Spoiler Warning: Do not read on unless you’ve seen “The Walking Dead” season five, episode four, titled “Slabtown.”
It’s fair to say that “The Walking Dead” has struggled to find a storyline for mild-mannered Beth Greene since her introduction in season two — while sister Maggie has found depth through her relationship with Glenn and father Hershel (RIP) served as the group’s moral compass, Beth has generally found herself relegated to the role of babysitter or wide-eyed ingenue, dispensing haunting a capella tunes whenever the group has occasion to sit pensively near an open flame. Season four began to remedy that by sending her off for survival training with Daryl after the fall of the prison, but “Slabtown” is the first occasion where Beth is required to carry the episode without any of her fellow survivors, and it’s a testament to the confidence of season five’s storytelling that the hour maintains the tension of the previous three episodes even without Rick and the rest of the gang.
Beth wakes to a ticking clock in an unnervingly well-kept hospital room, the decimated Atlanta skyline in full view from her window. After being kidnapped in season four’s “A,” her whereabouts have remained a mystery until now, but we soon learn that she was “rescued” from the walkers by a couple of cops who brought her back to Grady Memorial Hospital, a real public hospital in Atlanta that’s built on the site of the city’s former red-light district (which was often referred to as “Slabtown” because of the concrete slabs used in its construction).
Slabtown’s history is supposedly filled with depravity, which makes sense once Beth discovers the dark underbelly of the hospital’s seemingly benevolent operation. She meets the hospital’s only physician, Dr. Steven Edwards, and a belligerent cop called Dawn who apparently calls the shots, rescuing survivors and then forcing them to work off that debt by helping to keep the hospital running through menial chores — a prison term by another name, and seemingly without possibility of parole, judging by a patient who tries to run but ends up being dragged back inside, having her arm amputated against her will after she’s bitten in her escape attempt.
The patient, Joan, admits to Beth without so many words that she’s being sexually abused by Dawn’s male officers, but the cop turns a blind eye because it’s “easier,” and, as Dawn later explains (with no apparent irony), the officers’ behavior keeps them happy, and the happier they are, the harder they work to keep the hospital secure. As far as Dawn’s concerned, “every sacrifice we make needs to be for the greater good,” and sacrificing the young women who should be able to rely on Dawn and Dr. Edwards for protection is apparently a small price to pay if it means the hospital will still be standing when help arrives and the world is put back in order. It’s the same mentality that drove the inhabitants of Terminus; survival is worth any cost, as long as you’re the butcher instead of the cattle.
While Dr. Edwards initially seems more sympathetic — “generously” sharing his roasted guinea pig with Beth and discussing the transcendence of art with her — it doesn’t take long for Beth to discover that he’s every bit as cowardly and self-serving as Dawn, tricking Beth into killing another survivor simply because he’s also a doctor and Dawn would no longer need Dr. Edwards if she had someone else trained in medicine at the hospital.
Dawn, her abusive lackey Gorman and Dr. Edwards all go out of their way to emphasize how weak Beth is throughout the hour; Dawn takes note of Beth’s self-harming as Daryl did last season, pointing out that she wouldn’t be strong enough to make it outside the hospital: “We’re going to help put the world back together, that’s what makes us worth something. Out there you’re nothing, you’re dead or somebody’s burden.”
Edwards recognizes his own cowardice, but acknowledging his weakness still doesn’t excuse his inaction when it comes to protecting patients like Joan and Beth from Dawn and Gorman’s abuses. “Outside these walls, alone, unprotected, we’d be dead. We’re not the ones who make it. As bad as it gets, it’s still better than down there,” he tells Beth. But Beth has come far enough to recognize that surviving isn’t living, and that surviving at the expense of others is an even worse fate — at least for the few good people left, like those in Rick’s group.
When Dawn tells Beth, “Some people just aren’t meant for this life, and that’s okay, as long as they don’t take advantage of the ones who are,” she’s too far gone to realize that she’s describing herself, not Beth. After all, what’s the point of rebuilding the world if the only ones left to inherit it are the murderers and rapists who turn a blind eye to human suffering and perpetuate that cycle of abuse? As Abraham and Bob both told Rick in last week’s episode, that’s precisely why the world needs people like Rick Grimes, if Eugene succeeds in flipping the switch and destroying the walkers.
But there’s one inhabitant of Grady who sees Beth for who she truly is: a fellow patient named Noah, whose father was killed by Dawn’s cops because he was bigger and stronger and could’ve fought back against the abusive regime inside the hospital. “They think I’m scrawny, they think I’m weak; they don’t know shit about what I am, about what you are,” he notes, hatching a plan with Beth to escape. The two succeed in making it out of the hospital’s walker-infested basement, rappelling down an elevator shaft into a pile of half-eaten bodies in a scene fraught with tension, and Beth proves her mettle by shooting an impressive number of biters (target practice with Daryl certainly paid off), but she soon becomes trapped and captured by Dawn’s cops, while Noah manages to escape even with an injured leg. It seems like hope is lost with Beth’s only ally gone, but she’s done playing the victim, laying into Dawn for failing to protect her and Joan and trying to rid the cop of the ridiculous notion that anyone’s coming to save them.
She also confronts Edwards about tricking her into killing the other doctor, even as he reasons that Dawn and Gorman might’ve killed him if they’d had another doctor to rely on instead of him. “I didn’t have a choice,” he insists, comparing himself to Jesus’ disciple, Peter, who denied their affiliation to avoid being crucified too. Unlike Rick’s group, Dawn and Dr. Edwards aren’t willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good they supposedly espouse.
It seems like Beth’s had enough of Grady Memorial’s nonsense and wants to make another break for it, but before she can fight her way out, she sees a seemingly unconscious Carol being brought in on a stretcher — because no one’s better at sneaking their way into heavily-guarded compounds and creating delicious mayhem than our MVP. But anyone hoping for a resolution to last week’s cliffhanger ending by revealing who Daryl returned to the church with will have to wait another week, since Carol’s promising appearance is all we’re given before the credits roll.
While previous Beth-centric episodes have been a bit of a bore, saved only by Daryl’s general badassery, “Slabtown” is welcome illustration of the character’s growth — thanks to her sojourn with Daryl, she’s become far more self-sufficient than her scrawny appearance indicates. Though her mousy demeanor initially made her seem like little more than a redshirt destined for slaughter, the same could’ve been said of Carol back in season one, when she appeared to be nothing more than a helpless victim of her husband’s brutality. But the strongest steel is forged in the hottest fire, and just as Carol has evolved into one of the most resourceful characters on the show, the writers may have a similar trajectory in mind for the younger Greene sister.
Still, it’s debatable that we needed an episode (or potentially two) devoted to her solo storyline when there are so many other characters to service. (Michonne and Glenn have seemed particularly under-served of late, for example.)
While Noah is an intriguing character, the hospital’s other inhabitants aren’t so well-defined. Dawn’s sense of self-preservation gives us some insight into the motivations behind her inaction and cruelty, but we aren’t given enough of her backstory to feel any kind of empathy for the callous choices she makes, making her characterization seem somewhat shallow in its villainy. Likewise with the cartoonishly cruel Gorman, who delights in sexually harassing Beth and Joan until a zombiefied Joan delivers some cosmic justice by tearing out his throat. After the first three episodes spent a fair amount of time fleshing out the inhabitants of Terminus and justifying their actions (if not excusing them), the inhabitants of Grady look underwritten by comparison, although Dr. Edwards’ kind-hearted cowardice makes him a more interesting foil than the cops. Perhaps next week’s episode will delve further into Dawn’s history — but I’ll admit I’m eager to see the gang reunited and back on the road together without another detour.
“The Walking Dead” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on AMC.
What did you think of “Slabtown”? Share your reactions and predictions in the comments.