Collins’ Crypt: ASH VS EVIL DEAD Went Out On A High Note
For a while there, things weren't looking too promising for the third season of Ash vs. Evil Dead. Showrunner Craig DiGregorio quit at the end of season two over some disagreements with Rob Tapert, primarily regarding the tone of the series - Tapert apparently wanted to tone down the humor, and DiGregorio didn't see the need to take a show about a guy with a chainsaw hand too seriously. Then Starz delayed the season premiere, taking it out of its usual October launch window and making fans wait until the end of February to see what new showrunner Mark Verheiden had in mind for the future of the show. This move cost it some viewers, presumably, since most agreed season two was an improvement on the first and thus there was no reason to think ratings would decline - but they did, low enough to prompt the network to cancel the show just a week before its finale aired.
This late move turned the end of the season - complete with a standard cliffhanger for the next run - into what may be the last we ever see of Bruce Campbell in the role of Ashley J. Williams (outside of video games, apparently), a role he's essentially been playing for forty years if you count Within the Woods. So I was a bit hesitant to even watch this last season now that it's out on Blu-ray (I don't subscribe to Starz, and I'm not a piece of shit thief, so I have to wait for disc), as season two left Ash in a good place (the final scene just suggested a new threat would emerge) and I was worried that this potentially never-to-be-resolved cliffhanger would be something relatively upsetting, like Ash trapped in hell or losing his other hand or whatever. The franchise has its ups and downs, but I genuinely love this guy; when I rented Army of Darkness at 13, unaware it was a sequel to two films I never saw, I may not have been blown away by the film as a whole, but I liked Ash/Bruce Campbell enough to track down the first two films (which I liked a lot more). Long story short, I've been enjoying this character for 25 years now - I didn't want my last memory of him to be a downer. If I skipped the season, I could just consider the end of S2 to be the end, with Ash finally being recognized for all of his heroics instead of being the feared "Ashy Slashy".
But then the disc arrived and the cover promised a giant monster, which I couldn't pass up. One of my favorite things about the series was its unlimited potential for things that Ash could fight, as the Necronomicon can and has unleashed all sorts of baddies over the years, but apart from a quick encounter with the big head and hand at the end of Evil Dead 2, he's never really had to take on anything that was that much bigger than him, and certainly not anything as big as what was implied in the marketing for S3. So I was kind of into the idea of him battling a giant beastie that looked like it stepped out of The Mist, and dove into what was now the series' final season.
Turns out I had nothing to worry about; the cliffhanger certainly suggested a fun fourth season, but it didn't leave Ash in a bad place (spoilers); if anything he's never been better - he's got his hand back (a robotic one that looks human - think Terminator as opposed to his metallic oversized glove thing) and an attractive sidekick that seemingly worships him. But more importantly, how he got there turned out to be a lot of fun, with Verheiden giving us the most consistently engaging season of the three, backing away from too many callbacks to the films and blending the character work with the horror/gore in a manner even Raimi sometimes found difficult to balance. Plus it seems they had a clear plan from the start and were able to execute it as envisioned, without any of the last minute changes that caused a few wrinkles in the previous season - it really felt like a long sequel movie as opposed to ten episodes of a television series.
In fact, except for the standard "blood spray into title card" moments at the top of each installment, there's not a lot of "TV show" aesthetic to it. The characters are constantly moving around, without relying on a "base" set all that often, and there aren't a lot of guest stars - Lee Majors returns as Ash's dad, but it's a plot driven thing that happens early on, and again, they don't revive any of the movie characters (or even bring Ted Raimi back as a new character, which I assumed they would), and the cabin thankfully stays destroyed. There aren't any traditional bottle episodes, and when a major character dies in the 9th episode, they remain dead for the finale, rather than find some way to bring them back as most shows would. The producers also carefully spread out their budget; I got a bit worried in the first episode when what's supposed to be a big crowd is clearly only a couple dozen extras packed tightly around Ash (it's the opening of his store, and as the new town hero it's a big deal), but clearly they knew it made more sense to splurge on action and makeup than really selling the idea of a store opening. The last two episodes have more production value than some feature films I've seen (including ones with Campbell), and every episode has at least one major action sequence that encapsulates the franchise's zany potential.
And they seemingly took an "If it ain't broke don't fix it" attitude, because a lot of what I liked was what worked in season two, things that were absent or underutilized in the first season. Once again Kelly and Pablo get their own arcs, and keep it from just being about Ash the whole time, with the added bonus of them being even more ingrained in the world of the show now, to the extent that if Bruce wanted to bail and Starz wanted to keep the show going, "Pablo and Kelly vs Evil Dead" wouldn't be the worst idea in the world. One thing that the TV series has over the films is, ironically, the fact that it's not so episodic - there's a consistency here that the films never came close to achieving. Not counting Ted Raimi popping up as different characters, Campbell was the only person to be in all three films, and there would be some head scratching "did I miss something?" feeling with each sequel (such as Evil Dead 2 ending with Ash being looked at as a hero but Army of Darkness starting with him being taken prisoner by those people). But there's been little of that here, and characters like Pablo and Kelly have helped make this world feel unified for the first time. At this point, if they made an actual Evil Dead 4 without them, I'd be annoyed, unlike say the MCU films never acknowledging the TV shows that are supposedly in the same continuity. I don't care about them at all, but far as I'm concerned, the "Ghost Beaters" are essential additions to anything going forward in this franchise. They've earned it.
Same goes for Brandy, Ash's daughter. One of the things DiGregorio quit over was the fact that Tapert vetoed the idea of Kelly being Ash's daughter despite hinting at it throughout season two, but thankfully they didn't discard the idea altogether - they just created a new character to fill that role. In the season premiere, just as bad things start happening again, a woman tracks down Ash and informs him that their drunken hookup nearly 20 years ago resulted in a daughter, one who naturally is currently being menaced by Deadites at the high school. The mom gets killed in the scuffle to save the girl, and thus a big chunk of S3 focuses on Brandy's gradual acceptance of her father, and the writers do a fine job of giving her reasons to be skeptical for a while, shielding her from any truly supernatural things for the season's first half. Also, Ruby (Lucy Lawless) is back and has her ear, posing as the school's guidance counselor and naturally telling her that Ash is a crazy person she should stay away from, which is a lot easier to believe than his "Your guidance counselor is a demon" story. Once she finally sees the light, she becomes part of the team, and it's genuinely endearing to see her and Ash bond over things like Pop-tarts and busting Pablo's balls.
Oh and getting a face full of blood. Arielle Carver-O'Neill may be the newest addition to the franchise, but by the finale I swear she's been drenched with as much blood and goo as Campbell has been over the years, as she is almost always in the line of fire whenever Ash's chainsaw starts doing its thing to this or that demon. On that note, the season has plenty of gross highlights that live up to the series' high standards, including a battle in a sperm bank where a Deadite keeps hurling samples at Campbell. And we get another Ash clone, but before it takes the form of Bruce Campbell it starts as a toddler - which uses a corpse as a meat suit and battles Ash in a sequence that tops the morgue one from S2 in terms of how many "wrong" things can be included in a single fight. Once he's in Campbell form he sets his sights on a school dance, giving us an actual "chainsaw massacre" in the process, so take that, Leatherface (I'm pretty sure the body count is higher than the other seasons, too). As for the giant monster, it doesn't show up until the finale, and naturally the show's budget doesn't allow for TOO much carnage, but it was satisfying, and unlike some of the show's other uses of CGI, this one was justified (and didn't look all that bad, honestly).
Long story short, I was never bored with the season, and found it easy to binge (well, my version of bingeing, which means two or three episodes in a sitting instead of just one). It's a real shame that they had to cancel it now that they really found their groove and rounded out the cast with Brandy, as I'd love to see her taking part in more of the fighting (naturally, given her distrust of Ash and disbelief that anything he says is happening, she doesn't get to do much ass-kicking until the end of the season), but at least it went out on a high note. And I like that it kind of offered the reverse of the film series in my eyes: I think each film was a step back from the one before, but each season of the show improved on its predecessor, and as an odd sort of bonus: this season's cliffhanger ending was a more triumphant version of the alternate ending for AoD, where Ash ended up in some post-apocalyptic future, screaming about his fate. Here, he's kind of excited about what lies in store for him, and while the finale sadly doesn't give proper send-offs to the other characters, I think it's a perfect ending for Ash, should the game not pan out (or take place in a different point in the timeline). He's finally embraced the fact that he's going to spend his life battling evil, and his confidence is truly well-earned. I couldn't ask for a better ending for the guy.
The Blu-ray features commentaries on every episode by a revolving roster of actors (including Campbell) and crew, as well as eleven brief featurettes. A digital code is also included.