With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD, it gets harder and harder to keep up with new shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. If you watch these 10, you’ll have a better idea of what that series was about, without having to watch the whole thing. These are not meant to be the 10 best episodes, but rather the 10 most representative episodes.
The setup of Samurai Jack could not be more simple. There’s a good guy (Jack, voiced by Phil LaMarr) fighting a bad guy (Aku, voiced by Mako). There’s some magic, and some crazy dystopian technology, but it’s mostly just one man’s quest to fulfill his destiny and save the world. Aku puts it best in his opening narration:
Long ago in a distant land, I, Aku, the shape-shifting Master Of Darkness, unleashed an unspeakable evil! But a foolish samurai warrior wielding a magic sword stepped forth to oppose me. Before the final blow was struck, I tore open a portal in time and flung him into the future, where my evil is law! Now the fool seeks to return to the past, and undo the future that is Aku!
But giving the villain control of the opening sequence only begins to suggest the ways in which Samurai Jack is special.
The first series from Samurai Jack creator Genndy Tartakovsky, Dexter’s Laboratory, established the animator as capable of creating shows targeted equally at children and their parents. Dexter’s Laboratory works on several levels, at once a relatively straightforward comedy about a boy genius and his irritating sister and a commentary on the tropes it was engaged with. (The best parodies usually are.) Dexter’s affectation and machinations and Dee Dee’s oblivious meddling call to mind classic animated pairings (especially Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner). Dexter’s side characters subverted other clearly established genres, like the superhero Justice Friends, who spent more time arguing about classic roommate issues than they spent fighting crime.
Samurai Jack maintains many of these comic tendencies. There’s more than enough fish-out-of-water humor to be wrung from an old-fashioned, deeply moral samurai trying to make his way in a bizarre techno-dystopia. And there are traces of Dexter—an aspiring world conqueror who’s too much of a dork to conquer his own bedroom—in the often-buffoonish Aku. The difference is that Aku can legitimately strike terror into the hearts of children, and pose a credible threat to Jack. The guy might be incapable of killing one measly samurai, but he’s also taken over the entire world and remade it in his image. Wry as it may be, Samurai Jack is always capable of getting serious when the situation calls for it.
That’s because Samurai Jack is, at heart, a tragedy. Every episode features a reset button of the sort that’s inherent to most low-stakes programming, but Jack’s default state is eternally searching for a way home, lost in an alien world full of people who probably won’t even exist once Jack returns to the past and undoes their oppression. In “Jack And The Traveling Creatures,” Jack is forced away from a portal to the past, but sees a vision of himself, years older (and with a crown and sweet beard), returning to the portal successfully. There’s a glimmer of hope at the end of the journey (it is a kids’ show), but the certainty that Jack must fight his way through Aku’s hellscape for decades before finally going home is pretty heavy, especially as the tag at the end of an otherwise fight-heavy episode.
The mutability of Jack’s quest (and his journey, which takes him to a theoretically infinite number of places in Aku’s dominion) opens up room for each episode of Samurai Jack to seem like a different series. Many episodes play as extended visual homage to genres and styles—including crime movies (“Jack And The Gangsters”), Westerns (“The Good, The Bad, And The Beautiful”), and the films of Studio Ghibli (“Jack And The Creature”)—each using the considerable visual prowess of the assembled animators to turn in something in keeping with Samurai Jack’s visuals. The show churns up Kung Fu, anime, and Japanese woodblocks to keep episodes moving, often with little-to-no dialogue.
Still, Samurai Jack is truly all-ages programming. (Yes, even the one where Jack meets a farting dragon voiced by Clancy Brown.) It wears its considerable history on its sleeve, transforming a potentially boring and simplistic children’s show into an often-breathtaking cult phenomenon, one that holds up just as well in 2015 as 2005, and shows little sign of wearing out its welcome. The show’s excellence also earned it four Primetime Emmy Awards (two for “Outstanding Animated Program [For Programming One Hour Or More]” and two for “Outstanding Individual Achievement In Animation”). Here are 10 episodes of Samurai Jack that capture the breadth of the series’ ambition, and all of the things it was able to accomplish in its four seasons on Cartoon Network.
“The Premiere Movie” (season one, episodes one through three): The first part of Samurai Jack’s feature-length premiere, “The Beginning,” says everything anyone would need to know about the world of the show. It provides a sustained glimpse of the calm pre-Aku, using its prologue to show Jack’s training and give him a superhero-worthy origin story, all before throwing him into the future. Once there, Jack gets his name (from “slang”), fights Aku, and befriends some talking dogs who are also archaeologists. The plotting also allows for a little more time spent on each act—particularly the establishment of Jack’s character and his relationships with the archaeologists—before a longer, fuller showdown with Aku’s robot army. If there’s a drawback, it’s that this premiere is still easing the viewer into Aku’s world, which imposes slight restraint on what the show can get away with visually. Thankfully, that’s not a problem for long.
“Jack And The Three Blind Archers” (season one, episode seven): The single oddest, most beautiful episode of the show, “Jack And The Three Blind Archers” finds Jack trying to reach a magical wishing well in order to return to the past, one guarded by emotionless, jackal-shaped guardians firing arrows like machine guns. It’s one of the most creative uses of the open-endedness of Samurai Jack’s setting, shoving a fairy-tale setup in the middle of a forest, tossing in some robots, and running it all through a beautifully animated blender. “Jack And The Three Blind Archers” is also the most ethically ambiguous episode of the series, finding the samurai caught among an army of evil droids attempting to use the well for themselves, the archers, and the mysterious powers of the well itself. And, best of all, confronted with the isolated setting of the tower, Jack manages to be a tactically intelligent hero, doing more than simply swinging his sword. And that all happens with practically no sound—a marvelous piece of children’s entertainment.
“Aku’s Fairy Tales” (season one, episode 13): When the children of Aku’s world make Jack their new hero, the evil wizard rounds them up as part of a ridiculous propaganda campaign to change their playing habits. (Hey, that sounds like a kids’ TV show!) It’s a great premise, but the season-one finale is also the best showcase for Mako’s voice work as Aku, which always manages to walk the fine line between comical buffoon and legitimately terrifying menace. His voice is blustery in its expressiveness, capable of wringing laughs out of the overdramatic pronunciation of “beef jerky” while still coming across as threatening. Fighting for the hearts and minds of kids is a nice touch, allowing Aku to litter his stories with pop-culture references (including The Shining and Yogi Bear) and play with the gap between his words and images (as well as the way they fail to reflect the reality of his fight with Jack). Eventually, the assembled children take control of the narrative themselves, ending the season on a surprisingly sweet note.
“Jack Learns To Jump Good” (season two, episode one): The most purely joyful episode of the series. “Jack Learns To Jump Good” contains an explicit representation of the series’ politics, which are heavily in favor of more “natural” groups in opposition to robots and the industrialization of Aku. Jack is taught how to jump in exchange for teaching a tribe of apes to defend themselves in battle, a productive and benevolent working relationship. Where Jack is ordinarily capable of defeating nearly any enemy on his own, it’s a pleasure to watch him learn a skill that doesn’t require weaponry, or even find itself deployed primarily in an action sequence. In its focus on Jack’s jumping ability, “Jack Learns To Jump Good” takes on the quality of a parable (or extended training montage from a particularly well-made sports movie), something that extends to its deeply satisfying, comic-book-like ending.
“Jack And The Spartans” (season two, episode 12): An homage to Frank Miller’s 300, “Jack And The Spartans” is the best kind of fan service. Jack fighting alongside inexplicably present Spartan warriors, who have maintained their culture for thousands of years, is a great hook for fight scenes that find Jack getting to play well with others. And though kids watching Samurai Jack might not be familiar with Miller’s depiction of the Battle Of Thermopylae, they can still appreciate the reverent warriors working together to end a long-standing war, or simply take in how well the episode gets viewers to invest in the success of the Spartans.
“Jack And The Haunted House” (season three, episode nine): As the series progressed, Samurai Jack began to paint a portrait of what it would look like going forward: an innocuous, self-contained, Kung Fu-style quest saga, using its theoretically ongoing story as an excuse for extended visual homage—without Aku’s weekly assassins, Jack would simply encounter other people in his world who needed help. The best of these later standalone episodes found Jack being trapped with evil spirits who mimicked the customs of his own time, working in the requisite tugging at heartstrings. The encounter with the ghosts moves into the spiritual realm, beyond standard human perception—something the episode indicates with a shift toward a bare-bones, penciled visual style, suggesting a breakdown in the very nature of reality itself. For a cartoon universe, “Jack And The Haunted House” points at some scary boundaries.
“Samurai Versus Ninja” (season four, episode one): Nothing beats “Samurai Versus Ninja” for sheer visual inventiveness. The plot is threadbare—Aku sends a robotic ninja to kill Jack—but it’s used as the background for animation that experiments solely with the balance between white and black. The ninja, Batman-like, adopts darkness as a habitat while Jack strikes from blinding light and the sun sets in the background. It’s not quite “realistic,” nor does it have much going on besides the formulaic plot of Jack defeating a villain of the week. But a duel that’s more M.C. Escher than Naruto is a perfect example of what Samurai Jack could accomplish when Tartakovsky’s visual juices really got flowing.
“The Scotsman Saves Jack” (season four, episodes six and seven): There are few recurring characters on Samurai Jack—it wouldn’t make much sense to give the loner protagonist any serious attachments to anyone else in the course of his quest. There was, however, one notable and beloved exception: the Scotsman. Voiced by veteran voice actor John DiMaggio, the Scotsman has the same warrior’s spirit as Jack, but in the most distinct coating imaginable. Where Jack is quiet, reserved, and self-disciplined to a fault, the Scotsman is big, rowdy, messy, and unabashedly in love with his terrifying caricature of a wife. His fighting style marks a pleasant change of pace, particularly in this episode, where he’s the hero, saving Jack from magically induced amnesia. That shift in Jack’s character, in which he thinks he’s a valley girl, is also the series’ funniest display of LaMarr’s vocal versatility, even paired off with someone as strong as DiMaggio.
“Jack Versus Aku” (season four, episode nine): Samurai Jack only ran for 52 episodes, but that’s no tragedy. The level of visual inventiveness slowed as the series tore through its influences and the classic simplicity of the Jack-Aku conflict wears thin when repeated over 40 episodes. Part of what makes the early episodes of Samurai Jack so great is a sense of mystique, the reserve of Jack the character checking the excesses of Aku and the world he’s created in the samurai’s absence. “Jack Versus Aku” interrogates the wearing of those tropes over time, finding a bored Aku challenging Jack to a final fight so the two can stop having the same conflict every week, playing up the comic undertones of the evil wizard while managing to capture a certain sadness inherent to the TV reset button. Everything about the episode is absurd, as Jack and Aku attempt to negotiate terms for their battle, and it reaches new heights of goofiness as their “master planning” for layers of deception does nothing but maintain the status quo.
“Tale Of X9” (season four, episode 11): The third-from-the-last episode of Samurai Jack is also its strangest. Rather than focusing on Jack, even as an outsider entering an established conflict, “Tale Of X9” cedes narrative focus to X9, a robot built by Aku’s evil scientists who was given the capacity to feel as a cruel joke. Like the rest of the show, “Tale Of X9” plays out as an extended genre homage (in this case to film noir), but it also digs itself in to explore some possibilities of the future that is Aku—Jack only enters the episode at the sad conclusion of X9’s story, which starts to hint at the consequences of the dystopia for entities who aren’t a samurai wielding a magic sword. That’s, at the very least, a hint at a direction the show could have gone had it continued, using the future as a canvas for any of the weirder, more difficult-to-categorize ideas Tartakovsky and company might have had.
Next time: With A Different World arriving on Netflix, Joshua Alston stands behind 10 topical episodes of the sitcom, come what may.