Episode 5.4 of The Walking Dead, aptly titled “Slabtown” (written by Matt Negrete and Channing Powell), answered last season’s cliffhanger in regard to Beth’s disappearance, and gave viewers an unusual look at a whole different group of survivors. It also continued to drive home a running theme of the show – that in this zombie apocalypse, people are the worst threat of all.
The episode’s opening was an obvious callback to the series pilot when an injured Rick Grimes wakes up in an Atlanta hospital. This time Beth is awakening, and we see her eyes flashing open, a working clock on the wall, and a large window with the decimated skyline of the city in full view. The shot is stunning, and serves as an effective reminder that the woods that Rick and company consistently inhabit aren’t the only places left on earth.
We find out pretty quickly that Beth was injured (fleeing the walker-infested funeral home she and Daryl took refuge in last season), and was taken to Grady Memorial Hospital, which apparently has enough generator or battery power to keep lights on, cook food, and run ventilators. All is not what it initially seems, however, and we soon learn (along with Beth) that in exchange for their injuries being treated, patients must pay back their caregivers, which basically means an indefinite time period of indentured servitude. Whatever is taken by the patients – including food, water, and medicine – must be repaid in work. But the catch is, the work never ends.
We also get introductions to the major players in this hospital: The seemingly conflicted Doctor Edwards, who is tasked with trying to save the injured as they come in; creepy Officer Gorman (who initially found and brought Beth in) who wants a different kind of repayment from the female survivors; and the woman in charge, Officer Dawn Lerner, who is as nasty as they come, yet naïve enough to believe they’ll all be rescued and life can return to what it once was. They’re a very strange bunch, and what makes the whole scenario even more surreal is that the cops still wear their pre-apocalypse uniforms and the doctor wears his white coat. I guess appearances are important at Grady Memorial.
The sinister nature of this place is brought home when Joan, a patient at the hospital who tried to escape, is wheeled in with a walker bite on her arm. She refuses treatment, preferring death to enslavement, but Dr. Edwards saves her life anyway by amputating her arm – while Beth is made to hold Joan down during the procedure. Later, while Beth is in Joan’s room mopping, Joan reveals that Officer Gorman and his men are doing bad things to her, but Officer Dawn lets it happen because it keeps the other officers content and more willing to keep the hospital in working order.
Beth learns firsthand how sick Officer Gorman is when she has a run in with him in her room (in a very uncomfortable and creepy scene), but Doctor Edwards stops Gorman before things escalate. He challenges Gorman’s notion that Beth should be “his,” but Gorman reminds Dr. Edwards that Officer Dawn won’t always be in charge, and then he will do anything he wants. As a viewer it’s hard to understand if Gorman wants control why he and his men don’t just overpower and overthrow Dawn right now, but the writers want Dawn in charge, so we’ll just go with it.
Beth ask Dr. Edwards why he stays at Grady Memorial, so Edwards takes her to the ground level of the hospital where the walkers hang out behind reinforced doors. They go up to the roof, and we get backstory through Edwards on how Atlanta fell and Officer Dawn stepped in and kept order. Edwards tells Beth no matter how bad things get in the hospital, it’s better than being “down there” with the walkers. The thing is, though, Beth has been “down there” and she’s made it so far. In fact, she’s starting to look a lot stronger than all of the people running this place. As for the doctor, he has conveniently deluded himself, convinced he’s doing some good in healing others. It turns out, though, he’s not much better than Dawn, as evidenced when he instructs Beth to give a patient –another physician – the wrong medication and the patient dies, thereby securing Edwards position of importance as the only doctor – and thus the value of his life – in the hospital.
Beth meets another patient named Noah (Everybody Hates Chris actor Tyler James Williams), a decent guy (finally) who has been at the hospital a year – his dad having been killed by Dawn and the other officers for being too strong. Noah has been biding his time, waiting for the opportune moment to escape, and so he and Beth come up with a plan to get Dawn’s key to the elevators, where they will begin the first leg of their journey to freedom.
While obtaining the key in Officer Dawn’s office, Beth sees Joan lying dead on the floor, having chosen to kill herself rather than remain a prisoner in the hospital. When officer Gorman comes in and sees what Beth is up to, he tries to bargain with her – his silence for sexual favors, but as he starts to assault her, Beth cleverly times Joan’s turn – hitting Gorman in the head, ensuring he falls and gets bitten just as Joan becomes a walker. As Beth leaves the office, she grabs Gorman’s gun and moves along with her plan. This scene in particular (though we see it happening slowly throughout the whole episode) showcases Beth’s transformation – just like Rick and Carol before her – into a warrior.
Beth makes her way down the elevator shaft, which is filled with rotting dead bodies from patients who didn’t make it. Noah follows, but a walker lunges at him through the elevator doors, causing him to fall and injure his leg. The whole scene is effectively infused with tension, amplified by the urge to root for Beth – who in season five proves she’s fierce enough to fight for her freedom – and Noah, who was a good enough guy to take the blame (and a beating) for the death of the patient Beth accidentally killed. At this point, we want them to make it out of this abhorrent place as much as they do.
Once outside, the pair make their way through a horde of walkers, thanks to Beth stomping and shooting her way past them. This scene was especially tension-filled because the outcome was truly questionable – we didn’t know if Beth and Noah would escape, get killed by walkers (Beth has previously been expendable enough in The Walking Dead universe and brand new Noah certainly is) or get caught by the hospital “staff.” In the end, Noah makes it out, but Beth gets taken down by the officers. As she’s handcuffed and led away she’s smiling – knowing that her strength helped Noah to finally escape.
In Dawn’s office, Beth gets reprimanded for her attempted escape and for getting officer Gorman killed. But Beth, who was repeatedly hit in the face throughout the episode by Dawn, gets in her own jabs (metaphorically) by calling Dawn out on what goes on at the hospital and telling her that nobody is coming to rescue them. Unwilling to accept the truth of Beth’s words, Dawn replies by knocking Beth out. This scene skillfully illustrates the irony that although it was Dawn calling Beth weak for the entire episode, it’s Beth’s inner strength that makes Dawn actually feel threatened – thus the need to silence it, even just temporarily. But how long will the bullying cop let this threat go unchecked? We were told what happened to Noah’s father, after all.
At the end of the episode, we see Dr. Edwards tending to Beth’s new facial wounds, and when she confronts him about deliberately telling her to give the doctor the wrong medication, he finally confesses, comparing himself to the disciple Peter denying Jesus. Completely disgusted and enraged at this hospital “staff,” Beth goes down the hall with sharp scissors in her hand, intent on doing somebody (probably starting with Edwards) harm. But just then, we see Carol being wheeled in on a gurney. And once again, we’re left with a great cliffhanger – something the show knows how to expertly do, not only from season to season, but episode to episode as well.
Overall, “Slabtown” felt like an episode out of a completely different show, as Beth was the only recognizable character, and the story didn’t follow The Walking Dead’s usual format. It was effective as a tension-filled horror show, and it convincingly depicted the culmination of Beth’s metamorphosis – from a young farm girl who tried to kill herself rather than face living in a zombie wasteland, to a brave woman willing to escape back into that exact landscape in order to win her freedom. Emily Kinney had her work cut out for her in singularly carrying an episode, and she delivered, especially given the fact that she couldn’t play off of the familiar chemistry with her fellow cast members. So on those levels, the episode worked quite well.
Where this episode went astray, however, was in the one dimensional villainy of the characters, especially Gorman and Dawn. Also, the show has tried a bit too hard to make the point that people descended into a monstrosity of evil as the world around them became populated by actual monsters. This episode was yet another way to make that statement. We did get to meet the character of Noah, though, which was a welcome introduction, considering I have been wondering for a few seasons now if Rick and his group are literally the only good people left on Earth. I realize that antagonists mean conflict and tension – which every narrative needs in some form or another – it just gets tiresome to see the “humans are worse than the monsters” trope used so frequently.
Ultimately, though, this episode continued along the same lines as the previous four, asking good questions that (when answered) will hopefully further the overarching storylines of the season. We can most likely surmise that the person Daryl was beckoning out of the trees last week was Noah, and now we have to wonder if Carol is really injured or if she deliberately planted herself in the hospital to save Beth. Next week, however, looks like it will focus on Abraham and the others as they make their way to Washington D.C., so we’ll have to wait a bit for those answers.
It’s pretty clear now that after only three episodes as a collective unit, the group will be fractured again in subsequent episodes. And although that makes for interesting storytelling possibilities, after being apart for the whole second half of last season, it may be overkill to separate the gang again so soon. But it seems like that’s exactly what we’re going to see, at least for now. Given the (mostly) excellent quality of Season five episodes so far, though, I’m very willing to see where it all leads.