As a general rule, Ash vs. Evil Dead has its tongue buried so far in its cheek it pokes through the side of its own face. True to its splatstick roots, the series cranks up the blood and guts to a more-funny-than-scary degree, and uses its talented troupe of comedic actors to crack wiseass jokes about the carnage. It's not that it's making light of violence, let alone celebrating or valorizing it — its attitude is that in the face of evil, death, and the combination thereof, you just have to laugh.
Which makes tonight's episode — "Ashes to Ashes" — such a shock. From the title on down, it seemed like little more than an excuse to introduce the series' goofiest antagonist yet: a clone of Ash J. Williams, grown from the stump of his own severed hand. A Bruce Campbell vs. Bruce Campbell fight scene? Groovy, right? But when the evil Ash killed Amanda Fisher — the dogged, surprisingly flirtatious detective who went from nemesis to love interest in the blink of an eye — it was a development that the show's shits 'n' giggles tone made impossible to see coming, and emotionally difficult to withstand.
It's not that the brutality is wholly without precedent. AvED has always had a rewarding mean streak mixed in with the one-liners and gross-outs, starting way back in the pilot when Fisher's partner was nastily dispatched. The Deadites' use of Kelly's parents to come after Ash and friends is another example. (Remember that fly buzzing around Mimi Rogers' reanimated corpse?) The main difference here is that our heroine appeared to be protected by "plot armor" no meat cleaver or deer antler could penetrate. A skeptic turned believer, an enemy turned ally, a professional ass-kicker in a crew of amateurs — even without the Sam-and-Diane-style relationship, everything about her character made her indispensable. When she succumbed to the blade in her neck and the bones through her gut, our understanding of how stories like this are "supposed" to work went with her.
It wasn't the only vicious surprise the episode had cooked up, though: Before he lost his current girlfriend to the Deadites, Ash spent quite a bit of time communing with his last one. Since the installment was set in the same cabin where Evil Dead 2 took place, a certain amount of nostalgia was to be expected; seeing the cellar door, the taxidermy, and the tool shed from the movie was the horror-nerd equivalent of Han and Chewie showing up in The Force Awakens.
But a full-fledged cameo from Linda, the woman Williams loved and lost way back when? Hardcore, baby. Doubly so because she reappears only as the severed head he trapped in a vice and split open with a chainsaw back in the day. Triply show because she mercilessly taunts him with grotesque sexuality ("I give good head!") and soul-crushing nihilism ("[Amanda]'s gonna die here. We all die! Everyone you've ever loved!). Quadruply so because her lovely noggin soon begins gushing blood through the crack cut by her beau's Black & Decker, until he splatters the whole unholy thing like a grapefruit. It's a brilliant sequence: Don't you figure that's how demons really would behave if they showed up in your cabin in the woods to fuck with you?
Given the horrors that preceded it, it's kinda shocking the Main Man vs. Main Man main event works as well as it did. After all, we'd just seen the evil Ash bash Amanda's head with a refrigerator door, embed a meat cleaver in her throat ("Now that's what I call cleavage!"), and laugh as she was impaled on those deer antlers ("If it's any consolation, that's exactly how your partner felt when he was dying"). Meanwhile, Linda spent her last moments before being smashed to smithereens gloating about the Deadites' claiming of yet another one of Williams's loved ones: "You're gonna be alone forever! We'll make sure of that!" It took not one but two Bruce Campbells — that's a metric fuckton of raw macho charisma, folks — to shake off all that awfulness and make the fight scene a blast anyway. The escalating exchange of weak spots that the dueling duo shouts out as they assault each other probably sums up the vibe the best: "Trick knee!" "Bum shoulder!" "Soft balls!" Yes, the grimmest episode to date also includes a good old-fashioned shot to the family jewels.
Actually, it contains a whole lot more than that. The show's now at a point of confidence where it can casually toss out images and plot beats that linger long after their screen time is up. Think of Ash's hand skittering along behind a hole in the wall, suddenly sprouting a eyeball in its wrist as maggots writhe through its flesh. Think of the trio of attractive, almost certainly ill-fated Australian hikers that Kelly and Pablo run into out in the woods, and how the eye candy on display is destined to go spectacularly rotten any episode now. Think of how well Bruce Campbell conveys Ash's real fear and concern about returning to the cabin and dragging his friends along with him just by softening the look in his usual over-the-top tough-guy eyes, a trick that shows how capable an actor he really is. With the end of the season just a couple episodes away, one thing is clear: For a show about evil, this thing is damned good.
Previously: The Right to Tear Arms