Greg Nicotero has been making horror (and genre) fans scream for over three decades as a makeup and special effects designer, but The Walking Dead is where his creative genius has come into its own. And nowhere is that better displayed than his path to directing, in addition to creating the effects for Robert Kirkman's zombie drama.
After directing a short film on his own, Nicotero took the reins on web series The Walking Dead: Torn Apart, before graduating to the big show with Season 2's "Judge, Jury, Executioner." Since then, he's directed two more web series and a dozen episodes of the show, including the upcoming, highly anticipated/dreaded Season 7 premiere.
That's a tremendous achievement! So naturally, we have to rank every single episode of The Walking Dead directed by Nicotero against each other, because these things must be done.
[NOTE: I left out the web series, which are all great mind you, so we weren't comparing apples to... Digital apples, I guess.]
Spoilers for all seasons of The Walking Dead past this point.
15. "Say The Word" (Season 3, Episode 5)
This is a middle episode. Some stuff happens at Woodbury, some stuff happens with Daryl (Norman Reedus) and Rick goes on a rampage in the woods. There's the bananas ending cliffhanger, when the phone starts ringing in the room where Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) died, but that's just a teaser for the crazy-Rick to come.
14. "I Ain't Judas" (Season 3, Episode 11)
Another middle episode... Depending on how much you like mid-Woodbury Andrea (Laurie Holden), your mileage may vary; but her closing scene where she almost kills The Governor is tense. And we get Carol (Melissa McBride) finally stepping up in a big way -- a tease of the general amazingness of the character yet to come.
13. "Judge, Jury, Executioner" (Season 2, Episode 11)
Dale's (Jeffrey DeMunn) death in this episode was emotionally (and grossly) depicted, but weigh that against Carl (Chandler Riggs) stupidly antagonizing a walker who comes back later to cause some serious damage. It's a toss up.
12. "After" (Season 4, Episode 9)
After (no pun intended) the epic attack on the prison, this mid-season premiere changed gears and slowed things down, focusing just on Carl, Rick, and Michonne (Danai Gurira). This isn't the strongest episode of the series, but it's notable as it's arguably when showrunner Scott M. Gimple was first able to fully jettison the weight of the first few seasons, and begin to allow directors like Nicotero to experiment with the visual aesthetic and timeline of the show. We'd spend most of this next half season with the group scattered and timelines over-lapping, until everyone joined back together at Terminus.
11. "30 Days Without an Accident" (Season 4, Episode 1)
A solid season opener raised a good notch by the grocery-store scene, which is a classic. Daryl on top of a stack of beer fighting walkers, right before a helicopter crashes down was so iconic, they made a statue! Really. We also kicked off the disease in the prison storyline and met Violet the Pig, one of the long line of adorable animals TWD has callously destroyed for your entertainment.
10. "Us" (Season 4, Episode 15)
The Glenn (Steven Yeun)/Maggie (Lauren Cohan) storyline in this episode is wonderful, as the separated pair reunites after nearly half a season -- and the central tunnel set-piece is harrowing in its intensity. But there's also the whole Daryl/Claimers B-plot, which ultimately wasn't as big of a threat as it seemed. Still, we love us some Glaggie... And our first glimpse of Terminus' "meat."
9. "Remember" (Season 5, Episode 12)
Kicking off the Alexandria storyline in earnest, this episode served as a sort of re-piloting. We meet new characters, get some fresh takes on old ones (hello, undercover Carol), and the "interview" format -- where Alexandria leader Deanna (Tovah Feldshuh) finds out more about Rick's group -- is well handled by Nicotero... Often watching people on video, on TV, can be distracting; but not here.
8. "Not Tomorrow Yet" (Season 6, Episode 12)
Though the first half takes its time building the character beats -- including Carol's current arc, dialing back her relentless killing -- the second half, featuring a nearly silent attack on the Saviors' satellite dish installation, is as tense as any set-piece in TWD history. The cliffhanger is great, too, as Maggie and Carol are taken hostage by Alicia Witt and company. Overall a solidly directed episode with a stand-out long, tense extended sequence.
7. "Conquer" (Season 5, Episode 16)
Some great character moments in this season finale, including Glenn's fight with Nicholas (and its surprising conclusion), Morgan's (Lennie James) scene with the Wolf (Benedict Samuel) at the beginning, and of course Rick (Andrew Lincoln) de facto taking over/saving Alexandria single-handedly. Despite all the action, this is very much a character driven episode -- and cemented the new, strong status quo going into Season 6.
6. "No Way Out" (Season 6, Episode 9)
Bye-bye, Anderson family. Basically the second half of the mid-season finale "Start To Finish," this episode is a balls-to-the-wall action piece, starting (and ending) with Daryl shooting off an RPG. Though it misses some of the emotional weight we've come to expect -- Carl getting his eye shot out is almost an after-thought -- there are more walkers than we've ever seen in one episode, and Daryl's dual RPG usage is laugh-out-loud amazing each time. Nicotero knows how to frame an action sequence by now, and is just amping it up every time out.
5. "Last Day on Earth" (Season 6, Episode 16)
Fans were split on the Season 6 cliffhanger when it aired, ranging from frustration to out and out anger. And as an episode, I'll agree the Carol/Morgan storyline was a distraction from the main event, the Saviors slowly corralling Rick's group into a clearing in the woods. But if you did dismiss this episode on first viewing, frequent rewatchings of the extended finale will offer many, many rewards. The Grimes Gang's journey is a powder-keg of tension, expertly paced by Nicotero and his crew. But the stand-out is Negan's (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) introduction with a mostly uninterrupted, nearly 10-minute long monologue punctuated by one incredible act of violence. Television moments don't get more iconic than this, and Nicotero (and Morgan) nailed it.
4. "This Sorrowful Life" (Season 3, Episode 15)
The death of Merle (Michael Rooker) was one of Season 3's best episodes... Rooker gives a phenomenal performance, and his closing scene with Norman Reedus is a heart-breaker. Plus, Merle's fight with The Governor (David Morrisey) and his minions is bloody and tense, just how we like TWD.
3. "No Sanctuary" (Season 5, Episode 1)
This is where The Walking Dead finally stepped it up and became the show it always promised it could be. Our entire group (except Carol) is captured at Terminus... And the eventual escape/destruction of the cannibal compound was the biggest, most impressive action set-piece the show had attempted so far. Plus, we finally got our full-on Carol badass, the death of The Penguin (sorry, Robin Lord Taylor), and the group united. One of the all-time great episodes of the show, and it proved Nicotero could do action just as well as character development and gore.
2. "What's Happened And What's Going On" (Season 5, Episode 9)
One of the moodiest, most fascinatingly structured episodes of The Walking Dead to date, the death of Tyreese (Chad L. Coleman) felt like it came too soon after Beth's (Emily Kinney); but that doesn't diminish the power of Nicotero's direction. Mixing dream-like visitations from past characters with a structure that twisted, turned, and ultimately revealed that most of what we'd seen was Tyreese's dying fever dream as he suffered from a walker bite, "WHAWGO" hasn't really been topped as a one-shot since its airing, and shows what TWD can do when it focuses in on one character's psychology.
1. "First Time Again (Season 6, Episode 1)
The biggest, baddest, best season opener in the history of The Walking Dead, easily. Nicotero stretched his wings here, ably balancing an enormous action set-piece at the quarry with humor, character moments in black-and-white flashbacks, and some truly gross moments. Season 6 was the best The Walking Dead has been so far, and "First Time Again" set the tone. Though it doesn't have much heartbreak or soul-searching moments between the edge-of-your-seat action, you don't need them. This episode is just that good.
The Walking Dead returns to AMC on Sunday, October 23 at 9/8c.