After last week’s high-octane masterclass in zombie butt-kicking, Ash vs. Evil Dead has decided to slow down the pace a bit with its second episode. But don’t mistake “Bait” as a sign of post-pilot slumping: the show remains top notch even as it takes a necessary detour on the road to sending the Deadites back to whatever loathsome, festering hellhole they crawled out of. In “El Jefe,” we stuck with Ash as he begrudgingly took up (chainsaw) arms against the forces of evil once more. In “Bait,” he follows Kelly when she nicks the Necronomicon and heads to her parents’ house in hopes of strong-arming Ash into helping her rescue her dad.
So in the midst of a brewing demonic apocalypse, the stakes have narrowed from “worldly” to “intimate.” Nothing wrong with that, though; the Evil Dead films, pre-Army of Darkness, are nothing if not personal in scale. (Maybe that explains the absence of references to the latter. Raimi et al are clearly aiming for the comically, gorily balanced tone of Evil Dead II, rather than the decidedly broad, slapstick tone of Army of Darkness.) Ash is single-mindedly focused on figuring out how to use the book to halt the Deadite invasion, but Kelly just wants to defend her dad from her freshly-resurrected mom. Those are both reasonable goals, but who can argue with protecting the homestead?
Well, Ash, for one thing, but Kelly and Pablo trump his plan of action through sheer force of will and a little fibbing. (Or, more accurately, one big fib.) What’s interesting about the quarrel between Kelly and Ash is a matter of motivation: Kelly is driven by purely selfless motivations, whereas Ash is try to cover his own ass. Oh yes, he’s doing the right thing, too, and from a macro perspective he has the right idea. Charging off to save Phil Peleton from certain death at the hands of Mimi Rogers is small scale, and Ash is thinking big. Imagine Deadites running rampant all over Michigan; today the Wolverine State, tomorrow the Great Lakes! Granted, making Kelly’s undead mom re-dead means one less Deadite to deal with in the future, but Ash is in a hurry to clean up the mess he made.
Remember: Ash is solely responsible for the Deadite outbreak. All of the weird and horrible shit that’s befallen him, the people he knows, and even people he doesn’t (à la Amanda Fisher, closing in on Ash, bit by bit), all circle back to one bad decision made under the influence. (If nothing else, Ash vs. Evil Dead is a prime time D.A.R.E. material. “Don’t do drugs, kids, because if you do, you might read eldritch Sumerian texts and unleash an unholy demonic plague upon all mankind.”) This is par for the Evil Dead course, though. Thirty four years after the franchise’s birth, Ash still can’t help but recite words from the Necronomicon as a party trick. You can imagine he might be propelled by his freshly stirred sense of guilt, compounded by the survivor’s guilt he’s been dealing with, while living in hiding all these years, though Ash being Ash, you’d never hear him talk about those feelings outright. He’s more likely to veil it with a wisecrack at someone else’s expense, or good old fashioned narcissism.
Ash admiring his own good looks is peak Ash, though “Bait” happens to be replete with peak Ash moments; his lame pretense for busting in Kelly’s apparently happily reunited family is hilarious, and falls perfectly in line with his expected behavior. So too is his interrogation of Kelly’s mom at the dinner table, though his attempts at getting her to go full Deadite touch on another important area of the Evil Dead series: subterfuge. Those Deadites sure do love a good old fashioned bloodbath, but they’re just as content psyching you out and deceiving you as they are with disemboweling you. In fact, they tend to lead into the latter through the former. Seasoned Evil Dead fans know that Ash is onto something, though after he punches mom in the face as his final test of her human identity, there is an awkward moment where we feel like he’s maybe missed the mark.
But that just leads to one of those aforementioned bloodbaths. Come to think of it, “Bait” is bookended by bloodbaths, with the opening scuffle between Ash, Pablo, and Mr. Roper taking the cake as the most crimson-soaked scene in Ash vs. Evil Dead thus far. (After all, cat and mouse mind games between pure evil and the chosen hero destined to defeat it are fun, but not as fun as it is to watch Bruce Campbell lay into Damien Garvey with a broken beer bottle.) If “Bait” pumps the show’s brakes ever so slightly, it’s only to take the time to remind us what Evil Dead is really about.
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has contributed to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Birth.Movies.Death. You can follow him on Twitter. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.