It was only a matter of time before Ash Vs. Evil Dead went mental. Granted, the series came close last season with “Brujo,” when they dipped into a little psychedelia (and a lot of ayahuasca), but that was more of a spiritual high, one that happened to celebrate the boozy mind of Ashley Williams rather than condemn it. Baal opts for the latter in the remarkably disturbing “Delusion,” which finds our foul-mouthed hero locked up in a nightmarish insane asylum for all the evil deeds he’s done. It’s a smart, deceitful half-hour of Ken Kesey-inspired storytelling and arguably the first time we’ve seen the guy forced to question his own sanity since, oh, the opening act of Evil Dead 2.
Think about it: For 16 straight episodes, Ash has been the king, a know-it-all victor who’s tussled with the worst and come out clean (well, maybe not that clean), sawing through every situation without any consequences. Sure, he lost his father along the way, and was even locked up for a short while, but Ash marched by each hurdle with the comfort of knowing he was serving his own destiny as the world’s chosen jefe. Hell, last week’s episode ended with him finally proving his worth to the chowderheads of Elk Grove, Michigan by offering a rousing, bloody lesson straight outta Deadites For Dummies as he conquered his re-animated sister Cheryl with the ease of a champ.
This week, Ash hardly holds the gold. He’s Steph Curry in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals, the go-to guy who has all the answers, only they mean jack squat in the face of such a staggering opposing force. That would be Baal, who finally has his much-needed chapter to shine as Joel Tobeck goes from the sleazy, predictable villain of the last two episodes to this cold, calculated nightmare of a foe. It took some time, but no, he’s truly the yin to Ash’s yang and his role as a clean-cut therapist, one who’s “not giving up” on his patient, is an amicable twist on what was previously a dilapidated rock star with a coke nail. This jerk’s playing a wicked game and it’s only getting uglier by the minute.
“Ash, I’ve been your doctor ever since your psychotic break,” Baal instructs early on. “You murdered four people in a cabin. After the murders, you created a complex delusion to justify your actions and it all hinged on an evil book. Ever since then, I’ve been trying to pinpoint that delusion and destroy it. Rid yourself of the book and the nightmare will be over.”
Of course, this is all an illusion, right? A devious effort by Baal to get what he wants? The Necronomicon! Naturally, Ash sees right through this, confirming our own suspicions, but “Delusion” is too clever to submit this fast and writer Hank Chilton wisely tosses a wrench into nearly every one of Ash’s bold rebuttals. And since we’re seeing everything from Ash’s point-of-view, we actually start to doubt our jefe. After all, who’s to say he hasn’t lost his mind? That the events of the entire series haven’t been one long delusion as the title suggests? Maybe Ash is a psychopath! Beep beep, Richie. Look, we know that’s not the case—not to mention, such a sobering twist would be a monumental slap to the face of every fan out there—but it’s tasty food for thought and everyone’s digging in.
Bruce Campbell chews the loudest, though, delivering another epic performance that makes you think, How the hell is this guy 58 years old? It’s not an easy episode for the veteran actor, who’s tackled, beaten, dragged, drugged, and shocked at every other beat. When Ash first stumbles into the ward’s hallway and it essentially becomes an eerie haunted fun house, Campbell doesn’t miss a note, working the scene with the uncanny agility of his leaner salad days. That’s to say nothing of his handiwork with hand puppets, either. The fact that there’s even any kind of chemistry between him and Baal’s adorably lewd Ashy Slashy puppet says more about his talents as an entertainer than any of the epic physical stunts he’s performed in the past. He sells the whole schtick right from the get-go.
So does Dana DeLorenzo. We’ve spent the past few weeks complementing her work this season, mostly for the way she’s become the other hero this franchise needed, but she‘s on a whole other level in “Delusion.” As Amanda, the demented patient and neighbor to Ash, DeLorenzo has a blast exploring her more manic tendencies in front of the camera, whether it’s screaming her head off as she tosses shit around the day room or breaking her fingers one by one with a smokin’ smile that could make Jim Carrey twitch. It’s the type of transformative performance that’s convincing enough to make you shudder and say, “We’re looking down at Kelly Maxwell, only that’s not Kelly Maxwell. Isn’t that weird?” When she first pulls back her mangy hair—“nothing 10 or 12 showers can’t fix”—let’s just say Ash’s feelings of disgust are quite mutual.
Then again, it’s hard to feel anything but disgust during this episode. Even moments of levity, like when Ted Raimi shows up again as Chet Kaminski for some shock treatment alongside his troubled pal, turn foul and macabre with jarring emotional impact. Much of this has to do with the hopeless malaise that returning director Mark Beesley paints into the halls of the seemingly abandoned mental hospital. It’s dark, it’s damp, and it’s forgotten, the latter emotion key to what Baal wants Ash to feel in order to break him down emotionally. In fact, what little light does shine through the facilities feels almost anti-septic by comparison, as if Steven Spielberg’s partner-in-crime Janusz Kamiński was behind the scenes for the cinematography. And really, that’s just too many Kaminskis for us to handle emotionally.
“I did it,” Ash says after watching the violent surveillance footage. “I did it all. I murdered my friends at that cabin. I murdered my sister Cheryl. The patient. The orderly. I did it all.” It would appear that Baal now has the upper hand, having gained control of a seemingly lobotomized Ash, who’s more than ready to “destroy the Necronomicon.” But maybe not. Right before our jefe tragically concedes, he sees the Ghost Beaters arrive downstairs in his prized Delta. They’re a little off in the distance, but you can make out the shapes of Kelly, Pablo, and Ruby digging through the trunk as if they’re preparing for battle. So, it’s very possible that Ash is simply tearing a page or two out of Mac Murphy’s book of subversions by pulling a fast one on his doctor in order to stay ahead of the curve. Who’s the head bull-goose loony around here now?
- Ken Kesey’s legendary work has been parodied and referenced to death since its publication in 1962; here’s a never-ending list of them. In a way, you might say it’s served as a recurring template for serialized television in the same manner as Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. It’s reassuring to know that Ash Vs. Evil Dead could find a fresh spin on it.
- Ash to Baal: “Now I’m going to kill you! Just like I killed your father! [Laughs.] I didn’t really kill your father, that just kind of sounded cool.”
- Who else laughed at the blood smearing down the wall from Ashy Slashy?
- “Maybe Nurse Ratched needs a little injection from Dr. Groovy.” What do we make of Ruby’s appearance in Ash’s delusions? She seemed to react to him differently than anyone else, almost as if she understood what was going on. She’s clearly distanced herself from Baal, but who knows.
- It’s doubtful this is the last we’ll see of Chet—he still needs his Deadite moment, after all—but that smoldering face of his is something we’ll never forget for a long, long time. Thank god it was peppered with a dollop of humor from Ash: “They killed you again!” Very funny.
- Also funny is Ashy Slashy and his relationship to Ash. Although he hates puppets, “even stunningly handsome ones,” I don’t think any of us would be opposed to a future spinoff episode featuring Ash and the little bugger. The dialogue alone would be worth it, at least if tonight’s exchanges were any indication. At the very least, Starz needs to put an Ashy Slashy puppet in their gift store. Like now.
- Ashy Slashy: “I like where your head’s at, almost as I like where your nubs at. Ho!” Ash: “That’s disgusting, but you know, I can’t be mad because that’s exactly what I would have said.” And we’re all laughing like idiots.
- Those dentures of Ash’s sure have some wear and tear on them. Sheesh.
- This episode couldn’t have come at a better time than this week, no? Without getting too political, I’m sure all of us felt a little like Ash these past couple of days. The only difference is that we don’t have our own puppet doppelgänger to hold and talk to at night. Or maybe some of you do? Keep that to yourselves, and see you on the flip-flop with next week’s “Ashy Slashy.”