Editor’s Note: This review contains spoilers for The Walking Dead TV series and comic books.
Like last season, season 5 of The Walking Dead seems to be unfolding in little acts. Last year, we got a couple of episodes about an epidemic at the Prison followed by an arc about the Governor’s resurgence to power. This all led to a final confrontation during the midseason finale. Things are taking the same sort of shape this season.
After a particularly bloody episode in Gabriel’s church last week, Gimple and Matthew Negrete, who penned tonight’s episode and two others last season, were ready to take the show into new territory. Well, kinda: new characters who resemble past characters in a city that we’ve visited before.
THE BIG VILLAIN PROBLEM
It’s become apparent to me after several seasons and lots of comic books that The Walking Dead has a big villain problem. When not being mauled by zombies, Rick and friends usually spend a lot of time worrying about the newest dictator of a dystopic society. The writers can’t seem to turn a new corner without introducing the “benevolent-seeming dictator who has been twisted by the apocalypse” character that we’ve become pretty accustomed to. All the way back to that season 1 finale at the CDC, there’s always been a character holding all the power, who’s not afraid to sacrifice those around him to perfect his vision of the new world.
The Governor really seemed the epitome of this formula. He was given a moral dilemma, a motivation, a chance for redemption, and a final breaking point that was so wonderfully done that…well, you don’t hear many people complaining about the character, do you? For the record, I do think that the lead-up to his final demise in season 4 was handled a bit poorly. But we’re getting off topic…The point is that the villains/characters and situations don’t seem to change.
The most interesting part of the show has always been the transformation of the characters. We see a bloodthirsty Rick, finally in touch with what seems to be his destiny, a no-longer-victimized Carol, and a wise Tyreese — three characters whose stories on the show have led them to this point of…”clarity” might be the word I’m looking for. They seem to know where they’re headed. As long as the writers keep developing these characters in interesting ways, we’ll continue to welcome them.
The Terminans had something new to offer, so I won’t give them too much grief for being more of the same. We hadn’t seen cannibals yet, right? Even though we knew they were out there, waiting in the dark woods, we didn’t get to see any survivors chewing on a human leg until two weeks ago. Thank you, Gimple and Kirkman, and now we can move on.
It’s with great boredom that I introduce you to Officers Dawn Lerner and the despicable Gorman, who are the cookie cutter villains of this episode. There’s also the sneaky Doctor Steven Edwards, who is slightly more interesting, but only because I suspect that he hasn’t completely shown all his cards. Is he another villain (seems that way) or will he help Beth escape in the end (maybe)?
I wish that Beth had left the show way before she could find herself in such a shitty setup. Speaking of Beth…
MY BIG BETH PROBLEM
I’m so underwhelmed by the direction of this week’s episode. We get the definition of stock characters in “Slabtown” and a protagonist who you’d have to have infinite amounts of patience to like. I try not to throw around the word “useless” when it comes to these characters, but Beth really is just that. Unless there’s a scene you need to fill with song, there really doesn’t seem to be a reason for her to be on the show at all.
Ever since season 2, I’m not sure that Beth has been a vital addition to the cast. It might be that she feels like one character too many (Kirkman gives Hershel way too many children in the comics, too) since Maggie is pretty much the Marcia to her Jan (it’s not a rivalry per se, but we all have our favorite).
Or maybe it’s that the writers only pick up Beth’s story when they need a plot device to move things forward. Beth’s abduction provided the forward progression this season needed after the conclusion of the Terminus arc. But that’s about it. And instead of an episode where we see Daryl and Carol kicking ass in Atlanta, we get to watch Beth kinda…walk around?
My issue is that Beth is a poorly developed character who is sometimes given these fake emotional situations in order to fool us into thinking that she is important. And although, the writers made the right choice to finally give Beth something to do, it is too little, too late. At this point, she’s just an invevitable zombie meal to me.
Jeez, I’ve bitched a lot this time around, haven’t I? Moving on.
WHAT THE EPISODE GETS RIGHT
One of the best parts of the episode is Officer Gorman’s death. Because he’s a douche and I hate him. I’m glad that the writers dispatched him really quickly and that he won’t be preying on any more women. This brings up a separate thought about guys like Gorman on these kinds of shows: if I have to witness another person threatened by a rapist on a horror drama show, I’m going to don vigilante tights and punch every skeevy dude I see in the face. For a second, The Walking Dead seems to fall into the American Horror Story trap (seriously, that show is the worst) where every threat is in some way sexual. Luckily for us, Gorman is out of the picture. You go, Zombie Joan.
The return to an urban setting is also welcomed, even though I wish it was any city but Atlanta. We’ve already been to Atlanta, but it’s better than having to walk through another stretch of woods. The brief scenes of a postapocalyptic Atlanta are great, gorgeous shots that focus in on the hallowed out buildings and the moss growing on the few walls that are still standing in the city.
The rooftop scene with Beth and Dr. Edwards offer us a brief glimpse of the larger world. The woods are so isolating and I’ve felt for a while that Rick and friends were living within a bubble. It’s nice to see this reminder that there are other places still out there. After all this talk of Washington, I was seriously looking forward to seeing a city again. I hope that next week’s episode gives us a view from the ground, as we follow Daryl and Carol down the zombie-ravaged streets.
Also, let’s welcome Noah into the fold, who seemed to me the emotional center of the episode (sorry, Beth). Noah’s been wronged and witnessed firsthand how twisted things can get at the hospital under Officer Dawn’s rule. He’s kind, smart, and biding his time. You don’t really get to see any characters that can still keep their cool on this show. Everyone’s been through so much that they explode given the smallest reason, but Noah’s just waiting for a chance to get out of his current captivity at the hospital.
Noah explains to Beth that while Officer Dawn and Dr. Edwards save lives, they also keep their patients as indentured servants. I mean, who else is going to serve the doctor his guinea pig entree?
And then Noah explains his plan to blow the joint. In terms of story, it’s a pretty simple setup that you could almost call “mystery of the week.”
Oh, the action set pieces are fantastic, too. Since none of the characters in the episode are of particular importance, the tension builds at an exponential rate once the action gets going. Who is going to get it? I expected Noah to die by the end of the episode, sacrificing himself for Beth, but it turns out to be the other way around. We watch Noah escape past the gates of the hospital campus, Beth smiling on the pavement, as the cops cuff her. It’s a really great moment.
The writers gave Beth something to do this episode, and we see the bug finally infect her. What bug am I talking about? The bug going around this season that’s been transforming characters into killers or deliberators. Finally, we see a change in Beth through action. She does something. It changes her. So did Rick, so did Carol, so did Tyreese, so did, so did, so did…This is how you write great characters. I stand by too little, too late, though.
Carol and Daryl will surely enter the scene next week. We see Carol entering the hospital on a gurney (whether she was injured during the mission or she’s faking is anyone’s guess), apparently unconscious. I can only assume that we’ll get to see how Carol got there next Sunday. I have a feeling that we won’t see the big rescue until episode 6 — when I suspect there will be another big death on the show.
I called it earlier this season, and I’m saying it again: Carol doesn’t make it past the midseason finale. She’s the sacrifice this violent universe demands for Beth’s life.
Other stuff: Will Beth stab the treacherous Dr. Edwards or will he redeem himself by helping Beth escape the hospital? Should we care about Officer Dawn long enough for Daryl to walk into her office and put an arrow between her eyes? Where’s Noah off to?
Lots of questions to be answered in the coming weeks. I have to say that I like the little comic book arc format that the show is taking in its later years. These tidy little arcs seem to complement the large cast well. People are split up nicely and the stories are all progressing in their own spaces. I think this second arc is probably the most standalone of the three.
But really, it all seems to be a placeholder for the long trip to Washington. We might get to see where Abraham and his troops end up by midseason’s end.
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