The Walking Dead, Season 5, Episode 4: “Slabtown”
Directed by Michael E. Satrazemis
Written by Matthew Negrete and Channing Powell
Airs Sundays at 9pm ET on AMC
“Everything costs something, right?”
The mystery of Beth Greene’s whereabouts has been solved.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again; The Walking Dead does well with episodes featuring fewer characters that we know. “Slabtown”, written by Matthew Negrete and Channing Powell, is a testament to the improvement of the writing ever since Scott M. Gimple took over as show-runner. That the hour maintains the quality and entertainment of previous episodes without Rick and the gang, is good news. Putting Beth, and only Beth, in the spotlight back in season two would have been ill advised, but ever since last season’s “Still,” Beth is a character we’ve all come to know and love. Of course “Still” is one of those episodes mentioned above, in which the writers focused solely on fewer characters; in that case the focus was solely on Beth and Daryl, and unsurprisingly “Still” is one of last season’s best instalments. Beth’s time spent travelling with Daryl, albeit brief, turned her into a genuine character and someone we wanted to see more of. This episode also doubles as a stage for Beth, and proves that while she never came close to being the strongest in Rick’s group, she is more than capable of surviving the zombie apocalypse. In fact, she’s strong enough this week, to break out of a prison and save a man. “Slabtown” is a welcome illustration of the character’s growth — thanks to her time spent with Daryl, and now her time away from the group, she’s become far more self-sufficient than her appearance would have her seem.
This week, The Walking Dead returns to the big city. It’s been a long time since we last saw the streets of Atlanta, and it makes a welcome return here. It also gives us some insight on just how far Rick as traveled, or rather, how far he hasn’t traveled in five seasons. Just think about it: If Daryl made it to Atlanta and back in a day, the survivors remain very close to where they first met. Much like how we were introduced to Rick in the pilot, Beth wakes up in a hospital being run by a skeleton staff which consists of a group of wards, local police, a kind janitor named Noah (Tyler James Williams), and one physician, Dr. Steven Edwards (Cullen Moss). Beth was apparently rescued and brought over to recover, but as per usual, something ain’t right. In charge of the commune is Dawn Lerner (Christine Woods), a moody, controlling cop who’s managed to keep the hospital afloat, believing that a rescue team will eventually arrive and when they do, they will be able to put the world back in place. There’s a Woodburyesque feel to Grady: it’s a place where people stay because they are indirectly forced to. When Beth is greeted by Dawn and Dr. Edwards, Dawn informs her that because her men rescued Beth, she now owes them. Basically, the hospital is a weird commune of sorts, where everyone works for food, medicine, electricity and shelter. If you take something, you are expected to give something back. As Dawn puts it, “all that is being done is for the “greater good,” in order to keep things going until the nightmare ends. The problem is, the system constantly favours the house, to such an extent that nobody can ever pay their debt.
Dawn is meant to contrast Rick’s leadership style; She governs single-handedly deciding who stays and who goes; who lives, and who dies. The dead are dumped down an open elevator shaft, down to the basement where the walkers eat their remains. The patients they save are immediately assigned daily chores to carry out. Dawn means well, but she’s she’s ruling out of fear, afraid that in order to save mankind, she must make some questionably dubious decisions and severely punish her staff for even the smallest mistakes. Terminus had a cannibalistic authoritarian society where people were protected and well fed, so long as they were willing to kill and eat people. In Woodbury, The Governor gave his people shelter, food and security, so long as they wouldn’t leave. Grady is run by a bunch of corrupt cops convinced they need to maintain some sort of informal prison system in order to survive. Once again, we are given a collectivist, authoritarian commune. There’s a pecking order, and at the bottom of the heap is Beth. “You,” Dawn tells Beth, “are not the greater good.” We are never introduced to most of Dawn’s staff, but we do get to meet Gorman, a nasty character who roams the hospital threatening just about everybody he sees. We quickly learn that Dawn turned a blind eye to the horrible things Gorman and some of the other male officers have done. It’s pretty clear why Beth was rescued, and it isn’t so she can assist the doctor, though she does prove herself to be a helpful nurse. It’s pretty clear that Beth is there to be an object for the male cops to play with, and it seems like it’s pretty clear to Beth as well. The threat of Gorman and imminent rape hangs over Beth’s head.
However, not everyone at Grady’s Hospital is a threat to Beth. Dr. Edwards who constantly butts heads with Gorman, does show her kindness. As the only doctor present, Dawn and her troops have little choice but to treat Edwards well. He has his own office which he’s allowed to keep messy and unkempt, a stark contrast to everything else that Dawn insists stay clean and orderly. He listens to Junior Kimbrough vinyls and eats well, at one point even sharing his guinea pig dinner with Beth. He’s clearly a man who appreciates art and is proud of a large painting he’s collected (The Denial of St. Peter by the Italian Baroque artist Caravaggio which he found lying outside Atlanta’s High Museum). But as per usual, looks are deceiving and the doctor too, can’t be trusted. In one of the most shocking scenes, Dr. Edwards tricks Beth into accidentally killing a potential rival doctor so that he could remain important to Dawn. Edwards’ betrayal is the biggest reveal in “Slabtown” if only because he does such a great job in convincing everyone that he isn’t one of the bad guys; even after Beth realizes what he had her do.
Apart from Dr. Edwards, the only new character I really enjoy this week is Noah, a former patient, now janitor, who like Beth plans an escape. He’s the one inhabitant of Grady who sees Beth for who she truly is and trusts her enough to help her orchestrate a way out to freedom. Admittedly, Noah is mostly interesting because he actually survives the breakout, even as Beth is recaptured; but there are some nice moments awarded to his character; most notably a scene in which he tells Beth about how his father was killed by Dawn’s cops because he was bigger and stronger and could’ve fought back against their abusive regime. “They think I’m scrawny, they think I’m weak; they don’t know shit about what I am, about what you are,” he says to Beth in order to gain her trust. The two succeed in making it out of the hospital in a stunning sequence directed by Michael E. Satrazemis who makes great use of the open spaces of the hospital, as well as the narrow and dark elevator shaft. The strobe effect—slow motion – exploding heads— and sound design (most notably the ringing sound to indicated the loss of hearing) makes this the most exciting set piece this week.
While Noah and Doctor Edwards make interesting characters, the hospital’s other inhabitants aren’t so well-defined. Officer Gorman is painted only as a sexual predator, and while Dawn is rendered with a more care, she’s still a pretty stock character. Her sense of self-preservation gives us some insight into the motivations behind her actions but we aren’t given enough of her backstory to understand how she came to be like this. The challenge when introducing a new group of antagonists is in making this particular group distinct enough to be interesting, and one episode doesn’t allow enough time to do so. Perhaps next week’s episode will delve further into Dawn’s history.
Before the credits role, fans are treated to a nice little twist: Carol appears at the very end, unconscious and being wheeled on a gurney through Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta. Now the mystery of Carol’s fate hangs in the air.
– Ricky D
Being back in the city reminds us that some of season one’s best moments: Rick trapped beneath the tank and Glenn driving the sports car through the streets. Oh and let us not forget Merle hand-cuffed to the top of the building.
Doc: “It may not be the most dignified disposal system, but it’s all we have.”
Beth: “You’re lucky. Feeling safe enough to be bored? You’re lucky!”
So I’m pretty sure that Noah is the stranger who accompanied Daryl back to base camp.
Keisha Castle-Hughes (Whale Rider) played Joan, an abused young woman who tried to escape but instead got her arm cut off. Look for her in Game of Thrones next year.
Beth proves her mettle by shooting an impressive number of biters this week.
I love how we are reminded of Beth’s earlier suicide attempt, and just how far she has come since then.
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