by Thom Yee
Remember that time we went back to the future to rescue Peter Petrelli’s time-displaced girlfriend, Caitlin? Or when those giant praying mantis eggs finally hatched and took over Sunnydale? Or when we finally found out what was going on with Walt’s psychic powers? Like it or not, there are just some plot points that prove to be such dead weight or way too difficult to solve or so disruptive to the rhythm of a TV series that they’re completely dropped lest they bring all the positive momentum the show has since gained to a screeching narrative halt.
Also known as this week’s “Slabtown.”
A Beth-centric episode.
A whole hour of Beth.
I never liked Beth. Besides Maggie and Hershel (and only because he managed to redeem himself in that episode where he kicked everything’s ass), I never liked anyone from that farm, mostly because they were all some combination of inevitable walker bait and never really introduced to us. At some point we all put two and two together and realized this little blonde girl was still there, and eventually the writers decided to give her some discernible character traits beyond “can take care of baby Judith.” She ended up graduating from fairly innocuous to slightly annoying to unwanted distraction fairly quickly, and I’ve gone on record several times as hoping her character would just end up on the cutting room floor after she was kidnapped near the end of last season.
So we could all just forget about her.
And move on.
But that. Didn’t. Happen.
“Slabtown” introduces us to a hospital-based society where the cops seem to be in charge, the doctor wields minor power because he’s the only one with real medical knowledge, and everyone else is dressed in scrubs and forced to do everything from minor duties like folding laundry to major duties like injecting people with medication on [said single, solitary] doctor’s orders even though they don’t know what it does. Built around the central concept that “everything costs something”, the residents of Slabtown (and its never actually called that so much as it’s a reference to Atlantan history) are held virtual prisoner, performing various chores until their debt is paid, their debts being the costs of the rescue, room and board they naturally incur(red) by being taken in in the first place. On the face of things, that’s not an entirely bad thematic concept, but it’s shoved down our throats so inelegantly and unconvincingly and repeatedly that it almost becomes as annoying as the fact that we’re spending an entire episode on what happened to Beth.
The problems with “Slabtown” are threefold. First, Beth, no matter what you think of the character, is not a strong enough presence to carry an entire episode. I’m aware of the fact that that’s a prejudice I’ve developed and will probably never get past, but she’s definitely not a dynamic character, nor a sympathetic one, nor an entirely believable one. There’s just something about the character that comes across as ingenuine, something I only noticed after watching an entire episode about her — everything she does seems fake, from the way she pours a bottle of bleach to the way she stomps in a walker skull to the way she jumps into a pit full of partially eaten human corpses (all of which happened in this episode). It all feels like she’s acting, like she’s putting on an unnecessary physical emphasis as if we wouldn’t notice what she was doing otherwise. That can work okay on stage where we’re not all privy to the perfect camera angles (I guess), but it rings false onscreen.
Second, that same falsehood pervades almost everything we see of Slabtown’s living conditions. On the bright side, between the sexual harassment and oppressive atmosphere and open beatings, we know something’s wrong with this place right away, and we’re not forced to wait all episode to find out that Officer Dawn, Slabtown’s apparent leader, has a room full of walker-head fish tanks or something else outwardly horrific. But everything feels falsely ominous and unnecessarily mean without the necessary follow through. We know that Beth owes something and can’t leave until the debt’s repaid, but we’re left without a sense of quantity, and we never know if she’s on the verge of leaving or still in deep. The only major voices we hear are that of the oppressive officers who insist things have to be this way (i.e., outwardly cruel), but there’s no balance to the struggle other than the voice that should be screaming in our heads that this whole scenario doesn’t stand up to closer inspection. It all kind of feels like what it would have been like to grow up with an abusive father, only there’s no alcohol to act as an apparent excuse.
Third, and worst of all, “Slabtown” goes a long way in ruining the pace of everything that’s come before it this season. So far, there’s been a palpable sense that nothing’s precious, that the showrunners have finally learned to allow story elements to follow their natural progression rather than dragging them out to an unnatural end (see: the Governor not dying at the end of season three), and that’s been refreshing. But then here we are, resolving plot points introduced last season that didn’t matter to most of us given the scope of the rest of what was happening. “Slabtown” is a strong example of the separation between comicbook and TV show in that it was really boring and is the kind of story that would never fly in the comics. It’s meandering and directly unimpactful, and the only reason it gets that extra .5 added to its score that raises the episode up to “liked at least a little bit” is that Beth gets slapped in the face.
The Walking Dead “Slabtown” final score: 5.5
Items of Note:
- I love how that slap came out of nowhere! Out of nowhere! Dawn just turns around and slaps her! Right in the face! Out of nowhere!
- Good luck on the road, Noah. I’m sure your no weapons or protective gear and complete lack of experience out in the walker-infested open won’t get in the way. Or that busted ankle.
- Also, thanks for giving me the perfect context to use the word “busted.” I rarely get to use it so well.