The Walking Dead may not get much love for its writing by the awards folks, but we’re here to fix that. The show is known for its amazing practical makeup FX courtesy of executive producer Greg Nicotero and his team, but that’s not the only reason millions of viewers appointment watch this show. Any fan will tell you, The Walking Dead is not about the walkers, it’s about the living people of the apocalypse. And the show’s writers know how to reel the audience in every week to tell their stories, even if they take controversial means to do so.
Walking Dead showrunner Scott Gimple has taken a lot of heat over the years for several story decisions, most notably that season 6 cliffhanger and subsequent season 7 premiere, but he’ll tell you that it’s not easy keeping the dramatic thread pulled tight while holding a zombie show together. Even with Robert Kirkman and his graphic novels as a guide, things can get tricky to balance onscreen. And pleasing fans gets even trickier.
Let’s look at some of the best written episodes of The Walking Dead and examine just how the show has balanced monsters, action, story arcs, and viewer expectations. Oh, and if you don’t see your favorite Walking Dead episode here, list it in the comments.
Season 4, Episode 14
Written by: Scott M. Gimple
Directed by: Michael E. Satrazemis
With their prison sanctuary destroyed by the Governor and his followers, the survivors are scattered to the four winds. In this episode, Carol and Tyrese have made it out of the siege with three children, sisters Lizzie and Mika, and Rick Grime’s infant daughter Judith, not knowing if their fellow group members are dead or alive. The episode demonstrates that death, grief, loss, and therapy are handled differently in the zombie wasteland. It’s certainly a tough place for children.
The pairing of main characters Tyrese and Carol isn’t random for writer Scott Gimple, who uses the episode to deal with Carol’s secret (she mercy-killed Tyrese’s girlfriend to further prevent a flu outbreak at the prison), Tyrese’s grief over the death, and the sobering fact that this world isn’t set up for a child with mental illness. Carol tries to teach Mika to be tougher so that she won’t end up like her own daughter, Sophia, who got lost in the woods and bitten. She also seeks to convince Lizzie that her view of the walkers (the show never uses the word “zombie”) is a danger to them all. After Lizzie kills her younger sister to demonstrate that walkers are still people, Carol has to kill the child to keep them all safe.
Why it works: Playing out a complicated scenario on a smaller stage allowed Chad Coleman (Tyrese), Melissa McBride (Carol), and the two younger actors, Brighton Sharbino (Lizzie) and Kyla Kenedy (Mika), to fully explore the darker side of human nature. It also galvanized fans and critics alike. Even though the storyline was taken from the comics, it was a risky writing move onscreen. Is it worth it to take those risks? Surely, it is. Otherwise, how does a show fully realize its potential?
“Days Gone Bye”
Season 1, Episode 1
Written by: Frank Darabont
Directed by: Frank Darabont
The Walking Dead’s original showrunner Frank Darabont had a challenge on his hands. The show debuted at the height of Breaking Bad’s success. Imagine having to premiere after a season finale of that show? In TWD’s pilot, we watch sheriff deputy Rick wake up from a coma (gunshot wound from a suspect) smack dab in the middle of a zombie apocalypse and try to deal with the fact that the world has fallen.
Darabont had to cover a lot of ground, but the events don’t feel crammed in. We meet characters in a natural way, allowing us to take in the apocalypse along with Rick. Darabont takes us from shock to horror to disbelief to acceptance to heartbreak with each beat of the script. The episode ends with Rick riding into Atlanta on horseback and right into a walker herd. It’s a heart stopping scene and a damn good start to a series.
Why it works: Darabont didn’t avoid the zombie trope, he dove straight into it and came out the other side with a beautiful and touching compassion for the undead. He also gave his lead actor a solid journey and not just pile-on on horror as setup. Before he’s joined by an ensemble cast, it’s just Rick and this gutted world. Darabont knows how to sell you on all of it by the end of the episode where Rick is trapped inside a military tank with no way out. You can’t wait to see what happens next. If you have a lot of story to cover and also want to keep the suspense high, use this episode as a guide.
Season 4, Episode 12
Written by: Angela Kang
Directed by: Julius Ramsay
After the prison falls, Daryl and Beth find themselves separated from the rest of the survivors, with Beth mourning her father, in search of her first alcoholic drink, and both characters searching for a way to live without their friends and family. The episode gave writer Angela Kang an opportunity to explore characters we hardly know but want to. Even though Daryl Dixon says about 10 words in each season, Kang made him speak and viewers loved spending time with the show’s favorite redneck.
Fans hunger for anything Daryl-related whether it be watching him eat spaghetti like a hungry hyena or making fun of Carol’s sweater set. This episode had The Walking Dead fans shipping Beth and Daryl after they mourn the loss of Beth’s beloved father Hershel, get tipsy on moonshine, burn down a trailer (a replica of Daryl’s own childhood home), and flip off the burning mess, and Daryl’s past, in triumph.
Why it works: The episode isn’t dialogue heavy and doesn’t travel too far in plot, but it went deeply inward, especially for a character who rarely reveals anything about himself. Kang lets the episode breathe, giving space for the characters to reveal more about themselves in the scenes without dialogue as much as when they speak. You can achieve this affect by writing a scene and then erasing the dialogue. See what your character can do without speaking.
Season 5, Episode 1
Written by: Scott M. Gimple
Directed by: Greg Nicotero
In the opening and closing scenes of the episode, Gimple demonstrates how the cannibals of Terminus came to be the villains that lure and torture Rick and the survivors. We learn that the Terminus group were once lured, tortured, and then used for meat themselves before turning on their captors. Each group of survivors we encounter throughout the series re-interpret the rule of law. “You’re either the cattle or the butchers,” the Terminus crew has surmised. Rick’s group thinks their way is better and exact their own revenge upon the remaining members of Terminus with a special brand of brutality. One of the show’s main questions is, “Who’s the villain? Who’s the hero?” Probably depends on who’s on the business end of Rick’s red-handled axe.
Why it works: The wrap around scenes demonstrate that you don’t need episodes to explain who the bad guys are. Gimple gets it done in two short scenes. The episode also has a steady pace that leads right up to Carol’s assault on Terminus as she rides in to save Rick and the group like a total badass. The episode is a rollercoaster ride, hitting just the right emotions from start to finish. Also, making a person like Carol the badass of your series is bold as it gets. Over the seasons, the writers took her from mousy, abused housewife to High Plains Drifter and the repeated savior of the group. Unexpected choices like this makes TV the best.
“Pretty Much Dead Already”
Season 2, Episode 7
Written by: Scott M. Gimple
Directed by: Michelle MacLaren
Season 2 saw most of the show stuck on Hershel’s farm, searching for Carol’s daughter Sophia who wandered away from a walker herd on the highway, Rick’s wife Lori whinging on and on about something or another, formerly suicidal Andrea bugging Dale (and us) about shooting a gun, and Dale making wild eyes at Shane because Shane has gone crazy over the knowledge that Lori is pregnant and the baby is probably his (yep). There were some highlights in this slog of a season, though. Glenn and Maggie got together. Daryl called Lori Olive Oyl. There was an ooey gooey walker Glenn had to fish out to of a well. And this episode happened.
Glenn starts the episode spilling the beans about walkers Hershel has kept in the barn as he prays and waits for a cure. Our survivors know better. There is no cure and their season 1 visit to the CDC pretty much answered that question. The revelation is used to full effect, bringing Sophia’s storyline to a close (she was in the barn the whole time, ugh), galvanizing Carol, and changing Hershel’s mind about the infected, his faith, and sanity.
Why it works: If you’re going to save budget by staying in one location and chasing your tail in one boring storyline after another, you might as well go out with a bang. From the end of a Colt Python. Season 2 was a mixed bag, but when it came time to deal with the Sophia storyline, Gimple and company didn’t shy away from killing off Carol’s daughter, even though she’s alive and well in the comics. It’s one of those times that diverging from the source material worked.
“Here’s Not Here”
Season 6, Episode 4
Written by: Scott M. Gimple
Directed by: Stephen Williams
In a Walking Dead episode we didn’t know we wanted, Gimple turns to the lens on Morgan after his ascent into madness and how he became the zen bō master of today. We meet Morgan in the pilot as he struggled to kill his walker wife while shielding his son from the harsh realities of the fallen world. We then check back in with Morgan in season 3 to find that he’s gone a bit insane, holed up in a small town killing everything in sight, muttering to himself, and reeling from the death of his son. Then Morgan rolls up in season 6, wielding his bō in full-on Ip Man mode with a “do no harm” philosophy that exasperates the survivors in general. Lennie James (Morgan) and John Carroll Lynch (Eastman) turn in fine performances, carried along by Gimple’s stellar script and under Stephen Williams excellent direction.
Why it works: After five seasons, delving into characters’ psyches is a breath of fresh air, even if it’s with someone we haven’t spent a lot of time with. We’re here for Gimple’s writing. Simple, evenly paced, and efficient. It was a nice change, watching the evolution of a character over 90 minutes. If only the series would give us this kind of time with other characters such as Michonne, Daryl, or Carol. That’s the tough part about writing — deciding who you give real estate to in your script. Each week, the writers have to figure out who to focus on and that means some characters get less. Do an inventory of your own characters. Are you giving enough space to those who need it and minimizing others?
This episode stands out for several reasons. We flash back to the beginning of Carol’s exile by Rick after he figures out that she killed two of the survivors to save the rest of the group from infection in the prison. At first, Carol is shattered by being forced out of a group she’s fought so hard to protect and regards as family. She’s tougher than she was in the first few seasons, but she’s still fragile. She returns to a women’s shelter in Atlanta she would run to before the apocalypse when her abusive husband Ed became violent with her and her daughter, Sophia.
Then we flash to the present where she and Daryl are in search of fellow survivor Beth, who’s been kidnapped. They track her to Atlanta and stay in the same women’s shelter to take cover for the night. We learn that Daryl, too, was abused by his alcoholic father.
Why it works: Norman Reedus (Daryl) and Melissa McBride (Carol) have solid chemistry and writers Matthew Negrete and Corey Reed make the most of it, using quiet, sparse scenes to show how abuse survivors communicate and ultimately bond.
“This Sorrowful Life”
Season 3, Episode 15
Written by: Greg Nicotero
Directed by: Greg Nicotero
Rick makes a deal with the Governor (leader of a rival survivors group in Woodbury) to trade newcomer and Samurai katana-wielding Michonne to prevent a siege on the prison. As a captive, Michonne blinded the Governor in one eye and killed his walker daughter Penny, so he wants her back to torture and kill at his pleasure. It’s left up to former Governor henchman and Daryl’s assh*le brother Merle to explain to Rick just how terrible that decision is. But Rick won’t budge and sends a bound Michonne with Merle off to Woodbury.
Along the way, Merle decides he’s had enough of being a bad guy. He cuts Michonne loose and heads to Woodbury, solo, determined to do a lot of damage before sacrificing himself for a shot at redemption. After taking out a bunch of the Governor’s men, the Governor kills Merle but leaves him to turn (only killing the brain prevents a person from becoming a walker). Daryl, who tracked his brother back to Woodbury, finds walker Merle munching on a body. He is devastated. We feel the loss with him.
Why it works: Can we all agree that Greg Nicotero is a talented dude? Besides, producing, directing, and heading up the special makeup FX on The Walking Dead, he’s got quite the knack for writing as well. In this episode, Nicotero takes us on a journey that made us comfortable with just how uncomfortable the show can get. He also knows a thing or two about storytelling. Trust your actors. Write challenging scenes. They will rise to the occasion. This was Michael Rooker’s (Merle) episode and he demonstrates why he’s still a working actor after a couple of decades. Nicotero gave Rooker the words and actions and Rooker broke our hearts.
“When the Dead Come Knocking”
Season 3, Episode 7
Written by: Frank Renzulli
Directed by: Daniel Sackheim
Maggie and Glenn are taken hostage by Merle, now working for the Governor as a hired gun. Well, in the case of Merle, a one-armed guy with a knife for a right hand. The pair are kept in separate rooms and menaced by Merle and the Governor for knowledge regarding the survivors at the prison sanctuary. Glenn must fight his way out of a locked room with a rabid walker as part of Merle’s revenge for being handcuffed to a roof back in season 1 (hence the missing hand), and Maggie must endure the lecherous threat of the Governor.
Why it works: Not every episode needs a bunch of monologuing characters. Writer Frank Renzuli demonstrates that quiet, measured violence is just as affective as a walker herd or shoot-out.
It’s the zombie apocalypse, guys. We need to see if there’s any hope of finding a cure or stopping this thing. Do the authorities have any answers? Turns out, that’s a big fat, “Nope!” Our beleaguered group of survivors have battled their way to the CDC to find the heavily fortified doors locked and a sea of devastation surrounding it. A moving camera reveals that someone is inside and the gang bangs on the doors until they are let in, barely escaping a horde of encroaching walkers.
After five episodes of blood, grime, and walker guts, the survivors find the cool, clean, and well-stocked interior of the facility to be pure heaven. But Dr. Edwin Jenner, the lone surviving scientist of the CDC, has a secret. There is no cure. And worse, everyone has the virus so when you die, you turn. Noah Emmerich was an excellent casting choice for Jenner. When this guy gives you bad news, you believe it to your core.
Why it works: In any other show, this episode could have been corny and trope-tastic, but Adam Fierro and Frank Darabont handle a visit to the CDC in a zombie apocalypse with deftness. It’s the matter of fact dialogue of Dr. Jenner that grabs you as well as what he doesn’t say that scares the hell out of us.
MAJOR SEASON 7 SPOILER!
“The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be”
Season 7, Episode 1
Written by: Scott M. Gimple
Directed by: Greg Nicotero
In season 6, episode 3 (“Thank You”), Glenn is trying to save hapless Alexandrian Nicholas from walkers while the two balance precariously on top of a dumpster. Instead of banding together to escape the dead end, Nicholas turns a gun on himself, whispers, “Thank you” and then pulls Glenn down into the walkers. Fans waited all summer to learn Glenn’s fate as the rest of the episodes played out, nearly rivaling the fate of Game of Thrones fan favorite Jon’s Snow “death.” When Glenn turned out to be alive, fans were relieved and annoyed that they spent an entire summer theorizing how he could have survived under that dumpster. This might have been where Gimple overplayed his hand. Because what came next sent a lot of viewers off the deep end.
In the controversial season 6 finale, super villain Negan arrives and appears to kill someone in the group, leaving it completely unclear as to whom. Fans were not happy with being faked out about Glenn Rhee’s death at the beginning of the season and then served up this cliffhanger.
Negan needed a grand entrance equal to his comic book arrival and, man, did Gimple give it to us. Along with his faithful baseball bat companion Lucille, he bashed in the heads of ginger-haired catchphrase king Abraham Ford and fan favorite Glenn in a gut-wrenching episode that is still hard to watch without choking up and/or flinching.
Why it works: Maybe with some time and distance, fans will be able to watch this episode and appreciate it for what it is. Gimple gives us some adequate space to absorb the brutal deaths of two main characters and, yes, it takes him nearly a half an hour to reveal who died. He and Robert Kirkman claimed they weren’t “screwing” with viewers, but they weren’t about to let Glenn and Abraham die without emphasizing their importance to the other survivors and to us. As brutal as it was, Gimple honored two beloved characters while raising the stakes. And that’s a feat in writing. Knowing when to dole out information and when to hold it back is another skill that will help you master suspense.
What are your favorite episodes? Are you writing a spec script of The Walking Dead? And if so, which story elements are you trying to master?