Never has a show jumped a proverbial shark only to land ever so steadily and tread water for a few seasons, then rise above once again like The Walking Dead. If you’re one of the viewers who stuck with the show through its lowest points, you will have reaped the benefits of the big pay-off that came after the post-apocalyptic series hit its stride once again.
The Walking Dead‘s earliest seasons drew viewers into emotional, heart-wrenching scenes, shocking them with copious amounts of action and gore, and built characters who fans became deeply invested in as the story arcs developed. Following some questionable middle seasons, the show returned to its initial appeal thanks to reinvigorated elements that made it fresh and exciting once again.
With the apocalyptic show coming to an end with its 11th season, it’s the perfect time to take a walk down memory lane and look at the previous 10 seasons to see how they stack up against one another. Here they are, ranked from worst to best.
The conflict with the Saviors is finally resolved in this season, but the wait was too long, making the slashing of Negan’s throat and the takedown of his group almost anti-climactic. Adding insult to injury, Rick decides to spare Negan’s life, leaving fans to wonder what might be coming next for the character they felt had long run his course. Fans were angered by Carl’s shocking death, right after he had finally come into his own as a character, especially since he had such a big role in the comics on which the show is based.
The return of the character Morales was more puzzling than exciting as most fans scrambled to Google who he even was. Eugene, who had been ambling along as a proud albeit reluctant new member of the Saviors, has the only redeeming moment of the season when he proves his true loyalties by sabotaging the ammo that was to take out Rick and friends. The season, dubbed the lowest rated one on Rotten Tomatoes by critics and audiences alike, also saw the death of Shiva, which was unforgivable in most fans’ eyes.
By the time the huge climax teased in season 6 finally aired in season 7, fans had already spent months speculating who would meet the end of Negan’s bat. It was finally revealed to be not one, but two people: Abraham and Glenn. The scene was so brutal, so gratuitously violent, that many die-hard fans declared their intent to boycott the show. It’s no surprise, then, that this season ranks among the worst. The Saviors reign and the group’s plans to attack and take over was drawn out too long, with every episode presenting an opportunity for closure that went unfulfilled. Fan-favorite character Daryl spent much of the season in captivity, Sasha sacrificed herself for the group, and Jadis proved an unfulfilling adversary (her character had far more nuance in the short-lived spin-off series Walking Dead: World Beyond). It was a season where you just kept waiting and waiting for something to happen that never did.
Fans learn what Morgan had been up to all this time (learning Aikido, apparently, and a new way of life that involved refusing to kill), Carl loses an eye, and in come the Saviors. It’s the first major introduction of Negan, who would become the show’s most compelling villain and the group’s most formidable challenger. He runs the vicinity like a mafia boss, taking what he needs and offering protection in exchange, though only until he feels like someone doesn’t follow his orders, at which point he makes an example out of them. There was a massive build-up to a huge character death scene only to fail to reveal who it was until season 7 resumed months later, leaving fans more angry and disappointed than excited with the cliffhanger.
The scene with Sophia’s undead body ambling towards the group out of Hershel’s barn and Carol falling to her knees in despair remains one of the most bone-chilling, emotional ones ever on the show. Much of the season isn’t as exciting and action-packed as others as it focuses on the group finding safe haven at Hershel’s farm along with the infighting between Rick and Shane, both of whom believe they should be the alpha male to lead the group. It’s the first time, however, that fans see innocent people killed and a pivotal moment that flips a proverbial maturity switch in Carl when he shoots an undead Shane to save his father. There’s also that big reveal that everybody turns when they die (nope, no one knew this in season 1), which becomes a game-changing piece of knowledge for the group. It’s this dreadful realization that opens their eyes to the fact that this problem isn’t going away any time soon. Arguably the best part of the season is the reveal of one of the most bad-ass characters on the show, Michonne.
The Walking Dead really hit its stride once again in season 9, and the momentum kept going through season 10. Fans see the mental trauma of losing so many children finally getting to Carol. She makes a critical error that gets everyone stuck in a cave and almost kills Connie. This is the season featuring that trippy, psychedelic episode with Michonne trapped in a room, drugged by Virgil. Fans loved seeing the redemption arc for Negan, who joins The Whisperers undercover, unbeknownst to anyone but Carol. Eugene makes contact with another group and a potential love interest using a radio, marking the first rumors of The Commonwealth making its way to the show.
Meanwhile, members of the group come across a quirky new character, Princess who adds much-needed comic relief to the otherwise dark and ominous show. It’s at the end of this season as well that fans finally get to see Negan’s backstory and a first look at the latest villainous group, The Reapers. The tone of the season flips back and forth between high action and slow burn, but it offers a nice enough balance to make it enjoyable the entire way through.
The villain that dominated the show for so many seasons had finally been reduced to a shell of a man. This season also saw the presumed death and exit of its long-time protagonist, Rick Grimes, as well as the first major time jump that picks up six years later. Baby Judith, now a pre-teen, proves to be an incredibly engaging and likable character, trained under the tutelage of her adoptive mother Michonne to become a fiercely talented fighter and confident little girl. A new set of characters are introduced, including Connie, Magna, Yumiko, and Luke, while fan favorites meet their end, including Jesus.
But what really makes this season among the best is the introduction of one of the scariest villain groups of the show, The Whisperers, including their formidable leader, Alpha, and her visceral number-two, Beta. They live off the land, roaming around with the dead wearing masks made from the pulled skin of walkers. In what many call the show’s Red Wedding moment, Alpha kills some of the most beloved characters, Tara, Enid, and Henry, mounting their decapitated and still animated heads on stakes to mark a boundary between her and the group. It kicks off a fierce battle between Alpha and alpha-mom Carol and fans couldn’t get enough of it.
There’s so much nostalgia in the inaugural season, which kicked off the entire series. Fans were introduced to characters like Rick Grimes, Daryl Dixon, Glenn Rhee, and Carol Peletier, who would become mainstays through much of and, in some cases, the entire show’s run. It was raw and exciting as fans had never seen such violence, gore, and incredible prosthetics work on a small TV show that didn’t launch with much fanfare. The term “walkers” (no zombies here) became part of everyday vernacular and fans felt every emotion as members of the group did whatever was necessary to survive.
What was most memorable about the season was how so many people from all walks of life came together. The story focused on the people and the difficult decisions they had to make, not just brainless zombies in perpetual search of warm flesh. This was the season before everyone honed their crafts, built their confidence, and understood how to navigate the new world: it was just a group of regular Joes trying to figure things out. Fans knew immediately that they wanted to be in it for the long haul.
The highest-rated season according to Rotten Tomatoes, with an impressive 90%, season 5 flips back and forth between the hospital where Beth is being held captive and vindicates fan-favorite character Carol, who comes to the rescue of the group, redeeming herself after being banished. Father Gabriel, who went on to have one of the most compelling character arcs on the show, is introduced as a bumbling, cowardly priest who locked his entire congregation out of the church to keep himself safe. So much went on this season, from Beth’s tragic death to the group getting a taste of normalcy in Alexandria, and Rick’s brutal killing of Pete, just as Morgan reappears on the show to witness the heinous act.
The season is rife with main character deaths, each handled in a unique and interesting way. Bob gets the last laugh, revealing to Gareth and his Terminus pals that his amputated leg they’re eating is infected since he had already been bitten. A bitten and dying Tyreese sees flashbacks of important moments in his life before he perishes. And Noah dies in one of the most gruesome scenes as he pleads for his life to an agonized Glenn who is unable to help him. The season ends with the introduction of one of the least compelling groups of villains, The Wolves, but for the most part, it’s an emotional, exciting, captivating one.
Hershel’s death scene was one of the cruelest of the show, and it was a pivotal moment in season 4. It’s the first time the show splits the group into smaller ones as everyone goes different ways in all the chaos. Abraham, Rosita, and Eugene are introduced, providing the first glimmer of hope when Eugene implies that he may know where and how to find a cure (spoiler alert: He didn’t). The journey to Terminus begins here, and while it seems to end as quickly as it starts, it’s the end of the season where the “old Rick” emerges that got fans excited for what was to come. The most memorable moment from the season is, however, Carol delivering those desperately sad five words, “Just look at the flowers,” to Lizzie. It’s a heartbreaking moment, one that caps a terrific season full of excellent character development.
Fans call Negan one of the best antagonists and the most multi-layered character on the show. Indeed, the season 10 episode with his backstory is one of the best pieces of cinematic work the show has produced. But there’s no denying that for early fans, The Governor was the ultimate foe, offering the first look at how an apocalyptic scenario, tremendous loss, potential for power, and threats to one’s life can slowly turn the most seemingly level-headed person into a terrifying tyrant.
The setting was a prison, where the group lives as best they can until The Governor decides he wants to take the property over. T-Dog sacrificing himself to save Carol had fans clutching their hearts while fan-favorite villain/hero Merle meeting his bitter end led to the first bit of raw emotion fans got to see from the otherwise stoic Daryl. It was an action-packed season that saw the end of Lori, the birth of Judith, and the introduction of Sasha and Tyreese. While many villains have come since, seeing the group fight someone who was more powerful and always a few steps ahead of them, was new to Rick and Co. at the time. The fact that the scenario was fresh and original for the group made season 3 one of the most exciting to watch, and the one worth watching again.
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