We catch up with Beth Greene and learn that there’s something almost as bad as Cannibal. Fans of early 90s hip hop and zombie gore alike are vindicated.
The strongest thing about this season of The Walking dead is the way our core group of survivors are being contrasted against others who have also made it this far in a post-apocalyptic world. We’ve seen them struggling with their humanity for more than four seasons now, but as we’ve learned when they finished off a group of cannibals in last week’s episode , they have a long way to go before they turn into full-on monsters.
That theme continues with “Slabtown”, the fourth episode of The Walking Dead season 5, This time out, we’re presented with an unfortunate truth about people: When law and order break down, the way is cleared for people who rule by fear and the threat of violence rather than informed consent to thrive. Such people usually believe their actions are, in fact, for the greater good. But what if in their previous life, they actually did serve the greater good? How would they go from public servants to marauding sociopaths?
The answer, according to this episode? “Listen to NWA”. Meanwhile, we finally got to find out what Beth has been up to since she disappeared in season 4. Last seen by Daryl having been spirited away in the back of a black car with crosses painted on the windows, she’s now trapped in an Atlanta hospital run by a cabal of pre-apocalypse police officers who are, so they say, attempting to save as many people as they can until civilization can be restored.
But is that all there is to the story? Of course not. But we’ll get to that shortly. What’s that? Yep, it’s another good episode of The Walking Dead. Shocking, I know. Let’s go.
We start as Beth wakes up in a hospital room at Emory University’s Grady Memorial, sporting a serious bruise on her face. (Yes, it’s a callback to the series’ pilot.) After a short freakout, the door opens and in walks doctor Steven Edwards, accompanied by a police officer named Dawn Lerner. Beth, so they tell her, was rescued by Dawn’s people from a swarm of zombies. Beth doesn’t remember that, but she does remember having last been with Daryl, and in asking where he is, we learn we’re in a flashback. Things look somewhat hopeful for poor Beth, until Dawn informs her that “you were alone. If we hadn’t saved you, you’d be one of them. So you owe us.”
The threat implied by that isn’t accidental. The situation at Grady Hospital is a nightmare. As we later learn, the hospital was a rallying point for the government’s efforts to deal with the undead crisis prior to everything going to hell. Dawn, along with several other officers as well as doctor Edwards, happened to be there when the US Military napalmed the city, and decided to remain holed up there rather than flee the city.
When their food ran out, they ventured out into the city to scrounge what they could, ignoring the other survivors. However, doctor Edwards finally found that practice too contradictory to his hippocratic oath after seeing a child in need of help. He convinced the police officers to take him in after noting that the child could contribute to the upkeep and essential operations of the hospital, which would give them more time to find food and supplies.
Skip ahead a year or so. While they have battery packs to power equipment and what seems to be plenty of medicine, their full time job at this point is “raiding party”. They drive out in their fleet of makeshift ambulances (that explains the cross on the car, BTW), finding supplies and occasionally kidnapping people, bringing them back for slave labor couched as barter, at least as long as the police officers consider them useful. Anyone injured deemed beyond saving are killed, then tossed down an open elevator shaft, with the implied threat to the living members of the group obvious.
Dawn is the ranking officer, but she’s only barely holding things together. She assumed leadership of the hospital after killing their original commanding officer when he lost his mind, and only retains authority, getting the reluctant obedience of the male officers reporting to her in exchange for turning a blind eye to the fact that they’re forcing attractive women they “rescue” into sexual slavery.
This includes a creepy douchebag named Gorman who, from the moment Beth first encounters him, makes it clear he considers the situation a license to rape. Worse, it’s soon revealed that the officers enforce discipline with corporal punishment. (Obviously, Beth’s injuries are consistent with having been punched, not grabbed or clawed at by zombies.)
How bad is this place? Early on, Gorman and another office drag a woman screaming and struggling into the hospital. It turns out, she’s a conscriptee who she tried to escape, injuring her arm badly in the process. Dawn orders Edwards to saw off her arm to save her life, but she refuses anesthesia, implying heavily that she expects to be raped in her sleep by Gorman if she takes it.
To be clear, I said “saw”. Edwards takes a length of metal wiring and uses it remove her arm just above the elbow in a terrifying scene framed like a sexual assault.
Dawn is of course going crazy too, deluding herself that what she’s doing is for the greater good. In a creepy lecture that recalls Dolores Umbridge, she strongly implies that Beth not only should be grateful for having been rescued, but should willingly provide sexual favors to her male officers to keep them happy and thus more willing to protect the hospital. It’s an interesting contrast to the Totally Chill Hipster Cannibals; the Terminus group devolved into monsters because they believed that the old world was dead forever; the Grady Hospital fascists have devolved into monsters and yet Dawn still believes they won’t have any problem returning to normalcy once the government restores order.
That’s a serious problem, as her officers have clearly long since given up on being people. I’d like to avoid a flame war over police officers in real life, but it has to be stated that this episode is fueled by anxiety about the way bullies love to throw their weight around, especially if it’s sanctioned behind the trappings of legal authority. I don’t think this episode is expressly tapping into unfortunate recent events, but the inherent danger in people with power losing all sense of responsibility to the public they’re supposed to serve is the source of remarkable tension throughout the episode. This is the same kind of thinking that leads to totalitarianism, and just like in real life, the totalitarian system here has become the entire point, not just a means to an end.
But remember when Rick mused that the Totally Chill Hipster Cannibals were going to feel stupid when they realized who they were screwing with? Beth doesn’t get to drop any cool one-liners, but throughout “Slabtown”, she demonstrates just how accurate Rick was. Three seasons spent with Rick’s survivors have clearly taught her more than a thing or two about survival, and rather than buckle before maniac cops, she sets about getting the lay of the land.
First, she bonds with Doctor Edwards, whose position as the sole medical expert gives him a small degree of freedom from the bullying the police officers inflict on everyone else. But it’s a precarious situation. At one point, he saves Beth from a near-rape at Gorman’s hands (short version: Gorman, who takes fascistic delight in keeping track of supplies and using his knowledge of inventory as leverage against the women imprisoned there, discovers she had a lolipop, which he forces into her mouth in a manner that suggests his penis will be next.) Gorman threatens Edwards for interrupting him, then Edwards reminds Gorman that he’s the only doctor. Gorman in turn reminds Edwards that should they ever find another doctor, they won’t need Edwards’ services anymore.
As it turns out, one of the people they’ve “rescued” happens to be a surgeon Edwards knew from before the apocalypse. He’s in a medically induced coma, however, and Edwards tricks Beth into administering a fatal dosage of the wrong medicine to him, removing any threat to his safety. By this point, Beth has made friends with another captive named Noah, who clued her in to the fact that no one is ever allowed to leave. He’s planning to escape, he tells her, and try to make it back to Richmond, VA, where his family supposedly still lives. Noah also quickly establishes himself as someone who hasn’t devolved along with his captors, taking the rap for Beth’s “mistake”, for which he’s subjected to a severe beating. With that, Beth vows to escape with Noah as soon as he’s ready.
That’s easier said than done. The officers have ensured that the only (barricaded) exits are surrounded by swarms of walkers. Beth and Noah devise a plan to escape from through the basement (first descending down the elevator shaft that functions as the Grady group’s body disposal system), which requires that Beth break into Dawn’s office and steal the key. Inside, she finds the young woman from earlier, dead on the floor next to a pair of scissors, apparently having been murdered only minutes before. Beth rifles through Dawn’s files and finds the key she needs, but Gorman barges in just in time to catch her in the act.
Gorman makes it clear that Beth can either let him rape her, or he’ll turn her over to Dawn for punishment. She pretends to accept his price, but quickly demonstrates how much more effective she is than any of the residents of the hospital, first by noting that the dead woman has turned, then grabbing a glass bottle full of
irony lolipops and bashing into Gorman’s head. He falls to the ground and is quickly killed by the newly resurrected zombie on he floor.
Beth and Noah then make their escape. Noah is severely injured but managed to make it out the building with her. Unfortunately, as she’s covering his dash to the nearby fence – part of an exceptional sequence of headshot kills that demonstrates, again, how badass Rick’s crew is – she’s slowed down enough to be recaptured by Dawn and the remaining officers who clearly have a more convenient exit they haven’t told anyone else about.
Back inside, Beth (having been severely beaten by Dawn for telling her how deluded she is for thinking things will ever go back to normal) confronts Edwards about his using her to commit murder. The conversation, as it turns out, is mainly a distraction so she could grab a long sharp metal object to use a weapon. She follows Edwards out of his office, and it looks like she’s about to kill him (or, someone else nearby. I’m assuming it’s escape plan 2.0). But then we see an unconscious new “rescuee” being wheeled into the hospital on a gurney: It’s Carol, last seen leaving with Daryl to look for Beth. CREDITS.
- The writers of The Walking Dead have apparently figured out the secret to keeping things tight and focused this season, and to my shock, it’s splitting up the survivors.
I’d assumed that the decision in last week’s episode to send Abe and the members of the group bent on heading to Washington, D.C. off on their own while Rick and the rest stayed behind to search for Carol, Daryl and Beth was a sign of falling back on lazy, tried and tested formulas from previous seasons. Nope. Instead, we’ll be following the individual stories piecemeal, allowing us viewers to enjoy very densely packed episodes that do a lot to advance the story and key themes despite being packed with gore and tension.
- Noah made good his escape, albeit with a severely broken leg. He’s not likely to be any good on his own, but as we saw so much of him in this episode and he didn’t die onscreen, he’s probably going to be back the next time we check in on Beth. A couple of things about that:
1) Could Noah be the mysterious person in the shadows Daryl asked to “come on out” last week? We don’t know for how long Daryl and Carol were gone – I’m assuming they’re only a couple of hours away from Atlanta by car at most. Obviously, Carol’s been kidnapped, and she and Beth are probably going to team up and wreck some serious fucking havoc when we see them next. Perhaps they encountered Noah. And…