Short Version: Well…this sure was full of firsts for the show.
(MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD! DON’T SAY I DIDN’T WARN YOU!)
Last week, we were introduced to a more serialized, more intense, more…disturbed version of Samurai Jack. Looking back on it after a few days, it’s pretty clear to see the faith that Adult Swim had in bringing back this show. Perhaps no bigger indicator of this is how slick and polished the animation has become. While it still retains the sensibilities of the original run, it now has some modern day polish. Part of me wants to get into a deeper look at the progress in this regard, but I also feel like I lack the proper credentials to make any kind of observations beyond “It’s always looked good, now it looks better”. Whatever the budget for this season is compared to how it was back in the Cartoon Network days, there’s a pretty significant difference right up front.
Anyway, going off where things left off, several unanswered questions linger on. Chief among them: What’s made Jack give up hope of returning home? Here, we get a much more clear answer of what has been alluded to previously. But first, we have some catching up to do with The Shape-Shifting Master of Darkness.
When I reviewed the premiere episode, I questioned how the season was going to handle Aku’s appearances given the matter of having to replace his Voice Actor after the passing of Mako Iwamatsu. This new episode immediately answers my question by putting the demon himself front and center right at the very beginning, in a moment that reminds us that Aku may be the unspeakably evil ruler of this reality, but he’s also pretty freaking funny. We return to his familiar hub, decorated with designs of flames from top to bottom, absurdly juxtaposed with a sequence of him getting out of bed to an alarm clock, putting on his flaming eyebrows (which he keeps in a little bedside drawer while he sleeps), doing stretches like an old man, and receiving visitors with rock bottom levels of enthusiasm. Some of these guests are a pair of scientists who excitedly present Aku with their latest design of their beetle-drone to hunt down Jack. However, Aku flippantly declares he no longer cares about him. After abruptly leaving his guests, he proceeds to play armchair psychologist with himself. And by that, I mean he literally makes a version of him in stereotypical therapist get-up while his “normal” version lies down on a sofa. In this scene, we learn that Jack’s agelessness is presumably a side effect of the spell Aku used to send him forward in time, and how frustrating it’s been for Aku to have him hanging around, unable to die after such a long time. Here it’s confirmed that Aku has presumably destroyed all possible portals to the past, just as Jack said in the previous episode. Here’s the most interesting part, though: his dialogue suggests this happened 50 years ago, implying that the “50 years” we’ve heard in the opening titles and teasers for the season are not exactly referring to how long Jack has been in the future looking for a way back to the past, but rather how long it’s been since he’s been wandering aimlessly, having possibly given up on his mission, and slowly turning into the shell of his former self that we see now, suggesting it’s been even longer than that since he’s been in the future.
Well, this just got a lot sadder all of a sudden.
It’s clear that Aku had to not just eventually show his face once again, but be re-introduced to us. Not just because of Greg Baldwin’s performance which, all around, is a fine replacement for Mako that suits itself admirably into the stylings of the original, but because Aku has also changed a bit since we last saw him. He’s always had a comedic edge to him that breaks away from his typical tyrannical shtick from time to time, often portrayed as bored and miserable, where dealing with Jack and his ruling over the masses often came across as tedious. Then there’s this episode’s portrayal of Aku, who’s little more than tired and irritable, with whatever menace and dread he represented pretty much M.I.A. so far. While this is brought up later in the episode, we’re told that he’s supposed to be in hiding, that he hasn’t been seen out and about for a while now. It seems to me that his frustration with Jack’s resilience to time is rooted in how he feels trapped by this. Jack may not be able to return to the past, but that doesn’t mean Aku is safe from Jack. He still doesn’t know about what happened with Jack’s sword, so I can only assume that he’s hoping that Jack would eventually die and then he can forget about him forever. This hasn’t happened, and instead of dealing with it himself, he cowers away in his personal abode, where Jack isn’t even brought up by name at all.
Hmmm… a powerful ruler who mercilessly governs over the fearful, going so far as to turn his name and image into a brand (look at the original series) yet he’s actually deeply insecure about his standing to the point that he feels like he must hide away in a safe space where his enemies are not to be brought up? Well, that doesn’t sound at all like anything happening in the real world. Right now.
By the way, shout-out to Chris Parnell (“SNL”, “Archer”, “Rick and Morty”) for providing the additional voices for this scene.
Meanwhile, Jack is making his way across a forest, only to be interrupted by the new giant beetle-drone teased earlier, which he dispatches with minimal effort. Shortly after, we see “The Daughters of Aku” finally catch up to Jack and quickly dispose of his gear: his weapons, his motorcycle, and even most of his armor. Overwhelmed, he makes his escape into the forest and goes into hiding.
This is intercut with footage of a white wolf (with a pretty intense glare in its eyes) calmly making its way through the forest as well. Both are shown to make a similar decision on which path to take when coming to a fork in the road, only to be ambushed by an enemy. In the wolf’s case, it’s a pack of giant black/green tiger-looking things. It’s clearly outnumbered, but fights them anyway in a surprisingly bloody fight. So…yeah, other than how this is meant to be a pretty obvious parallel to Jack, how they’re both capable of facing the odds when they’re against them, I’m not sure what this is supposed to accomplish. Is the wolf supposed to be anything more than a reflection of Jack? At this point, who knows, and given how things wrap up for the wolf (it succumbs to its wounds after killing the tigers, presumably not surviving), I’m not sure we’ll get an answer.
In any case, while he’s in hiding, we get another chilling glimpse of Jack’s deteriorating mental state. He has an argument with a manifestation of his self-doubt (referred to as “Host” in the credits), which takes on a ghostly image of himself in his prime. Jack remains confident he can find a way to overcome his opponents, just as he always has. It’s important to point out how, at this point, Jack believes that The Daughters are more of Aku’s robots. The Host tells him it’s futile now that he doesn’t have his sword, the only thing that can kill Aku, or any means to get back to the past. He also talks about how he’s tired, how he doesn’t want to spend eternity in a forsaken time, and how it would be so much better to “join the ancestors”.
Now, there are two moments in this episode that were absolute jaw-droppers for me, and this is the first one: Samurai Jack, hero of the people and hope of the future, a character who once shared airtime with the likes of The Powerpuff Girls and Ed, Edd n Eddy… is contemplating suicide.
…yup, we’re not in Cartoon Network anymore…is what I would be saying if we didn’t get a Cartoon Network Studios logo after the credits.
I find myself unable to add anything to that other than HOLY. FUCKING. SHIT.
Ok, fine. If there’s one thing we definitely should address is Phil LaMarr’s acting in this scene. Jack has usually been a very low key role for him, something he’s often described as “easy”. It’s an understandable claim given that Jack is a character that often speaks louder through actions rather than words. He’s usually very calm, polite and soft-spoken, with occasional bursts of intensity. While “normal” Jack still talks the way you’d expect him to do, Host is a raging ball of frustration and anger, a storm brewing inside Jack’s mind. It’s a rare exception to hear him sounding this enraged. It’s that power behind his delivery that make the scene genuinely unnerving.
Between this and the manifestations of his guilt in the previous episode, it’s shocking how the source of this new darker, grittier version of Samurai Jack comes from Jack himself. The world around him is still largely the same (only know we get to see some more blood), it’s HE who has changed deep down. While he maintains a front that’s largely the same as before (outside of cosmetic differences), his character has been the source of the season’s new somber themes. I feel like this has been the key to making it all work so far. If we were presented with a new series that’s blatantly intended to be more “adult” than the original run, such as piling on the violence and gore, none of what’s happening here would have the impact that it does. It’s pretty brilliant how everything still looks largely like we remember back in the early 2000’s, but under the surface, much like Jack himself, there’s a darkness to it that we just haven’t seen before, and having it creep into the series the way it has feels unexpected, making it all the more effective.
Eventually, Jack decides to make a run for it (not before once again seeing a vision of the horseback warrior from the previous episode). We see his heightened senses kick in in a beautiful slow-motion sequence as he becomes aware of The Daughters following closely behind. The rest of the episode is pretty much an extended chase scene that feels like classic Samurai Jack: minimal dialogue (no more than a few grunts and shouts from Jack from here on out) and a whole lot of atmosphere and action. The Daughters follow Jack into the ruins of a temple, where they spread out to scout for him.
It’s a tense game of cat-and-mouse where the mere sight of Jack running down a hallway is a stunningly realized display of animation and dread. It almost feels like a mashup of two classic episodes: it has the chase element of “Jack and the Hunters” combined with the danger of “Jack and the Zombies”, one of the few instances before this season where Jack fights without his sword. This is Jack at his most raw, forced to rely solely on his natural abilities and instinct, things that The Daughters end up pushing to never before seen limits (more on that later). Having the odds against him is nothing new for Jack, but this is on a whole other level: not only does he have no weapons (he’s forced to pick up whatever he can), he’s also outnumbered 7-1 by assassins that effortlessly got the drop on him and have had him on the defensive this entire episode. The show has always had very stylized action, and the choreography of the fighting is still a wonder to behold: fast, frenetic, and using bold animation techniques to heighten it. In particular, the use of lighting in the ruins is put to great effect, such as a fight between Jack and two of the Daughters that takes places completely in the dark, with the sparks of metal and rock clashing into each other as the only source of light, or a gorgeous scene set in a catacomb that manages to make fireflies feel suspenseful.
Let me give a shout-out to composer Tyler Bates for his terrific musical score so far this season. While not the original composer, he picks up the mantle of James L. Venable quite admirably, understanding how the mixing of various musical styles has been an important factor to bringing the show’s unique world to life. Also, a special mention to the use of electronic music to build tension in the catacomb sequence, which is far more effective than it seems at first. It’s so subtle in the way it builds, I was surprised by the time it was capped off with a sudden burst of action. Oh yeah, and it also samples The Ecstasy of Gold from The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. Fuck yeah.
This sequence culminates with Jack being cornered by one of The Daughters, where he disarms her…and then kills her. Yeah, remember how Jack thought these were robots?
What, you thought I was kidding about spoilers?
Don’t think for a minute it was a clean death, by the way: Jack straight-up slits her throat with her own weapon, and it happened so fast, I couldn’t help but stare at my screen with one of the most genuine “HOLY SHIT!” I’ve ever exclaimed, with my jaw hanging open for the remainder of the episode.
OK, let’s talk about why this is a HUGE deal for Jack: while most of his opponents in the entire series have been robots or other non-human/alien/whatever entities, he wasn’t exempt from fighting living beings. However, those fights usually ended with Jack subduing his opponents; they were never shown to have been killed of mortally injured (obviously, CN censors would’ve taken serious issue with that). But now, Jack gets his first real kill in the entire series. Before the season premiered, we were told by Tartakovsky and his team that actions like this would take a heavy toll on Jack. I was assuming this would tie into events in the time-skip between seasons, leading Jack to where he is now, but now we see exactly what they were talking about. I’m sure that this is a surprise in the context of this one episode alone, but I would like to know how this reads for people unfamiliar with the series up until now and see if it carries the same impact.
We’ll have to save all this for later because Jack has been stabbed, is bleeding out, and the rest of the Daughters are gaining on him. He picks up Scaramouch’s sword, which had been taken from him by the Daughter he killed, and uses it to blow up the tunnel he’s in (Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that Scaramouch had a sword that turns into a tuning fork that makes anything it touches explode with sound waves. How did I miss that?). Exhausted, Jack collapses into a river and floats down on it, losing a lot of blood.
Well, THAT was a hell of a ride. Of all the things I wasn’t expecting Jack’s return to do to me, kicking my ass on an emotional level was surely not one of them. How the hell is Jack gonna get out of this one? Join me next week so we can find out together!