Though the mystery of where exactly Beth (Emily Kinner) has been since the tail-end of season four has been solved, “Slabtown” ended up raising more questions than it answered. And it’s not just that final shot of Carol (Melissa McBride) being carried into Atlanta’s Grady Memorial Hospital, where Beth now resides and works in, under the rule of Dawn (Christine Woods), a despotic police officer, and Dr. Edwards (Erik Jensen), who treats patients Dawn and her fellow officers find. The world that Beth awakes in at Grady is governed by a familiarly wonky power structure, and the episode speaks to the show’s ambition to depict a variety of campaigns to rebuild and reinstate civilization outside of the one that Rick (Andrew Lincoln) presides over.
The matter of what Dawn is up to with those cars with white crosses, and the exact details of Beth’s “rescue,” are ultimately less important here than how the key members of the Grady staff have come to live. The episode begins with Dawn explaining how Beth owes her, and this ends up being the basis of the cutthroat bureaucracy she’s running. There’s a sense that Dawn is simply following the guidance of her late partner, and the writers allude to her as a cautionary tale of women in power who live by the example of power-hungry men. By the end of the episode, it’s more than inferred that Dawn expected Beth to gratefully succumb to Gorman (Ricky Wayne), the predatory officer who begins to aggressively pursue her.
Indeed, Dawn admits finally to just trying to hold out until someone comes to get them, a philosophy that only fosters stagnation and fear of the new world, but it allows her the same power she had as before. What’s worse, Dr. Edwards is complicit in her crimes, her unsteady hold of who lives and who dies, for little more than the pleasure of enjoying a Caravaggio, or a Junior Kimbrough record. As Noah (Tyler James Williams), a trusted orderly at Grady, explains to Beth, he was allowed to live over another man due to him being weaker, thus posing no threat to Dawn’s reign. And Dr. Edwards similarly finds an unsettling peace in killing off a doctor to ensure his place, and his importance, in this society will remain unchallenged.
In the mix of the hospital’s day-to-day inner workings, Beth seemed more of a witness to this, and the ending especially gave it the perceivable air of a placeholder. If the main purpose of “Slabtown” is to stretch out the question of who Darryl was telling to come out of the woods at the end of the last episode, it nevertheless comes to a central thematic concern of the series, which is the inherent problems of creating a new society that isn’t based on the brutal doctrine of survival of the fittest, or just the most duplicitous. Dr. Edwards enjoys pontificating on the concept of transcendence in front of Beth, but his actions only ensure that nothing will change, that the uneasy charade of a society that he’s built with Dawn will hold out for one more day. Among the more troubling ideas that “Slabtown” brings up is the question of how long an old system can work in the new world, and just how many better ways of living must be shot down or killed off to reinforce this dubious sustainability.
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