It’s been quite a shamble, hasn’t it? For 13 years, The Walking Dead has been AMC’s centerpiece of prestige entertainment, its inaugural series racking up an unprecedented level of ratings that, in hindsight, might not have been completely sustainable for any show, regardless of quality. And quality has proven to be the biggest sticking point for the franchise’s audience, which has only hemorrhaged its numbers since the series’s peak during the premiere of Season 7. While The Walking Dead has never shared the same critical adulation as other AMC offerings such as Breaking Bad or Mad Men, the flagship show still spawned a staggering number of spin-offs and webseries. To watch all of these shows — that's 385 episodes and counting — would be insane; to rank them in quality even more so.
And yet, as we prepare to bid adieu to The Walking Dead: Daryl Dixon for the season on October 15, it’s time to see how AMC’s latest walker-festooned series stacks up to all the zombie evasion and decimation we’ve seen from the franchise thus far. Some quick housekeeping: As the original Walking Dead has gone through a few notable shifts in its 11 seasons, both in terms of direction and quality, it’s only fair to break the series into its distinctive eras — the Darabont Season; the Gimple Stabilization; the Gimple Catastrophe; the Kang Dynasty — to better evaluate this foundational horror series.
Also, because of the sheer number of small-screen offerings alone, you’ll find no Telltale Walking Dead here, though we’re honor-bound to acknowledge that much-beloved video game series.
Hold onto your brains and sharpen your machetes; it’s time to rank the entirety of The Walking Dead universe.
Of all the web series in the TWD expanded universe, Torn Apart feels the most like… well, a web series. Its low-tier budget and distracting edits (never before have fade-ins endured more abuse), paired with a parade of rough performances, give it an amateurishness that isn't commonly associated with the franchise. Most notably, its brief six-episode run (averaging two and a half minutes each), which depicts Day 1 of the walker outbreak and serves as a vaguely realized cameo for the "bicycle girl" walker Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) kills in the first episode of The Walking Dead, represents the series's most unfortunate tendency: a penchant for chronologically hopping around without a clear purpose.
Experimentation is only natural. Breaking the mold, expected. Especially for TWD's formula of sad people chopping walkers between eating cans of beans and/or sobbing. For AMC, the anthology Tales of the Walking Dead was an opportunity to work with an exciting new cast (Parker Posey! Olivia Munn! Anthony Edwards!) and break away from the formula. Only Tales botched this newfound freedom by oscillating its tone and showing indifference to the source material.
Such are the perils of an anthology, yet Tales was so all over the place in what it wanted to accomplish that it wound up feeling like The Walking Dead had stumbled into The Twilight Zone. (In one instance, it bends space and time and expects hardened fans to play along.) The "Amy / Dr. Everett" episode hews closest to a more typical episode of TWD, and it's all the better for it. Stories of survival that take unexpected paths and reveal human truths are exciting and satisfying. The crucial flaw in Tales is how little most of it reveals about people in a crisis or something — anything — about the overall saga. (Even "Dee," an origin story for Samantha Morton's Alpha, feels superfluous.) Tales is bad because it is, by design, disposable.
As a spin-off, World Beyond is TWD at its most frustrating. And not because of its YA trappings, which sets a group of sassy, tenacious, somewhat oblivious teenagers free from their safe (and boring, amirite) Nebraskan college town to find their scientist father out in — yes — the world beyond. The series grates because it’s so nakedly a safe (and boring!) exercise in brand management, wherein the mysterious Civic Republic — the helicopter-having military group that puts three intersecting circles on all their gear and has something to do with the survival of Rick Grimes — gets a little more illumination. It exists so the upcoming Rick and Michonne (Danai Gurira) show, The Ones Who Live, can make more sense.
Building upon the mega-structure isn’t an issue — in fact, it’s nice that TWD feels like it’s building towards something, anything, at this point. It’s the concept that’s flawed: a teen drama that centers uninteresting, oddly lucky characters (these youthful zombie killers have never left their safe zone home, remember) in a world where interesting, determined people lie, cheat, steal, and kill to stay two steps ahead of the hordes of walkers looking to make them a meal. Their continued survival throughout these two seasons (plus or minus one member of their squidgy fellowship) feels like a joke. This one’s for TWD completists only.
Passage, the second Fear The Walking Dead web series, feels like a by-the-numbers action sequence snatched from one of that spin-off’s more forgettable episodes. It follows Sierra (Kelsey Scott), an outbreak survivor with a firm grasp on the nature of the walkers (not to mention her serrated army knife). Sierra comes across Gabi (Mishel Prada), another survivor less keen on taking down walkers, even at the cost of her life. Perfunctory stuff follows, even by TWD standards, with Sierra attempting to show Gabi the ropes (“Aim for the temple, the brain stem, or the eyes,” being her admittedly solid piece of advice). Things take a predictable turn when they run across Gabi’s border guard boyfriend, Colton (Michael Mosley), who has his own ideas about what surviving should be. Passage moves at a steady clip, but its brevity (who are these people and why should we care?) speaks to the limitations of these webisodes, which often do what TWD and Fear have always done with a lot more specificity.
Cold Storage is a marked improvement over Torn Apart, a clear step forward for director Greg Nicotero, and a grim example of human depravity that The Walking Dead is often so eager to explore. This is still firmly stuck in cheap spin-off territory; the majority of its four episodes are set inside a storage facility where a man named Chase (Josh Stewart) attempts to barter for the possession of a truck with B.J. (Daniel Roebuck), the shotgun-toting, booze-swilling disgruntled employee who's set up camp within. While the two men settle for what seems an even exchange — Chase has to delve into the facility's ominous subbasement to rectify a power glitch in exchange for clothes, food, and the truck — it becomes clear that B.J. is hoarding more than a stash of porno mags and wine. The twist is obvious and appalling, though its ending does dispense a clean and righteous form of justice seldom explored in the morally ambiguous world of The Walking Dead.
It’s here where the original Walking Dead begins to feel like a misery march. From the beginning of the meandering sixth season (making Season 2 look like a sprint), it was obvious that all roads were leading to Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) — the comics’ biggest, most consequential bad guy. The only question was how long it would take to get to him. Season 6 had an answer: too long.
Like Jesus (Tom Payne) tells Rick, the world of The Walking Dead was about to get a whole lot bigger. The subsequent expansion of settlements (Hilltop, Sanctuary, Oceanside, The Kingdom, etc.) might have aligned with the comics, but it made keeping track of who and what the hell was going on a chore. Making matters worse: the genre goofiness of the comics simply hasn’t been a great fit for the series; its oddball characters with even more oddball gimmicks, such as Khary Payton’s King Ezekiel, distract more than anything else. (Keeping a CG tiger around couldn’t have been cheap.) Perhaps Negan’s presence became so crucial to the future that Gimple and his writing crew decided to nerf the character to massage an entire three seasons’ worth of the Rick/Negan war. It might have sold a lot of commercials, but watching The Walking Dead begin to drag its feet again was a real bummer.
The Oath speaks to the moment when promises become lies — the kind we tell others to keep them safe, and to ourselves to help us sleep at night. It follows Karina (Ashley Bell) and Paul (Wyatt Russell) as they enter a hospital looking for help to mend a non-walker-related wound Paul has incurred. They come across Gale (Ellen Greene), an isolated doctor haunted by horrific memories of the outbreak, who observes the Hippocratic Oath only to a certain degree — "do no harm," unless, that is, someone asks her to.
Perhaps the biggest thing keeping The Oath from being the memorably thoughtful short it aspires to be is the same thing that makes all the web series spun off from The Walking Dead proper so dopey: its contrived connection to Rick Grimes. "Torn Apart" is about the "bicycle girl;" "Cold Storage" features Rick's storage locker (his family photos get a cameo). The OathThe Oath only exists to explain that sign, as though The Walking Dead suddenly becomes a richer show by doing so.
Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus) has long been the series's fan favorite for good reason: he's a man of few words, which keeps the soppy drama we experience with other characters at a minimum. Is Daryl enough of a character to command his own series? Maybe, if it were an Eastwood-esque Man-With-No-Name kind of situation. That's not what Daryl Dixon is. It's an excursion into France (of all places), where Daryl functions as the Joel to Laurent's (Louis Puech Scigliuzzi) Ellie. Dixon is a cheese-and-wine mockery of the formula Lone Wolf and Cub popularized and The Last of Us memeified. Reedus' character has rarely peaked above stock, but watching him walk a gifted youngster to their world-saving destiny through a hellscape of acid-bleeding zombies and a debauched French population, with only a warrior nun (Clémence Poésy) to keep them company, is almost too comical to take seriously. Somebody get this guy a motorcycle, so he can ride back to the States — and his dignity.
Rick Grimes is no slouch when it comes to walker slaying. In fact, he's wreaked so much havoc that his trusty .357 Magnum revolver is handily the second most iconic weapon in all of Dead-dom. (The first? Ask Negan.) What Red Machete posits is: what if Rick's "infamous machete" (per AMC.com) held additional significance? What if Rick's machete — barely the third most distinctive weapon in The Walking Dead (his gun is much cooler) — had an origin story?
That's the ridiculous concept behind this bewildering six-episode web series, which incorporates live action, flash animation (to avoid paying Lincoln additional wages for using his likeness, no doubt), and a dialogue-less screenplay to tell the sordid tale of how that red-handled machete reached Grimes' grip for a season or two. (He'd later upgrade to a hatchet.) Red Machete, directed by Avi Youabian, is a treacly bit of business that applies a melancholy piano score to the story of a small family (Jose Rosete, Anais Lilit, Sofia Esmaili) attempting to survive this harsh world. As the family's meager numbers begin to thin, the machete takes off on a grim journey, eventually, improbably, finding its original owner. Sure, it's a sad story — but c'mon. It's a machete.
It's a chaotic premise: A TWD spin-off that teams up Maggie Greene (Lauren Cohan) with the man who killed her husband, Negan, in a mad scramble through the island of Manhattan to find Maggie's son, Hershel (Logan Kim). The catch? Manhattan is a closed-off nest of violent gangs and walkers. (Or "groaners," as is the regional idiom.) Dead City provides a welcome visual contrast to the rest of TWD, swapping out endless woodland sprawl for the tight confines of New York City, wherein walkers shuffle off of the island's many skyscrapers only to splat on the pavement below, and people move around town via zip lines.
Also fun to look at is "the Walker King," a fused-together monstrosity of zombies that become a formidable boss that Maggie must battle. (Though Dead City might have, um, borrowed that idea from another zombie series.) Here to thin expectations is Dead City's season-long baddie, The Croat (Željko Ivanek), a sadist who holds Hershel and once worked in the Saviors' employ before he crossed one of Negan's vaguely established moral lines. Watching Dead City wrap up its premise only to set up a seemingly unnecessary Season 2 (really, what's the hook?) is present-day TWD summed up by a single world: interminable.
The first-ever TWD series of webisodes offers a unique perspective on the walker outbreak: from above. Flight 462 is a tensely crafted 16 minutes of worst-case scenarios improbably stacking up on each other. It begins innocuously enough: a cough here, a strange phone call there. The air marshall (Kevin Sizemore) is established; likewise, a conspicuously unsettled woman who seems to know some grim things about what's to come (Michelle Ang). A young fellow by the name of Jake (Brendan Meyer) also appears to have some significance. Then, the plane takes to the skies. Things only compound from there. The man with the cough disappears into the bathroom. Jake observes the lights of Phoenix going out in grids. The captain tells his passengers that the plane will reroute to LAX. A line forms at the bathroom: the man has died. Flight 462 is worth watching to learn what happens next and discover who might later appear in Fear The Walking Dead. Its ending is preordained (how many conclusions can be reached with a zombie on a plane?), but getting there has an unnerving charge.
While this Southwestern-set spin-off offered weary walker-watching eyes a much-needed change of scenery, Fear The Walking Dead became a low-key success due to its more consistent quality compared to TWD. Fear is certainly no stranger to baffling plot developments — lest we forget, Season 6 ends with a nuclear explosion — but its ability to maintain a semblance of heart and a peculiar sense of humor throughout, plus or minus certain annoying characters (Dakota, mostly Dakota), has made keeping up with the show a frequent source of amusement. Jumps in the timeline due to a change in the show’s braintrust led to an unceremonious axing of original cast members (Kim Dickens’ absence being the most felt) to make room for new ones (like Garret Dillahunt’s amazing John Dorie). But it’s been a tug-of-war for Fear to find its identity ever since; the inclusion of Morgan Jones (Lennie James) hasn’t been the magnetic star addition the series hoped he’d be. Yet, so long as it keeps things interesting with its murderers’ row of character actors — John Glover! Paul Calderón! Keith Carradine! — there remains zero reason to switch off Fear.
"These tapes are important." So says Althea Szewczyk-Przygocki (Maggie Grace), the journalist character of Fear The Walking Dead, who begins this six-episode web series with a heartfelt (albeit professional) introduction to The Althea Tapes, and what purpose she hopes they'll ultimately serve. What follows is ostensibly an actor's showcase of varying quality. The best of the bunch is "Clark," which features a former bank manager (Brian Thornton) who's braved a long journey south to scrounge up some fresh literature at his former local library and to check up on the vault in his old bank. When Al presses him on the importance of keepsakes and other material things — why should people care about this stuff anymore? — an interesting conversation arguing the benefits of sentimentality in a broken world ensues. It results in Clark leaving a keepsake of his own behind, captured by Al for posterity — a message, he hopes, will never be needed, but is kept safe just the same.
By Season 9, The Walking Dead had experienced an audience exodus on an unfathomable scale. During its most frustrating and alienating seasons (6, 7, and 8), Scott M. Gimple steered the show towards a Negan-shaped imbroglio. A crash was imminent. Enter: Angela Kang, a TWD writer graduated to showrunner status following Gimple's promotion to TWD's Chief Content Officer, who oversaw a shift in quality that must have felt like steering the Titanic at the eleventh hour. Her efforts yielded some of the series's best reviews in years.
It's easy to see why. Season 9 was a blast of fresh air, with a roughly two-year leap ahead in the timeline where there was suddenly more room to appreciate the rare instances of downtime for characters we love (or tolerate, depending), something earlier seasons scurried past with alarming regularity. As far as drama was concerned, Kang provided it in the form of Samantha Morton's Alpha, leader of the Whisperers, who lent the series an eeriness and foreboding that other big bads in this series wished they'd had. (Seriously: Alpha makes the Governor come off like Principal Skinner.) Kang steered the ship back on course, but her hard work came too late; The Walking Dead came to an end, but at least full implosion was averted.
You have to hand it to these Fear webisodes; for the most part, they brave the less-traveled paths of televised zombie apocalypse. This time, they're ensconced within the pressurized confines of the U.S.S. Pennsylvania, a nuclear submarine conducting missile tests off the coast of the Gulf of Mexico — an odd location for such things. The sub’s second-in-command (Nick Stahl) suspects something is amiss on land. The lack of consistent radio contact with the U.S. Navy only compounds his worry.
As is the case in Flight 462, small details compound into a quagmire; only Dead in the Water (additional points for that title) has more narrative space to maneuver. That's not to say it's still crunched for time; six episodes of varying lengths (its longest stretches to 10 minutes) means there's no time to dawdle. The span between its established unease and a full-on walker outbreak is measured in fleeting moments. Yet it's still effective in what it sets out to do; watching each opener refresh its rapidly dwindling tally of the on-board crew serves as a thrilling countdown to doomsday. Considering their cargo, the dread only grows. If there's one webisode series from Fear The Walking Dead that deserved a full television season, Dead in the Water is it.
After the tumultuous exit of showrunner Frank Darabont, The Walking Dead needed calm. Season 2, helmed by series writer Scott Gimple, might have been a tad overzealous in providing stability behind the camera because things in front of it were unquestionably dull. Yet, while Season 2 is a snooze, some of the better moments of the series are here: Shane's (Jon Bernthal) descent into madness reaches its peak, with Rick forced to reckon with the brutality he's allowed to fester in his camp for the first time. (He’d learn the wrong lessons from this, but still!) And don't forget, this season also introduces Maggie Greene, whose whirlwind romance with Glenn Rhee (Steven Yeun) became a lovely source of young romance.
Seasons 3 to 5 are built on that foundation. The following year brought about The Governor (David Morrissey), the series's first bona fide villain whose animus and cunning would serve as a template for most future baddies to come. (Negan only amped up The Governor's oscillating modes of charisma and menace.) For four solid seasons, The Walking Dead grew in popularity, bolstered with a renewed sense of direction and a knack for killing off fan-favorite characters at a moment's notice. (Oh, and Andrea, too.) By Season 5, signs were beginning to show that perhaps TWD was expanding its scope a little too rapidly — Terminus just comes and goes — but Season 6 would soon solve that problem with blunt force.
The purest, most dramatic, and consistently entertaining season of The Walking Dead is undoubtedly its first, where horror writer and occasional prestige filmmaker Frank Darabont (The Mist, The Blob, The Shawshank Redemption) took his fascination for Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore, and Charlie Adlard’s Image comic series and made a big swing pitch at AMC.
It’s so simple to take this season for granted now that it’s been dog-piled by endless spin-offs and web series. But in a matter of six tight episodes, Darabont established a world where fairness is gone and hope comes only for those willing to pursue the next horizon, a show we’d want to come back to again and again. Darabont’s passion for horror and his honest, clear-eyed approach to the human condition made the impossible — a prestige television series with zombies — possible. More than that, it set the bar as a foundational text in horror television. TV owes a debt to The Walking Dead — and to Darabont, who willed it into being.
Jarrod Jones is a freelance writer currently settled in Chicago. He reads lots (and lots) of comics and, as a result, is kind of a dunderhead.
TOPICS: The Walking Dead, AMC, Fear the Walking Dead, Fear The Walking Dead: Dead in the Water, Fear The Walking Dead: Flight 462, Fear The Walking Dead: Passage, Fear The Walking Dead: The Althea Tapes, Tales of the Walking Dead, The Walking Dead: Cold Storage, The Walking Dead: Daryl Dixon, The Walking Dead: Dead City, The Walking Dead: Red Machete, The Walking Dead: The Oath, The Walking Dead: Torn Apart, The Walking Dead: World Beyond, Andrew Lincoln, Angela Kang, Danai Gurira, Frank Darabont, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Lauren Cohan, Norman Reedus, Robert Kirkman, Scott Gimple