It’s been mentioned before, but one of the better tactics employed by the writers of The Walking Dead is to frame episodes or story arcs around how other survivors are getting through the ongoing nightmare that the world has become. This week’s episode, “Slabtown,” was an interesting entry into that ongoing collection of aftermath stories, creating a scenario that was downright chilling in its brutal practicality.
“Slabtown” finally answers the question of what happened to Beth, as she awakens to find herself in an increasingly unsettling group of survivors who are getting by — barely — in a hospital in downtown Atlanta. Things are decidedly off right from the get-go, from her interaction with the nebbish, anxious Doctor Edwards (Erik Jensen) to the barely contained neurosis of the hospitals autocratic leader Dawn (Christine Woods). As the first body is wheeled in, and then dumped out moments later, we realize that something is most definitely rotten in Atlanta.
This group is perhaps the most unstable, the most poorly developed in terms of overall cohesion, that we’ve seen so far, but it made for some compelling television. The idea of an entire enclave of indentured servants, working through an always-cautious system of jobs and favors and debts, is one that is destined for failure, and what made it so fascinating was the realization that everyone understood it as such. A woman would rather die than be used as a toy, a doctor would rather kill than be found obsolete, and a leader would rather enslave and lie than lose even an iota of power. It was a system gone horribly wrong, and the episode portrayed that simmering madness almost note perfectly, with each player doing excellent work. Of particular note was Noah (who I think we can presume is who Daryl will eventually reveal to Michonne in the woods), played by Tyler James Williams (known best as young Chris from Everyone Hates Chris), as he quiet schemer who befriends Beth, even as he is forced to ultimately abandon her.
That said, the downside to the episode is ultimately Beth herself. Emily Kinney has never been the most compelling of actresses and Beth has largely been given short shrift over the past few seasons. She grew somewhat during her Season Four escapades with Daryl, but asking her to carry an episode was simply too great a burden. Her wide-eyed innocent routine never really worked here, even as though we were meant to see the steely strength within. The problem was that I never bought into it — Beth’s constant shock at each successive action, the way she was effortlessly manipulated — none of it brought any sense of stakes to it. Perhaps that’s the problem with Beth as a character in general — I simply don’t care all that much about her. And why should we? Her character has historically been utterly generic, a bland, simpering waif. Yet even at the episode’s conclusion — including a very tense escape scene — when Beth is finally meant to show some strength and backbone, it never really rang true. Whether this is due to a lack of ability on Kinney’s part or poor execution by the writers, or some combination of the two, it doesn’t really matter. Beth needs some more defining trait other than “sweetness and kindness,” which thus far is all we’ve really seen. And even as she summons new resolve, as she figures out Doctor Edwards’s dirty secret, she still completely fails to make the character feel compelling.
“Slabtown” was a solid enough episode, but it was solid in spite of Beth, not because her. That’s particularly problematic considering that it was meant to be an episode that contributed to the character’s arc. On the plus side, it introduced some new and interesting characters (and it appears possible that Noah will be around for a bit, which is good news — hey, despite the loss of Bob we still have a net gain of one black person). The greatest shame is that the amazing Keisha Castle-Hughes only got a few minutes of screen time before being unceremoniously killed not before, I’m assuming, being raped by the hideously creepy Gorman (speaking of, I really hope that this isn’t going to become a thing. That’s the second or third allusion to rape in this season, a lazy and unpleasant trope that the show has thus far avoided). Of course, it’s the very end that makes things even more intriguing — Carol makes everything interesting, and if we had to add a little chaos into that hospital, she’s your best choice. What comes next is anyone’s guess, and while Beth herself hasn’t been terribly interesting, the story around her certainly brings forth exciting new possibilities.