|Courtesy of Renaissance Pictures|
But all of that was just misdirection, distracting us while the episode set up both the most emotionally powerful half hour yet, but also the best half hour. And I say that knowing that they've got two more episodes in the barrel, and we're starring straight down it. But I just don't know how they can top what they've done here. Maybe they won't try. Maybe they'll blow us all away. regardless of what comes next, this was a return to the beginning, and hell if it wasn't worth the wait.
Hit the jump for the review that contains spoilers that, good or bad, are the ones with the gun.
Fire in the Hole was just good old fashioned horror. Lots of jump scares, lots of gratuitous bloodshed. It actually seemed a lot like the direction the franchise would have taken if it had been made fresh today. First Ash is alone in the cabin, then he goes out into the woods and meets a militia, then he wanders into town, with things getting worse and worse at each step. It has that old school, indie horror sense of escalation. Of course, because this series is about deconstructing those concepts as much as it is playing them up, this time it is happening in reverse. Ash and Co. have escaped from civilization, and are now being chased deeper into the woods, on an inescapable road to where this all began.
The militia story line provided a more than a few good moments of characterization for all of the series leads, but as I mentioned last time, it seemed forced, and ultimately didn't add anything other than a pause in the main storyline. It was an excuse to go on a rampage, and get in some good gore before moving on to the heavy, emotional stuff in Ashes to Ashes. Which, don't get me wrong, I'm fine with as a viewer. Watching Pablo get bone-soaked in red corn starch for the dozenth time is just as appealing as the first time it happened. And the scenes with Ash and Amanda evading the fire happy Deadite in the basement were fantastic. But from a storytelling perspective, it felt like exactly what it was: a pause.
But not an unuseful one, and this is where good writing and bad writing stand apart. Rather than waste the opportunity, the writers decided to fill this pause with character development. Since the hard stuff was going to be coming down, they took this respite and unfolded the game board of these characters a little bit more. Kelly is well on the road to developing her own Ash-ness (Ash-itude?). As she was standing, calling out the demons with bravado and guile, the phrase "Are all men from the future loud-mouthed braggarts?" kept floating through my brain. She gets all fired up at the sight of an AK or a flamethrower, and is well past the stage where she sees the dead as people. They are just things that haven't exploded yet. Pablo is on his own emotional journey, seeing the effect that fighting the dead has had on Ash and is having on Kelly, and is trying to decided if he wants to follow. His journey of self -discover via hand held artillery is nicely metaphoric, and far more emblematic of the fact that he really isn't cut out for this, but provides decent moral support to those that are.
Then there was the relationship between Ash and Amanda. And as much as it was meant to form the emotional crutch of the next episode, I just didn't buy it. Perhaps it didn't help that Ash has flirted with everything with breasts (and a pulse) since episode one, but their relationship felt like nothing more than just a whirlwind of innuendo. Maybe it felt disingenuous because of her raging antagonism until her heel-turn in the previous episodes, a turn that could have felt more organic and the result of falling for Ash's charms had they had more time to develop it. And her returning his flirtations felt out of character because we hadn't seen her not suffering from PTSD and covered in blood since the show began. Maybe she really was the female Ash, giving as good as she gets, and making eyes at every cleft-chinned hunk who crosses her path. But they hadn't established that, so these two suddenly getting gooey eyed at one another felt really unexpected. And certainly nothing substantial, as Ashes to Ashes might have suggested.
There were two major misdirections in Ashes to Ashes that suggested we were going to get a different kind of episode then we got. First was Ash taking off on his own, lone wolfing it back to the cabin where it all began. The second was the Kiwi hikers that Pablo and Kelly encounter in the woods, who were practically labeled "waste meat." Going down road one would have likely lead to another deeply introspective episode, where Ash is forced to confront his internal demons, and I'd be lying if I said I wouldn't have watched the hell out of that episode. the second would have resulted in basically Evil Dead 2 all over again, with the cabin filled with Ash and a bunch of expendable characters ready to have their limbs rent from their torsos. Instead, we got the best of both worlds, wherein Amanda followed Ash to the cabin, Ash was forced to confront his past, and Amanda was the lamb led to the slaughter. At this point you have to give the writers credit for 1) not taking the easy way, and B) not lying to us. Ash says, multiple times over several episodes, the people who go to that cabin with him die. That wasn't baseless fear-mongering, it was a caution for what came next.
At this pint I would be remiss in failing to mention the great cinematography and set design that went into this episode. The cabin looked exactly like the original. The detail was eerie (though no Freddy Kruger glove above the work-shed door, as far as I could tell). But the way the episode was shot, in and around and through that set, gave the episode fantastic atmosphere. No episode has felt as much like the original films as this this one, and I include the episode Raimi directed himself in that. For a lot of viewers, this episode might have been all they wanted from the series, but I for one am happy they've opted to go bigger, and add the cornucopia of detail to the universe. Returning to the cabin makes good narrative sense, and provides a nice emotional gut punch to the viewer. The detail adds to the notion that, like the original films in our memories, it is a timeless place. But as if not more important than that, is the ability to move on. This is episode eight of ten, and a second season is coming. The cabin is not where this ends. There has to be life beyond the cabin, for Ash and the series.
Additionally, because the third film is not super entirely part of canon anymore, the series is also able to revisit the best aspects of that film in new and interesting ways. The micro-Ash attack in the windmill became the doll attack in the pilot episode. And the classic Good Ash vs Bad Ash returns, with Bad Ash sprouting from the rotting stump his long lost hand. But instead of sprouting from the core of a Three Stooges short, this Bad Ash really is a dark reflection of our hero. And aces to Bruce Campbell for pulling out his best abilities and bringing real, deep menace to Bad Ash. Campbell was really called upon in this episode, playing the baddie on one side, and playing the desperate, mostly helpless goodie trapped in the work-shed while Linda's head berated him. By episodes end, Ash's greatest failures were all mounted on display. Of course, being this show, they couldn't resist getting in a bit of slapstick, and the confrontation between doppelgangers did devolve pretty quickly into comedy, as they bludgeoned and pummeled each other.
Which I suspect was meant to be a pallet cleanser after watching Amanda's end. Which was tragic and heart breaking. I may not have bought her and Ash's eleventh hour attraction, and not necessarily thought she was the most engaging character or best use of narrative time, but there was real gravitas and loss in her death. But that is the risk of the audience surrogate. Once the audience is acclimated, the character becomes expendable. Now, with two episodes left, the question becomes, who else will Ash leave behind in the cabin in the woods?