My girlfriend recently complained that The Walking Dead is always the same: the heroes find a new home; they get their hopes up; everything around them crumbles; rinse and repeat. I must admit that this sort of repetition falls deep into my blind spot, perhaps because I spent my formative years watching the likes of McGyver and Jessica Fletcher hash out the same plot over and over again. Owing to pioneer shows like Lost and Babylon 5, television has evolved quite a bit since then. Audiences now expect a single, cohesive narrative with a clear end in sight, but I don’t think that’s what AMC ever had in mind for our favourite zombie drama.
In fairness, executive producer Scott M. Gimple has taken active steps to break up the monotony this year on The Walking Dead, giving our heroes (or at least half of them) a proactive goal in Washington and setting up the Quest for Beth™ for Daryl and Carol. “Slabtown” presumably opens the latter story arc, catching us up with Hershel’s youngest daughter before the big rescue, which I’m guessing is scheduled for the mid-season finale. That should mean forty-five minutes of open-ended setup, as characters meander about and drop ominous hints, yet the episode comes across more like a self-contained one-off with its own feel, rhythm, and stakes.
It helps that the story takes place in a time bubble of sorts. Lest we forget, Beth has been missing since “Alone” last year, and, if previews are anything to go by, it may take a couple of weeks before Carol reaches the hospital. In other words, “Slabtown” spans over nine episodes of The Walking Dead (or, as Rick may put it, three inches of scruffy beard). I’m reminded of season four’s extended flashback episode “Live Bait”, which filled us in on the Governor’s whereabouts after our heroes took over his tribe. I love what Gimple has been doing with narrative and chronology.
Even without the temporal distortions, though, “Slabtown” feels like it could have made a solid zombie flick distinct from The Walking Dead franchise: two teenagers, Beth and Noah, find themselves stuck between undead ghouls and a microcosm of human corruption; they ultimately decide to take their chances with the corpses, but only one makes it to freedom. We’ve got a fully fleshed-out society where the weak are coerced into slave labour, a conflicted villain who turns a blind eye to abuse for fear of compromising her position, and even a mystery as Edward’s true motives for not treating Gavin are slowly revealed.
I suspect “Slabtown” might have played differently if not for all the recent talk on the news of police brutality and abuse of power. Even though their transgressions don’t even compare in terms of gruesomeness, watching the uniformed officers savagely beat Noah for a crime he didn’t commit perturbed me even more than the Terminus cannibals munching on Bob’s leg in “Four Walls and a Roof”. The Walking Dead is no stranger to social commentary, but has the satire ever been as direct or potent as the details of Grady Memorial’s corruption?
What I find the most interesting about “Slabtown”, though, is the way it reverses the show’s formula to generate suspense. A typical episode of The Walking Dead would’ve presented Grady Memorial as a potential home for our heroes, prompting them to pontificate endlessly about their renewed sense of hope before the inevitable cliffhanger wherein everything falls apart. Here, we instead discover the hospital from Beth’s suspicious point of view, interpreting its indentured inhabitants not as equal survivors but caged animals who can’t seem to grasp that they’re safer outside. It makes for a different narrative experience, for sure, but one as true to Robert Kirkman’s vision as any we’ve had before.