This season of Samurai Jack is the show’s first (and last) fully-serialized run—if there are any episodic conflicts, they’ll probably be integrated into the overall story Genndy Tartakovsky is telling about the last stand of the aged Jack. Still, other than the brief opening narration establishing how long Jack has been fighting, the show doesn’t need a “previously on” segment. Even if you came into this episode cold, you’d get most of what you needed to know delivered right to your eyes: Jack floating down the river, sprawled out Christ-like as the water mixes with his blood.
“XCIV” is, more or less, Jack’s lowest moment, or at least it seems like it should be. He’s wounded pretty badly, he’s existentially exhausted from decades of fighting Aku’s minions, and he’s just killed a human for the first time. In the span of just two episodes, Samurai Jack has honed in on its new vibe so specifically that, when a frog seemingly yells “They’re coming!” it barely registers as novel—just another part of Jack’s fevered nightmare. Instead, much of the first half of this episode is concerned with hammering home how rough things have gotten for the samurai, through images like Jack’s blood-red silhouette lit up at the mouth of a cave.
This is an image that is striking visually, sure, but that works more pointedly because Jack is really suffering here. So the bulk of the middle of the episode is spent getting Jack to the point where he can come back from this nadir, thanks to two unlikely companions: the projection of his past self (again) and the wolf from the last episode. Jack’s spirit projection (hallucination?) is now decidedly more confident in flesh Jack, at least from a competence perspective—instead, he serves as a way to externalize Jack’s guilt about having killed a human.
Jack experiences a lot of internal drama this episode, initiated by this conversation with his past self (now grotesquely animated to look more like a demon), sustained by the wolf (who nurses him back to health, and proves a sort of brief companion), and resolved by flashback scenes featuring his father. I’m still not the biggest fan of the wolf’s presence—it’s a little too on-the-nose for me—but they’re still pretty sweet scenes, and I’m glad the wolf served a purpose in the season besides just being a visual metaphor. Meanwhile, Jack’s father appears in his memory to provide wisdom, centered on an early incident in which the Emperor had to kill bandits. Though he may not have wanted to engage in human-to-human combat, he presents a clear lens for understanding the situation: “Your choices have led you here.”
It’s the first flashback we’ve had this season, and honestly it doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the episode—it feels a bit too conventional, and I’ve appreciated how spiritually isolated the season has been from the past incarnation of Jack. But it’s rather effective as a way to handle the transition from what you might call a Cartoon Network system of ethics (killing or hurting people is never acceptable) to an Adult Swim system of ethics (sometimes people are trying to kill you and, like, self-defense). Besides the introduction of blood and some cooler effects, it turns out the shift within the network has allowed Samurai Jack to actually grapple with some difficult elements of growing up. And as he stitches himself up and, finally, emerges from the cave, Jack even looks more like his old self. He knows who he is.
It’s even more interesting, then, that the back half of the episode does quite a bit to humanize the Daughters Of Aku, who we know Jack is going to have to fight. We’re reminded that they’ve never really been out in the world before—they don’t know what a deer is, assume a buck is, in fact Aku, and are flabbergasted at the animals’ expression of love. One of them agrees to keep watch, falling asleep in a tree. They communicate as a unit, scary but also scared. It’s easy to forget that, in this world, Aku might be the master, but Jack is the monster.
Jack’s voice rings out more confidently than it has during the rest of the season, giving Phil LaMarr a bit more to do as he tries to scare the assassins out of fighting him—and, more importantly, gives them a choice. Of course, it’s hard to say he’s really given them a fair shot, since they were raised from birth to kill him and have no understanding of what their lives would look like if they put their swords down. But at least Jack is trying.
The ensuing fight scene takes place largely in the snow, with all-white backgrounds evoking the great “Jack Vs. The Shinobi Warrior.” Where the Daughters Of Aku were before almost unstoppable enemies, here Jack manages to handle them relatively easily, sustaining several wounds with ease as he takes them out one by one. It seems that they might not have been so imposing—instead, Jack was just tired, and not working at his full capacity. Now, reclaiming his identity as Samurai Jack, he seems victorious in the fight, brutally dropping Ashi from a branch—until the tree breaks from under him and he falls.
From a “plot” perspective, this episode seems to mostly have resolved the conflict with the Daughters Of Aku (with the exception of Ashi, who will almost certainly still be alive at the bottom of wherever they’ve both fallen). But it sets up one of the most important things that needed to happen this season: Jack’s back.
- One of the Daughters Of Aku, upon discovering that one of her sisters had perished: “Death is failure.”
- Jack highlighting the language of choice is meant to contrast these human fighters with the programming-driven robot assassins who usually fight him. Remember when there were aliens fighting Jack in this universe, too?
- The way Jack and Ashi swing across the branch is one of my favorite non-snow touches in the fight sequence.
- Jack sees the apparition of the horned warrior again. Guesnerth Perea suggests to me that this might be a reference to Honda Tadakatsu, a samurai who famously wore a helmet with antlers. Definitely the best theory on this I’ve heard so far!