Gene Page/AMC
February 27, 2015 at 04:37 PM EST

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

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