Beth wakes up in an Atlanta hospital, but her rescuers aren't who they seem.
Credit: Gene Page/AMC

Could there be a less enticing, ominously evocative episode title than “Slabtown”? Ending up on a slab means dying, and anything called Slabtown should almost certainly be avoided. (That said, Portland’s Slabtown Bar earns solid marks on Yelp.) The title of the fourth episode of The Walking Dead‘s fifth season is never explicitly linked to what happens in the episode—there’s no “Forget it, Beth: It’s Slabtown”—but we’ll presumably learn it soon.

Anyone hoping to learn who was with Daryl in the woods was probably disappointed not to have last week’s cliffhanger answered, but we can remove a few candidates from Dalton Ross’ list: Beth, the people who took Beth, and Carol. More on her in a bit.

Beth has traditionally been one of The Walking Dead’s less compelling supporting characters, so it’s nice watching her take on more narrative responsibility lately, beginning back with last season’s “Tempus Fugit.” Back on her dad’s farm, Beth seemed content to let Maggie and Hershel be the grown-ups. Even in the prison she stuck to more domestic duties. That made her ill-prepared for a life on her own—as one of her new guardians notes—but times have changed. Beth may still look young and weak, but people underestimate her at their own peril. And they underestimate her repeatedly in “Slabtown.”

When Beth disappeared last season in a speeding car with a white cross on the back, my money was on a group of religious fanatics taking her. Surely this world has its share of zealots who have used the zombie plague as justification for bizarre behavior. Where is the Guilty Remnant of The Walking Dead?

Well, it isn’t at the Atlanta hospital where Beth wakes up at the beginning of “Slabtown.” But we quickly learn that a different, tidy fanaticism rules Grady Memorial Hospital, as personified by police officer Dawn Lerner (Christine Woods, best known for Go On and Hello Ladies): Order at all costs, down to clothing on their backs.

Lerner quickly makes that clear after explaining to Beth how she ended up there: They rescued her from “rotters” on the side of the road, “so you owe us.” That debt informs the rest of “Slabtown,” though the terms of it are never made clear. Beth owes them something for saving her, for her food, and presumably her shelter. She works off that debt as a nurse/assistant to Dr. Steven Edwards (Eric Jensen), the good cop to Lerner’s bad cop (and Cullen Moss’ worse cop, who would like to repaid sexually).

Rarely is the passage of time clear on The Walking Dead, so it looks like Beth goes from groggily waking up to seeing the plug pulled on another patient in a matter of minutes. As Edwards explains, if patients don’t improve, the hospital euthanizes them—which is an exceedingly polite way of saying he takes them off life support and dumps their bodies down an elevator shaft to be eaten by walkers.

It may seem cruel, but limited resources mean Lerner and Edwards—the hospital’s only doctor—have to be ruthlessly realistic. Except when they don’t: Not long after Beth learns the rules, Lerner and another cop wheel in a new patient, who’d fallen from a building. The guy’s in bad shape; Edwards assesses him as hopeless on first sight: “This one’s a loser. You said you didn’t want me wasting resources.” Lerner insists Edwards treat him, so the doctor relieves pressure caused by his collapsed lung, but beyond that he can’t do anything. Bruising on the man’s abdomen indicates internal bleeding, and they don’t have the equipment to diagnose the cause. Edwards again remarks that it’s a waste of resources, so Lerner takes the logical next step of slapping Beth. “Steve, try to grasp the stakes here,” she says while Beth looks baffled.

The red flags continue. When officers drag in another “ward” who has been bitten during an apparent escape attempt, Lerner insists on amputating the woman’s arm to save her life, even though she wants to die. “You can’t control them!” the woman, Joan, yells. “I will!” Lerner responds. And because we’ve gone literally minutes without gore, we’re treated to the woman’s arm being amputated with a wire saw. Lerner, it’s clear, only understands force. By the sheer force of clinging to the previous rules of order, she’s going to save the world. Or so she thinks.

Dalton mentioned Tyler James Williams in his post last Monday, and now we have seen Noah (so no, that’s probably not him in the bushes, either). Noah has been working off his debt for a year since he was saved, and he seems to have no idea how much is left on his tab. In fact, he’s never seen someone pay off their debt and walk out the door. Whether that’s because they never finish paying or because they decide to stay at the hospital instead of facing the outside world alone remains to be seen. He has no illusions about his hosts: Lerner can barely keep control of her officers, and her grip is slipping; they left Noah’s injured father when they rescued him, ostensibly because they didn’t have the resources to care for Noah’s dad, but Noah suspects it was really because his dad was bigger, stronger, and unlikely to be pushed around.

“They think I’m weak,” Noah tells Beth. “They don’t know shit about me, about what I am. About what you are.”

Where men at this hospital see Beth and see a willowy blonde they’d like to bang—you’re no exception, Dr. Edwards—Noah is the only person, man or woman, to see a person who can unload a string of headshots on a group of walkers with icy precision. Well, maybe he doesn’t see that, but he at least grasps her toughness—and she has a chance to show off her gun skills later.

Lerner, rightly sensing she didn’t make the best impression on Beth, tries a softer approach with her later. She brings food and tries to make her case. “You shouldn’t see this as a sentence. I’m giving you food, clothes, protection. When have those things ever been free?” she asks. Then she makes plain the denial feeding her manic devotion to order: When they’re rescued, their sacrifice will have been worth it.

That includes mistreatment of wards by officers of the law sworn to protect them. Lerner clings mightily to the order of the world before the fall, but she’s the only one. Her staff, epitomized by the rapey Gorman (Moss), maintains the minimal amount of peace to keep her satisfied, though it’s unclear why they couldn’t simply pull a coup. “She can control them,” Joan tells Beth later, “but she doesn’t because it’s easier. Because she’s a coward.”

Next: The devil you know

Episodes of The Walking Dead have a habit of circling a theme—think the forgetting/starting over from “Strangers,” for instance—and this episode, written by White Collar alums Matthew Negrete and Channing Powell, hits the debt one hard. While discussing Lerner, Beth asks what Gorman did to Joan. “Doesn’t matter,” she says. “I guess it’s easy to make a deal with the devil when you’re not the one paying the price.”

“Girl should’ve been mine,” growls that very devil in the next scene. Edwards has stopped Gorman from continuing to force a lollipop into Beth’s mouth (which couldn’t have been more grossly sexual), and Gorman’s complaining that Beth should have been—let’s be frank here—his sex slave in return for his saving her. And there’s the very real threat that she still will be, just as soon as the last remnants of order inside Grady Memorial collapse.

Edwards tries to make the “devil you know” case, that enduring such menace is still preferable to living on the outside. That’s easy for him to say; the lingering threat of Gorman aside, he can sit in his sloppy office, eat his guinea pig, and look at his Caravaggio painting in relative peace without the imminent threat of sexual assault.

The lengths Edwards will travel to protect that relative peace are only revealed later, when he purposefully has Beth give a patient the wrong medication, with deadly results. Turns out that guy was a doctor, and Edwards believes that having another doctor would make him disposable. (It seems like there’s enough work to go around in that hospital, but who knows?) In Beth, he has the perfect patsy: an inexperienced, young woman who simply confused two similar-sounding medications. He knows her punishment won’t be too severe—Noah takes the blame with an obvious lie—so the benefits outweigh the costs. Only Beth is sharper than he understands, which he finally realizes at the end of the episode when she calls him on his scheme.

Lerner doesn’t know what Edwards did, but she knows that Noah didn’t cause that guy’s death. She blames Beth, because it fits in with the preconceived narrative Lerner has for her: Beth isn’t strong enough to survive on her own, so her only usefulness is in satisfying Lerner’s officers, because they’re the ones who keep everyone safe.

“This hasn’t been easy,” Lerner says. “There have been compromises, but it’s working, and after they rescue us, we’re going to help put the world back together because we’re the ones holding on. That’s the good we’re doing here. That’s the good you’re doing here. That’s what makes you worth something. But out there? You are nothing—except dead or somebody’s burden.”

She looks at the scar on Beth’s wrist from her suicide attempt way back in season 2. “Some people just aren’t meant for this life, and that’s okay,” she continues. “So long as they don’t take advantage of the ones who are.”

Lerner might as well have ended her speech with “PROVE ME WRONG, BETH,” because that’s exactly what Beth sets out to do. She and Noah hatch a scheme to steal a key to the outside that Lerner keeps in her suitably sterile office. AMC could’ve put a “Countdown Till Gorman Catches Her” timer on the screen, because it was obvious how this would shake out.

Not so obvious was Joan’s body defiantly bleeding out in Lerner’s immaculate office. Scissors lie next to her hand, and it looks like she cut open her arm at the point of amputation and bled out—without a headshot. Gorman doesn’t see Joan when he inevitably enters and proceeds from walking in the door to sexual blackmail in record time. No one else who underestimated Beth in this episode paid for it with their lives, but no one else deserved it as much as Gorman. Beth sees Joan’s reanimated fingers twitching, so just as Gorman puts his hand up her shirt, she smashes him over the head with the lollipop jar (nice touch), and Zombie Joan does the rest.

It’s the moment when an otherwise sleepy Walking Dead episode kicks into the action and embraces the maximum grossness we’ve come to expect this season. As Noah and Beth make their escape, they land in the elevator car where dozens of bodies have landed to be devoured by walkers. Literally up to her elbows in bodies, Beth takes charge, leading Noah down the hallway as she picks off walkers with the gun she stole from Gorman. For a minute it looks like she’ll escape alone because Noah is injured and unable to keep up, but in the end officers tackle her while he escapes. The smile on her face as he takes off shows her satisfaction.

But her captors now understand what Beth is capable of, and she revels in tearing off the scales Lerner strains to keep over her eyes: “No one’s comin’, Dawn! No one’s comin’! We’re all gonna die, and you let this happen for nothin’.” Sure, Lerner was there when jets napalmed all of downtown Atlanta, but she still believes someone will rescue them.

Lerner looks hurt, then an expressionless resolve washes over her face. She only understands force, so she punches Beth.

How will the power dynamic inside Grady Memorial change now that Lerner (and Edwards) understand Beth? Never mind that: Carol’s here. And I’m guessing she won’t tolerate whatever debt Lerner thinks she owes.


• Why did Lerner insist Edwards treat that patient who fell off the building? She must have known him, right?

IMDB lists Cullen Moss’ character name as “Michael Alexander” for some reason. No way, “Gorman” is a much rapier name. I can’t figure out where I know him from. Maybe Eastbound & Down?

The first directing credit IMDB lists for “Slabtown” director Michael E. Satrazemis is “The Grove.” What a way to start! (He has a ton of other credits, from a rigging grip on My Cousin Vinny to 19 Walking Dead episodes as a camera operator.)

Soundtrack: Early in the episode, when Beth and Edwards wheel the gurney down the hallway to dump the body, “Be Gone Dull Cage” by Kiev; the final scene as Carol’s wheeled in, “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” by Blind Willie Johnson. The artist Edwards is listening to on his record player is Junior Kimbrough.

• Lerner has an exercise bike in her office. As we all know, the first rule of Zombieland is cardio.

• That Caravaggio painting Edwards found in the garbage? It’s probably worth at least $10 million. Not that money does a lot of good in The Walking Dead.

• Check the site tomorrow, as Dalton has interviews with Emily Kinney, Tyler James Williams, and Christine Woods.

• Because “slab” sounds similar to “bad,” I’ve had this song stuck in my head since I watched my screener last week:

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The Walking Dead

AMC's zombie thriller, based on the classic comic book serial created by Robert Kirkman.

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