-2010s slump. It's also the finest season so far for Negan, who completes a villain-to-hero arc worthy of a Fast and Furious sequel with his infiltration of the Whisperers, while also claiming the standout episode with the finale, "Here's Negan."

The only misstep in this season are five of the additional six episodes, which were added to the run when the pandemic disrupted the original plans to air the finale, as complicated effects work for the episode was unable to be accomplished remotely. While that run did give audiences "Here's Negan," the five episodes that precede that terrific installment feel vaguely uneasy, like auditions for a series of so-so Walking Dead spin-offs that didn't make it to air.

While it's creatively admirable (and much-appreciated) to add further episodes during lockdown whilst utilizing those limitations to tell the stories, most of them cannot help but feel hampered by their limitations and as a result cast a shadow on an otherwise exceptional season.

The Walking Dead (Season 2)
Credit: Gene Page/AMC

Season 2 (2011-2012)

There are certainly highlights within this sophomore season, namely Jon Bernthal's fearsome portrayal of Shane's descent into full-on villainy and his showdown with Rick, which remains one of the most-gorgeously photographed sequences on the show.

Additionally, the mass slaughter of the walkers that Hershel (the late Scott Wilson) has sequestered in his barn, including a walkered-up Sophia (Madison Lintz), serves as an emotional high point not just for the season but the entire series; and Steven Yeun continues his run as the finest actor on the show, developing Glenn so closely to his comic book counterpart that it is often uncanny. His and Maggie's romance this season is particularly well-developed, and the most tangible byproduct of the rich character work this season was working toward with its more patient pacing.

It cannot be avoided, however, that after the giddy sugar rush of season one, season two was a bit of a damp squib overall. These 13 episodes are collectively emblematic of the terminal illness that continues to afflict many shows and limited series: it is muuuuuch longer than it needs to be. Six episodes, like the first season, would have been a perfect length for the story told here. Instead, seven additional hours, much of it reiterating the same beats, bog down the aspects that work and leave an overall unsatisfying impression.

TWD_903_GP_0530_0161_RT
Credit: Gene Page/AMC

Season 9 (2018-2019)

A rip-roaring return to form, and a massive improvement over the previous three seasons, The Walking Dead came out of the gate with something to prove at the top of its ninth season and, boy, did it. With Alpha and the Whisperers, (certainly the greatest post-punk band that never was), the show finally introduced a villain as fearsome as The Governor.

After several seasons of complacency, fans were reassured that The Walking Dead was just as vicious and no-holds-barred as it's always been when it unleashed it's much-discussed "Red Wedding" moment, when it's revealed that Alpha (Samantha Morton) has speared the heads of several fan favorites. A lesser series would have soft-pedaled that turn, swapping out our beloved characters for more disposable heads to fill those stakes, but The Walking Dead plays it through.

It's also hard to imagine a series which handles the exit of its longtime protagonist better than season nine of The Walking Dead. By jumping forward six years after Rick's assumed death, and shifting focus to an older Judith (Cailey Fleming), the show manages to fully reinvigorate itself while not for a moment reminding us of the actor or the character who we loved is no longer present. It's a breathtaking feat of writing and direction, as is most of this stellar season.

TWD_402_GP_0523_0382
Credit: Gene Page/AMC

Season 4 (2013-2014)

The fourth outing does a masterful job of blending old and new whilst charting a course for future seasons. For the first time in the show's history, The Walking Dead begins to fully embrace its horror roots, especially in the prison setting, which is employed to wonderful effect here and lends the episodes a bit of a funhouse quality.

It's also the first season in which Rick's group splinters into smaller contingents, after Hershel's death at the hands of The Governor, which allows a show already known for its in-depth character development to dive deeper into the relationships between new characters like Abraham, Rosita (Christian Serratos), and the cure-obsessed Eugene (Josh McDermitt). While Carol and Lizzy perhaps share the most memorable moment of this season, it's the inexplicable bond that forms between Daryl and Beth that lingers long.

The Walking Dead _ Season 5, Episode 8
Credit: Gene Page/AMC

Season 5 (2014-2015)

Within season five are some of the strongest character introductions and payoffs the series has offered. Carol's return and redemption, after her banishment from the group, was a thrilling turn for the character, so evocatively rendered by Melissa McBride over these many seasons.

If there was any character that deserved her redemption, it is Carol, and season five milks that turn for every ounce of emotion it holds. We also meet Father Gabriel, one of the most fascinatingly conflicted characters and now one of the central players on the show. The reveal that the inhabitants of Terminus have turned cannibalistic is ridiculous in the best fashion; it's handled with an exploitation movie sensibility that, if anything, makes one wish The Walking Dead indulged more often in loony-bin thrills, and leads to a series highlight when Bob (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.) delivers a terrific punchline to a group of hungry Terminians feasting on his leg.

Fear the Walking Dead Season 3
Credit: Michael Desmond/AMC

Season 3 (2012-2013)

After the second season treaded water and seemed unsure of where to take the characters, or how big to make the world, season three rather instantly rights itself with the introduction of Michonne and the power struggle between Rick and The Governor, David Morrissey's diabolically sociopathic leader of the Woodbury commune. While Negan is somewhat erroneously regarded as the most fearsome and relentless villain, The Governor always seemed a much more unstoppable force with a greater capacity for evil than Negan ever possessed. His unadulterated psychopathy leads to some of the most fascinating and brutal moments across this season and the next.

Along with The Governor, and the compelling rendering of Woodbury, TWD's third season juices the franchise in all the right ways, featuring a wealth of stand-out moments and episodes that allow it to rank right alongside the first in terms of quality. It gets back to the propulsive storytelling of that initial run without sacrificing characters, but it also isn't afraid of killing off a litany of central figures (see ya later Laurie Holden's Andrea, see ya…never, I guess, Sarah Wayne Callis' Lori), showing viewers that The Walking Dead had no intention of softening up.

First_Rick_Shot_release
Credit: AMC

Season 1 (2010)

It's impossible to surpass The Walking Dead's first season in terms of quality and consistency. These first six episodes are lean and unrelenting, never letting up on the gas pedal and unequivocally the best the series has to offer in terms of pacing and thrills.

Yet, first season showrunner Frank Darabont (who also directed the pilot) and his crew are adept at incorporating patient, unexpected character development amidst the chaos without disrupting the rollercoaster nature. The pilot, along with the fourth episode, "Vatos," are two outstanding hours of television that represent the absolute peak of the series, an adaptation that satisfies what fans of the comic expect while also changing just enough that the show may stand as its own unique experience.

Related content:

    Comments