Death will always fuel Ash Vs. Evil Dead. One might argue it’s the selling point of the series, second only to witnessing Bruce Campbell’s age-defying acrobatics. Yet things are changing this season: characters are evolving, the world’s expanding, and the stakes are piling up. Although the focus has been on Ash and his ill-fated homecoming in Elk Grove, Michigan, showrunner Craig DiGregorio has done a hell of a job fleshing out his ensemble cast to serve as something more than simply friendly fodder for hungry Kandarian demons lurking nearby. You feel that every time Kelly swears up a tropical storm; Pablo hurls himself into oncoming danger; or Ruby rolls her eyes at the dizzying stupidity around her. Bottom line: They all have their own respective quirks, their own drama, their own purpose. And much like Ash, none of us wants to see them lose their souls or get dragged down into the proverbial fruit cellar.

Until now, that hasn’t happened, which is why there’s a certain sting to “Ashy Slashy.” Thinking back, we’ve yet to lose a stable hero in The Evil Dead franchise. There was Scotty, whose slow burn of a death became one of the perverse joys in the original film, and there was also Annie Knowby from its sequel, who kicked it after being stabbed by the Kandarian dagger, but both were hardly laudable heroes. At least not like Pablo Simon Bolivar, who has been a quick swig of joy, thanks to Ray Santiago’s spirited performances. So, when we see him split in two—a hopeful death, one might argue, seeing as anyone with their head in tact tends to be fair game in this world—it takes the wind out of our sails. Sure, anyone with even the slightest pedigree in horror could have seen the devil in the details two, three, seven episodes ago, but few would have actually thought they’d go through with it. Who knows, maybe they didn’t.

Regardless of Pablo’s fate, “Ashy Slashy” still feels like a changing of the guard. The whole episode’s designed to be like a haunted house movie in which every character tries to survive the dark hallways of Kenward County Asylum. Writers Suzanne Keilly and Aaron Lam have some fun with the medium, though, by turning the episode into some demented Scooby-Doo mystery, wrapping things up with a shaggy twist that stems from a hilarious callback (see: Eli’s pet tracker)—the only thing missing is Old Man Withers and his haunted amusement park! Then again, there isn’t much room for him, what with the Ghost Beaters, the Emery family, Baal, a manic patient, a couple of idiot guards, a dead nurse, and Mental Ash, who’s slowly stalking the hospital like Michael Myers in Halloween II. Things get a little crowded during “Ashy Slashy,” but fortunately this series has a surefire contingency plan for such a situation.

Someone cue The Coasters because Keilly and Lam take out the papers and the trash with one of the series’ longest cold opens to date. ”The only thing you sucked at more than being a Sheriff was being a father,” a surprise Deadite Lacey says to her father, seconds before she rips his head off and makes the following astute observation: “Oh look, he does have a backbone after all!” In one fell swoop, the two writers trim all the hefty fat that’s been weighing the series down, looking towards the future with brilliant ease. Of course, that’s been a luxury of Ash Vs. Evil Dead from the very beginning, if only because the series is always ready and prepared to move on to the next big thing. Sure, that may pose a problem in the seasons to come, especially when they start running out of genre conventions to subvert, but for now, this was a much-needed purge that should, in turn, make Linda Emery stronger and more personable.

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“I know this moment,” Kelly says to the grieving wife and mother. “After this, nothing will be the same again. You will never be the same again. It can sink you lower than you thought possible. Or, it can ignite a fire inside of you.” Thank god? Ever since she first appeared, Michelle Hurd has been struggling to find a proper footing in Ash Vs. Evil Dead, swinging madly between a damsel in distress or a warrior in disguise. It would appear the latter is coming, as she spits back: “I know why you didn’t tell me. You didn’t think I could handle it. You didn’t think I was strong enough. That’s the same mistake people have been making about me my whole entire life. And it’s the last mistake that fucking demon will ever make.” It’s fitting she admits this to Kelly, who similarly lost her family way, way back in last season’s “Bait.” That episode served as the origin story to her own striking brand of heroism, so here’s hoping the same goes for Linda.

To be fair, it’s not like the Ghost Beaters are lacking in that department. With the long con now under his belt, Ash has never been smarter, shocking the likes of Ruby, who has come a long way from being an evil demon. As Pablo warmly tells her in the broom closet, “Each day you spend as a mortal, you become a little more human. It suits you.” That leaves Kelly, who may be the team’s MVP. Much like Pablo, she was also put through the ringer over the last 18 episodes—if you recall, she was maniacally possessed in “The Host” and flung around in the rain during “The Dark One”—only her aggravated instincts have evolved at a much faster rate. (Think back to when she could hardly handle a machine gun during “Fire In The Hole” and how it’s now her weapon of choice.) Watching her spar with Ashy Slashy in this episode was like witnessing some bizarro female doppelgänger of Ash, from her humorous rapport with the puppet to how she doesn’t lose any pride after surviving a dirty bedpan. She seals the deal with her final one-liner: “Always bring a gun to a puppet fight.” Brilliant.

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Tragedy aside, the Ghost Beaters remain stronger than ever. The only question on the table is, “What’s next?” At the moment, it’s a little unclear. With Baal seemingly out of the picture and Ruby staving off the dark side of the Force, Ash Vs. Evil Dead appears to have a clean slate on its hands. Of course, we know that’s not the case, that evil is only three or four trees away, but hey, anything is possible. Maybe Pablo’s demise freed the spirit of the Necronomicon and it’ll next possess Ash’s dusty copy of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, which is likely taking up trunk space in the Delta outside. That’s a theory. Or maybe Ash, Kelly, Ruby, and Linda will all take a nice selfie together, go their separate ways, and drink alone until they’re dead by dawn?

Yeah, and maybe I’m a Chinese jet pilot.

Stray observations

  • Director Tony Tilse, who helmed both “The Morgue” and “Last Call” earlier this season, returns with another great run on “Ashy Slashy.” This was a tough chapter with a lot of strings to pull together. Even so, he managed to pepper in some gorgeous scenery, peaking with that fiery shot of Ash in the hallway, which will likely be everyone’s desktop wallpaper this week.
  • Kelly sees Baal as “that goth demon.” She’s not wrong.
  • Baal: “Keeping my end of the deal is so…boring. It’s more fun to change things up last minute—keep everyone on their toes.” Loved Joel Tobeck’s delivery there; he really did shine as Dr. Peacock.
  • The good thing about any of the show’s underwritten characters is that they’re almost always guaranteed to return as Deadites. Lacey is no exception and Pepi Sonuga clearly has a blast leaping around, getting stapled, and unicorning (!) a security guard. Although she was the episode’s only Deadite, she earned this week’s Top honors…

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  • It was nice to see Pablo and Ruby bond for a moment or two. Lucy Lawless and Santiago have worked well together all this season and their banter this episode was incredibly charming.
  • Kelly thinks Ash smells like bread. She might be wrong.
  • Kudos to Jeremy Dillon for voicing Ashy Slashy these past two episodes. The New Zealand writer, actor, director, and animator has a long history of working on children’s shows, having created The Moe Show, knowledge that only makes his lewd turn here all the more hilarious. Odds are his past creations don’t have a history of owning “fluffy cuffs.”
  • Speaking of Ashy Slashy, when Kelly looks around for the missing puppet in the room, did anyone else recall Mr. Marbles from Seinfeld?

  • “What the hell am I doing? Just taking orders from everyone else. Oh, look where that got me: locked in a room, talking to a dead, perverted puppet.” Kelly’s personal confessions have always been hilarious (even during this episode), but this one seems to suggest she’s actually considering an out.
  • Ash: “Sorry Bill, you played right into my hand. You see, my friends here thought I couldn’t get you and the book in the same room. Whoopsie! Looked like my plan worked.” Someone please take this clip and edit in one of Cartman’s neh, neh, neh, neh, neh, neh, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, has.
  • Personally, I don’t think Pablo’s days as a Ghost Beater are over. If it were any other show—even The Walking Dead—I’d say, “Yeah, he’s a goner…” But this is the same show that recently resurrected a character who was hacked to mushy pieces 30-something years ago. For all we know, there could be some wild loop-the-loop, or perhaps a little time travel, that brings Pablo back in the next episode. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens on the flip-flop with “Home Again.”

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