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‘Samurai Jack’ Grows Up

In the show’s fifth and final season, we meet a hero whose struggles are far darker than they were when the series cut off in 2004

(Adult Swim)
(Adult Swim)

I never finished The Sopranos (GET OFF MY BACK), but I’m familiar with its famously abrupt ending, as well as the requisite sting of abandonment that sends you to the nearest message board to complain in all caps. I, too, was left twisting in the wind by a series cruelly ripped from me with a sudden fade to black. Except, of course, I’m talking about Samurai Jack, which aired its last new episode on Cartoon Network in 2004 and never got a proper ending. But 13 years later, show creator Genndy Tartakovsky, along with his original creative team, has revived it for a fifth and final season. The first episode airs Saturday. Let us rejoice.

A brief bit of catch-up for those who have never watched this show, which … what were you even doing with your eyeballs? There’s a good guy, Jack, the unerring and upright samurai prince, and a bad guy, Aku, the “shape-shifting master of darkness” who frequently doubles as the comic relief. Aku flings Jack into the future, the latter armed with nothing but his hakama and magic sword. It’s more or less a high-stakes game of cat-and-mouse from there.

Samurai Jack was originally a children’s cartoon, but not without its adolescent moments. Through the first four seasons, Jack’s goal of returning to the past and his desire to Do What’s Right were constantly at odds with each other. He was often faced with the most unworkable Would You Rathers, like save a handful or save the world? But due to the show’s comforting, upbeat tone and TV-Y7 rating, it largely looked, sounded, and felt like Jack made the right choice each time. “In the old series, you had to make each episode a stand-alone and come back to zero at the end,” Phil Lamarr, who voices the titular character, said at a recent press event in L.A. “That was the network’s mandate, ‘We want to be able to put this wherever we want, whenever we want.’”

The move from Cartoon Network to Adult Swim — as well as a new TV-14 rating and its attendant freedom from tidy endings — has made things less cut-and-dried, and also far more dark. Set 50 years in the future, the fifth season finds Jack in the “Billy Corgan on Alex Jones” stage of his decline, speaking in shorter sentences and making less sense. He is incapable of aging, a side effect of being shot through a hole in space-time. But poisoning from the recurring dosage of bitter defeat and savage misfortune at the hands of Aku has — quite apparently, from the bags beneath his eyes and scraggly wood-dwelling beard — exhausted him physically, and stripped the screws of his patience and reason.

It bears repeating: Jack looks terrible — appropriately so for a character forgotten by time and also by most of us who haven’t tuned in weekly since over a decade ago. He is less the staid resplendence of Jet Li in any of his heritage action movies and more Forest Whitaker with fuzzy cornrows thumbing through a busted copy of Hagakure next to his rooftop pigeon coop in Ghost Dog. Where before Jack was a gleaming and perfectly square superhero with a katana, now he’s a haggard soldier in easy company, trying to outpace his failures on a chopper bike with a Gatling gun. Shit is not sweet.

In addition to adjusting for the passage of time visually — Jack is longer, ropier, moves closer to the earth — Tartakovsky and Co. also explore what might become of an unstoppable force and an immovable object when neither has budged for half a century. Aku sits for a therapy session in the first episode. Jack sees the River Styx when he goes to the bank of a stream for a drink. In a particularly unrelenting scene, every lost soul is familiar to him. When he finally does steal a bit of shut-eye, he rouses to visions of his father prone on a torture rack, burning alive. Like I said, it’s dark as hell.

(Adult Swim)
(Adult Swim)

Though the story’s different serialization might guide the viewer into more flooring surprises, what has stayed the same is the pace at which the story moves and how masterfully it’s executed. Though full of pulse-pounding action, Jack has always taken steady, sure steps forward. The small things the show takes time for moor its larger moments and give them greater meaning, making it unlike any American cartoon ever. Whether that small thing is allowing a mother and child their last embrace as they’re surrounded by Aku’s forces, or pausing everything for 10 seconds so that a single leaf can twist off its stem and float out on a late-autumn breeze, it’s essential to Jack’s ability to heap emotional weight onto a tiny moment — and it’s gorgeous, too. As critic Matt Zoller Seitz pointed out in 2014, if you were to grab a still out of any Jack episode, you could frame it and hang it in your living room. Soft teals and pastel greens frame a fleeting sense of security. Deep currant reds and ominous obsidian blacks hang clouds over the future. Like ever before, the story itself is dwarfed by the beautiful scenes in which the narrative unfolds, and the devices used to do so.

There’s an episode in the fourth season that pits Jack against a ninja who fights in the shadows (as ninjas do) of the likes we — and as far as we knew Jack — had never encountered before. Jack then calmly turns his robe inside out and pegs his pant legs to reveal that he, too, is a ninja, but he uses the light (it works, shut up). The resulting fight is basically a prolonged, moving optical illusion.

Earlier, in the second season, there’s another episode in which Aku goes off-planet to enlist the help of über-honorable and vaguely African mountain lion people called the Imakandi. They land on Earth, they find Jack, they give chase. Nobody says anything for about 10 minutes, but the deft touches build the tension: Jack’s hair getting increasingly messy as the chase wears on, the rising sound of Sub-Saharan drum music. By the time it lets up, you’re out of breath, too.

There’s a chase near the end of the second episode of this final season that borrows fruitfully from those two sequences. But, unlike with either obstacle in those two sequences, Jack doesn’t face this one with confidence. For the first time he’s unsure, and through his pained expressions, yelps of fear, and literal conversations with himself, you’re made to feel that, too. Everything comes to a head with a knife fight inside a cramped tunnel, and right up until the very end it’s impossible to tell who’s winning. Because, you know, it’s dark.

But it’s worth it — Tartakovsky balances life and death on a knife’s edge, and you feel each time he teeters back and forth, which is what I might say about prestige drama, not a cartoon. All the same, the scene effectively reaches out and holds you to your seat. It’s incredible. The original four seasons of Jack were a triumph in their own right, and the fifth is shaping up to be a proper send-off for a show that was rudely taken off the air before its time. I get to watch eight more of these episodes and I cannot wait.