The bottle episode has always been a strength of The Walking Dead – “Clear” still ranks among the best in the series, and season 4.5’s experiments with single-location storytelling single-handedly renewed my waning faith in the show. The show’s never had trouble establishing a new location or telling a short-sighted story within a new world they’ve created; it’s when those bottle episodes turn into bottle seasons that stories run thin and characters become repetitive sound bytes (like the farm in season two, or The Governor, the show’s own Bottle Big Bad). “Slabtown”, The Walking Dead‘s latest foray into its most successful form of storytelling, may not rank among these best of these episodes – but it brings Beth back into the fold for a disturbing story set in a well-defined new environment, not bad for an episode that really only begins moving forward in the final fifteen seconds.
Visual Storytelling and Rich World Construction
What I like about these episodes of The Walking Dead are how much the writers allow the show to express and explain itself visually or metaphorically: where “Slabtown” might lack in interesting narrative (crazy misguided leader, rapey white male… nothing new here, really), it makes up for with rich world construction, crafting a short film out of Beth’s bloody hospital adventure, a short (incomplete) journey that acts as another great exploration of this season’s big theme: how much are you willing to compromise?
Beth’s Moral Boundaries and Reintroduction
For Beth, she draws the line at sexual assault and murder; she faux-forgives Bearded Doctor (I’m not bothering to learn these people’s names, because they’ll all be dead soon, amirite?) for killing the new doctor in the hospital, and she lets a “rotter” rip through Gorman, the episode’s thinnest, most archetypal character (good riddance, you candy loving creep). There’s a lot of talk in this episode about “weakness”, and while I do think the episode goes a little far in re-affirming Beth’s strength, I think it all works well as a fitting re-introduction to a girl we haven’t seen in nearly half a season, a character who’d gone through a lot of changes under Gimple’s care: she’s a woman willing to accept some moral sacrifices to maintain a personal sense of security, but there’s no such thing as “order” or “being saved” in this world: “Slabtown” points out the distinction between the ‘weak’ people at the hospital and Beth with this ideology, presenting a group of people allowing horrible things to happen (and in many cases, doing horrible things) in a pointless pursuit, thinking they would be eventually saved, both physically and from the horrible things they’d done.
Humanity and Ideologies in Conflict
Fortunately, the episode doesn’t go too far in making Beth either a pariah or a savior of this group: her ideology is simply different, subscribing to the same “help them if we can” philosophy that Rick had to remind himself he followed earlier this season. Again, sense of humanity plays a role: the more and more bad stuff Dawn and her cronies allow to happen, the more they lose sight of the humanity they think they’re maintaining until someone comes to rescue. In some cases, optimism can indeed blind us to reality: and for Dawn, that optimism (and sense of power, being the woman who took out her former boss/buddy/lover/something to take charge of the hospital) leads her to the scene with Beth near the end, with their different beliefs and priorities butting heads in a major way in Dawn’s bloodied office.
A Jarring Change of Pace
However interesting a lot of the hospital material was, there’s no denying how slow-paced it feels compared to the rest of the season, a bit of a jarring change of pace, even though we knew this particular brand of episode was on the way (thanks, spoiler-heavy AMC previews!) – and once Carol arrives, anything that involved rapey cops, suicidal prisoners, and a human bartering system are pretty much out the window: we know it’ only a matter of time now before they bust out (hopefully to join Noah; run safe and fast, my dude!), which makes a lot of the non-Beth material tonight worthless in the long run. But for an hour, it allowed us to explore Beth’s internal dilemmas in an interesting way, a jarring, but needed change of pace from the action and cannibal-heavy episodes from the last few weeks.
Photo via AMC
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