The Walking Dead and the High Cost of Safety

Dissecting "Slabtown," the fourth episode of the fifth season

Gene Page/AMC

Lenika Cruz and David Sims discuss the latest episode of The Walking Dead.

Cruz: Tonight’s episode “Slabtown” opened with a sound and face foreign to The Walking Dead’s season thus far—the ticking of a clock and ... Beth Greene (Emily Kinney)! While Maggie’s younger sister has a reputation for little other than her (lovely, if inappropriately timed) singing, it was a relief to see Beth again for the first time since her bizarre kidnapping back in season four. Much like Rick at the start of the series, she found herself patched up in a quiet, unassuming hospital only to quickly realize the horrors outside her door. Her strange new companions—the slightly robotic leader Officer Dawn Lerner and Portlandia extra/hipster dad Dr. Steven Edwards—told Beth she had been rescued from “rotters” and must now repay the group’s charity by working at the hospital.

With this new setting, the show again offers a variation on a familiar but fascinating theme: Collectives can offer safety, but only from the outside world. With the hospital group come more concrete forms of order, however tenuous—menacing clocks; uniformed police officers; a strict code of fairness; rules about cleanliness; a miniature economy of goods and services; and a post-apocalyptic indentured servitude system. Despite the fact that Beth has never had to carry an entire episode on her own, I found “Slabtown” immensely engrossing (her new friend Noah helped) and found myself fully allied with Beth and admiring her toughness. David, how did you feel about watching Beth navigate a creepy hospital for 45 minutes?

Sims: I really enjoyed “Slabtown,” particularly as a more low-key respite from the intense battle with Terminus that led off the season. The creeping, banal evil of the hospital community was a nice counter to the immediate horror of the people-eaters, and Beth (who’s always been a bit of a blank slate, like you said) was a surprisingly fresh pair of eyes to take it in through. I can’t say I missed her, exactly, but she’s saddled with less story baggage and served as a nice, sympathetic lead. I like Beth now! I’m really turning the corner on a lot of Walking Dead characters I never really cared for before. I can’t wait to see her team up with Carol, the other object of Daryl’s affection.

So Beth is in this secure hospital community, and we pretty much immediately realize that something very nasty is afoot. Again, I’m very happy with how smoothly this season is progressing—there’s less audience hand-holding, less expectation that we need to build the case against new villains slowly. The hospital survives on a strict system of cost-efficiency, concerning both supplies and the people administering them. If you can offer the community something, then you’re valuable. But the weaker or more troublesome you get, the more expendable you are.

It’s a subtler take on the same behavior we witnessed at Terminus. There, when humans arrived they were just knocked out and slaughtered to serve as meat. Here, they can survive if they offer some skill, but the same depersonalization applies. Everyone’s just being boiled down into commodities, and there’s a leader at the top who benefits maybe a little too much. That’s Dawn Lerner, played very effectively by Christine Woods, I thought. She projects a steeliness that one might want in a leader, but there’s a fragility to her tenuous system of survival that she’s obviously trying to cover, from the first time she meets Beth.

I’m with you on Noah, for sure. Along with his great work in Dear White People, Tyler James Williams might be having a bit of a moment. His first scene felt a little too clean, as he voiced all the concerns we might have about the hospital from a first impression. But I was happy to see him get out of there so we can hopefully see him again. Just to throw some speculation around—is he the person emerging from the woods with Daryl last week? I had figured it was Carol, but Carol showed up in the hospital at the end of this episode. Maybe Noah can serve as the link between the two storylines? More Noah, please!

Cruz: Since the chronology is a little muddy, I think it’s entirely feasible to imagine that Noah somehow met up with Daryl and will join the church group. That said, Daryl is hardly the most trusting character, so I wonder how Noah would have convinced Daryl to take him in. Daryl may find it suspicious that Noah managed to escape with a bum leg, and while I don’t think Noah had planned to use and ditch Beth, the whole story has a bit of a Shane and Otis feel to it.

Speaking of Beth and Noah’s escape, I found the whole sequence gripping, starting from the moment Beth walked into Dawn’s office to look for the key. Aside from muttering under my breath, “Come on, hurry up!” I thought Beth’s escape was perfectly calculated—the way she eyed Joan’s twitching corpse and coldly tolerated rapist lollipop cop’s advances before smashing him over the head and leaving him to die. The 15-second shot of her face when she encountered Dawn in the hallway was among the most tense moments of the episode for me. The show barely gave viewers time to process the developments from the elevator shaft onward. How are the pair going to get out? What about the rotters? Will Noah’s leg get him killed? How did Beth manage to make those perfect headshots in the dark? How did Noah get away?

Going back to this notion of the dystopic economy, the hospital group’s strict regulation of skills, necessities, and services feels tyrannical, even when the intentions behind it appear reasonable. Dawn emphasized that “every sacrifice we make has to be for the greater good,” but this utilitarian thinking means that people’s lives are contingent on their value to the group, as you noted, David. And the implications can be dire: Officer Gorman’s sexual preying is overlooked because he helps out with security, Joan gets her arm amputated against her will, and Dr. Edwards kills an old physician friend because he’s worried he’ll be replaced. I’m interested to see how this thinking plays out now that Carol has joined the mix—she’s certainly no stranger to making tough and morally complicated calls when it comes to protecting the group. Will she fit in? Or will she instead refine her own moral code when faced with those same values in a group she’s not emotionally invested in and thus has some critical distance from?

Sims: Oh man, thanks for reminding me of that amputation scene; I did not expect to be so shaken up by all that piano wire. I often think I’m inured to the gore on The Walking Dead, and then something new happens that makes me yelp with surprise and cover my eyes. And good point regarding Carol: Especially as she’s become hardened over the seasons, I wonder if she’ll have the instant reaction of disgust Beth had to the hospital, or something more complicated. The show certainly spent a lot more time setting up the rules of the hospital than it did at Terminus, so I expect to have it around for a few episodes at the very least; still, a part of me hopes Carol is instantly set on burning it down as she did with Terminus.

I’m going to bet that Noah will come back; Tyler James Williams isn’t a huge actor but he’s good enough that I imagine they cast him for more than one episode). Daryl is certainly not going to let Carol go quietly, so things should come to a head soon enough. But there’s enough to wrestle with at the hospital, so I wouldn’t mind sticking around for a little while. That’s high praise for me and The Walking Dead—usually each new location fills me with dread as I expect the plot to get bogged down in tedious detail and suspense. Not so much with season five so far; maybe they’ve finally learned all the lessons of The Governor. The mission of the hospital has some real ambiguity invested in it, and “Slabtown” did a surprisingly subtle job getting it all across while remaining overtly creepy.