The Walking Dead: Season 5, Episode 4–Slabtown

“Everything costs something, right?”

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

Having handily split the show’s growing ensemble of characters into several groups last week, this week The Walking Dead had another of those interesting out of format episodes which focus on one or two of the regulars isolated from the rest of the group. Ever-surprising though, it wasn’t the expected catchup with Daryl and Carol after their departure from the church, but a follow up on the only loose plot thread from last season, as we finally found out what happened to Beth Greene.

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It’s fair to say that, in previous seasons, Beth’s hardly been the most interesting or capable character. During the several episodes in season two when she was determinedly trying to commit suicide, more than once I found myself wishing the rest of the gang would just let her get on with it. Last season, though, found her really stepping up as a mover of the plot, and never more so than in the second half when she found herself wandering the woods alone with Daryl. Still, the episode in which they bared their souls and personal demons to each other, was one of the outstanding scripts in that often meandering second half of the season.

So, we know that Beth is no longer the meek, timid girl she once was, incapable of surviving in this harsh new world without help. This week’s script, by regular writers Matthew Negrete and Channing Powell, played directly on that perception of her as a helpless dependent, and served to show how far she’d come as a character since we first met her. Emily Kinney (who is, astonishingly, actually 29 years old) rose well to the challenge, showing us a Beth who’s learned plenty from her time with Rick Grimes, while still plagued by self-doubt over her old weaknesses.

Having an out of format episode involving only one of the regular characters (the first time that’s happened since the very first episode, I think) also allowed for a change of setting. The return to the ruined Atlanta made a welcome change after three years or so of rural, wooded Georgia – there’s nothing like a wrecked city to convey the scope of the apocalypse in a way that untouched woodland never can.

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I doubt any of the writers of The Walking Dead have ever seen it (though you never know), but the setup of the citybound community with a dark secret reminded me very much of an ep from 70s BBC post-apocalypse drama Survivors. The Lights of London (for so it was called) found the hardy middle-class survivors of the BBC plague drawn back to the rotting hulk of the capital, in search of one of their female colleagues who’d been pressed into medical service in a dodgy community just hanging on in the ruins of the city.

This all felt oddly familiar then; though as I’ve mentioned before, there’s enough post-apocalyptic fiction for it to be difficult to find a plot that hasn’t been done before. Still, even The Walking Dead has done ‘seemingly ordinary community of survivors where everything is not as it seems’ at least twice, with Woodbury and then Terminus. So the formula was well-established, and we knew where we were heading – to the discovery of the community’s Dark Secret, then the rebellion and flight to escape. So far, so formulaic.

So, despite some excellent characterisation, I found the ep initially to be, well, a little dull. No particular disrespect to Beth, but I did find myself constantly wondering when Carol and Daryl were going to show up to liven things up; or at least when the Walkers would break in and chow down on the mostly unsympathetic denizens of Grady Memorial Hospital.

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To be fair, both of those things did happen – but when they did, it was in a cleverly unexpected way. The ep had a slow burn as Beth learned more about the ‘pay for your survival’ ways of the hospital community, and discovered that leader Officer Dawn Lerner was weaker than she appeared, while genial staff doctor Steven Edwards was more ruthless and desperate than he appeared. Dawn in particular had the same baseless conviction as Abraham, that things could return to normal “when someone comes to clean this mess up”. And a community whose leader is functioning on such a basic level of self-delusion is not going to end well.

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The little details were cleverly informed by that central motivation, with Dawn a good contrast for Rick. While he’s accepted (maybe even embraced) that this is the world they now live in, she’s clinging to the past, still wearing an immaculate police uniform while Rick discarded his years ago. Her men too are well turned out and clean shaven – surely a waste of resources in a community so fixated on using them wisely.

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It was inevitable that Beth would end up making a run for it, with savvy young fellow prisoner Noah (Tyler James Williams out of Everybody Hates Chris). The ep came alive a lot more when that happened, with a suicide, and attempted rape, a death-defying plunge down an elevator shaft to a basement full of Walkers, and so on. It also became clear that this wasn’t going to bring us full circle to Daryl’s arrival back at the church from the conclusion of last week’s ep. After a tense fight through the Walkers in the darkened basement, only Noah made it out, with Beth dragged back in. So we’ll be coming back to this plot thread, even if not next week. And the narrative may have to get even more non-linear to show us how an injured Carol found herself at the hospital – without Daryl.

Gore of the week

Initially this week’s ep seemed very Walker-lite, with only the mercy-giving head-impalements of the dead as gore; but as it progressed, more and more Walkers were in evidence. There was also the ghoulish spectacle of the half-eaten pile of corpses at the bottom of the elevator shaft, which Beth and Noah messily squelched into:

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And while we’re all too used to head shots in this show by now, the full-on explosions lit by the flash of the shots in the basement were pretty impressive:

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As was that long shot of creepy cop Gorman’s seriously excavated torso in Dawn’s office:

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An entertaining enough episode, this, with a satisfying conclusion after a very slow start. It’s good to step outside the format every so often, and foregrounding Beth’s character was more interesting than I expected. Overall, though, despite some positive aspects, this was too formulaic to really grip me like the show’s best episodes – it’s done this plot before, and better. Still, when we return to it later, it has the potential to be more interesting.

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