[This is a review of The Walking Dead season 5, episode 4. There will be SPOILERS.]
Despite all evidence to the contrary, the primary question of 'Slabtown' isn't really: What happened to Beth? Instead, it's more like: Is Beth capable of holding down an entire episode of The Walking Dead? After being taken away near the end of last season, the question of Beth's disappearance lingered in the air for a short while and was nearly forgotten amidst the chaos of Terminus and the subsequent fallout that would lead to Bob's demise a short time later. The fact that Beth's absence remained unanswered and that the mystery only felt pressing when Daryl spotted a car with the same cross painted on its rear windshield as the one that absconded with her basically answers the latter question. The result of the first question, then, leads to the first mediocre episode of season 5.
The eeriness of Beth's disappearance not only seemed intriguingly out of place in the world of The Walking Dead (i.e., a place where people likely disappear with less evidence than what Beth left behind on a fairly regular basis), but the idea of it staying that way was also captivating in the way that her fate could have remained frustratingly unknowable. What kind of tension could have been generated by the (potentially dangerous) curiosity of someone like, say, Daryl? The question calls to mind the sort of frightening tension running throughout George Sluizer's 1988 version of 'The Vanishing', where the answer to the question became second to the increasingly obsessive need to know.
Alas, that's not in the cards with 'Slabtown', and after the plot suck that was the search for Sophia, perhaps it's the best thing for the series. On the bright side, it indicates how the writers have learned from the mistakes of the past to better fashion the current story into a more propulsive episodic format. But enough with pondering how the show could or could not have played out a mystery to the benefit of the audience. Clearly, the vacillation between the merits and detractions of the mere concept of 'Slabtown' goes to show you what a mixed bag the episode actually turned out to be.
On the positive side, things kick off with a nice throwback to Rick's first appearance in the series premiere that quickly devolves into what feels like a dream sequence. The simple visual cue of a well-kempt police uniform and the strikingly white coat signifying a doctor is handled nicely. The scene allows what at first appears to be the restoration of order to become quietly disconcerting simply by virtue of it happening. The Walking Dead isn't a series that dabbles much in powerful subtext, but the contrast in the way the importance of symbols and uniforms have been portrayed in the last two episodes feels like the show is upping its game in that department.
Any hope that the image of a police officer and a doctor bring with regard to the reinstatement of order is quickly dashed, however, as Beth soon learns that Officer Dawn Lerner (Christine Woods) and Dr. Steven Edwards (Erik Jensen) aren't exactly operating out of some innate sense of humanity. Instead, it's quickly revealed that those who are brought into the hospital and offered care, shelter, and protection are expected to give back, to pay off the expense of saving their life with a hearty amount of elbow grease.
To make things worse, the episode introduces Officer Gorman (Cullen Moss), a prototypical alpha male who takes the idea of gratitude to its Walking Dead-est extreme by claiming ownership of some of the women who are brought into the hospital. Naturally, Gorman takes a liking to Beth, which leads to a series of scenes in which the character threatens sexual assault as a means of establishing what a bad guy he is and raising the stakes for Beth. The problem is, this particular threat is just another tired example of violence against women seen so often in television programs that its inclusion here as a simple plot point is just lazy storytelling. We get it, Gorman is a predator, but so is everyone else on the show. Having him threaten Beth with rape doesn’t make the situation any more frightening or realistic; it just feels like an unnecessary addition to what is an overabundance of poorly handled depictions of assault across all forms of media.
With the exception of Noah (Tyler James Williams), the rest of the hospital staff is about as derivative as Gorman. Dawn is another in a long line of so-called leaders who have developed a delusional attitude that what they're doing is the best thing for the protection of those who depend on them, and that sacrifices have to be made in order to serve the greater good. It's another example of the way small groups might rationalize the actions they take to survive, but it's not especially interesting to watch or to listen as the characters prattle on about the merits of their particular ethos.
What's more, the episode was tailor made to be a one-off or bottle episode, but instead it serves to establish a larger story – one that may have something to do with what Daryl found in the woods at the end of 'Four Walls and a Roof'. The episode is basically saved by the image of Carol being brought into the hospital in a seemingly unconscious state. The promise of her throwing a wrench into Dawn's little kingdom like she did Terminus certainly ups the anticipation for the next episode, but it unfortunately reduces the events of the 'Slabtown' to little more than passing the time until the real event can take place.
The Walking Dead continues next Sunday with 'The Choice' @9pm on AMC. Check out a preview below:
Photos: Gene Page/AMC