Thus far, this season of Samurai Jack has been elliptical and suggestive, even more than the original run of the show. Jack’s quest to find himself after decades of struggle has played out in brief glimpses of striking imagery, rather than anything as prosaic as a real conversation. But “XCV” puts him in the position of finally having to interact with someone for a prolonged period of time, and Samurai Jack finally gets to flex a few of its old comic muscles.
Still, the beginning of the episode maintains the same tone as the rest of the season so far: After somehow surviving the fall into yet another part of the snowy wasteland, Jack follows a trail of blood to find Ashi, her mask shattered, and imagines a murder of crows cawing, uh, “murderer.” But as he bellows the lesson from the last episode—that it’s cool to kill people, as long as they’ve chosen to try to kill you—Ashi wakes up, and immediately starts trying to kill Jack again.
Most of Jack and Ashi’s interactions over the course of the rest of the episode are darkly comic, as he tries to keep her alive while also keeping her prisoner, and she attempts to thwart him at all possible opportunities. Now that we’ve gotten Jack to a baseline of his old competence (“I’ve been inside giant creatures, I’ll find a way out.”), the vitriol in their conversations takes on a slightly less menacing tone. We know Ashi isn’t going to kill Jack, meaning it’s only a matter of time before she either comes around to his way of thinking, or he tragically has to kill her. (Those are really the only plausible endings here.)
So Ashi spits and screams at Jack, while the samurai tries increasingly awkward attempts at humor. funny. At one point, they sit in a cave, covered in needles, while Jack tries to crack jokes about acupuncture. When he repurposes the shell of a creature as armor, he compliments his own look (“I like the back fur.”) while she sneers. Genndy Tartakovsky, who wrote, storyboarded, and directed this episode himself, takes pains to add quite a few funny visual touches as well, like the way the pair carry on a conversation as Ashi, bound up by her own chain, swings in and out of the frame.
It’s impressive that Tartakovsky focuses so much on the physicality of Jack and Ashi, considering that the setting for the majority of the episode is the inside a creature so large that it’s really more of its own surreal landscape. There are too many beautiful throwaway images here to count, from Jack running across the top of enormous veins to a network of glowing, electric nerves, to the many forests of guts they navigate.
But the most important shot of the episode might be a brief moment in which Ashi watches Jack talk to himself. It’s the first time we’ve seen what Jack’s delirium looks like to people who aren’t him, and it’s not a good feeling. His mental problem is now distressingly literal—unless it turns out some sort of spirit is involved, Jack is just objectively hallucinating, even within the fantastical reality of the show. It’s a little harder to ascribe deep metaphorical significance to these conversations with Jack’s past self when you can see them from the outside, with the samurai just shouting into empty space. But it’s also an indication that Ashi is a character who is going to make the viewer occupy her point of view going forward. They’re very similar, after all.
“XCV” really makes the parallels between Jack and Ashi’s upbringings obvious, to the point where she promises to “undo the evil that is you, samurai.” As she continues trying to kill him, Jack mutters “Are you kidding me?”, but i’s exactly the sort of thing he would do in a similar position. They’re both totally committed to their mission—Jack’s is just righteous. So after an aerial battle with a six-eyed, skeletal fish monster and a balletic escape using some glowing, flying jellyfish, Ashi immediately goes for her weapon again—only to drop it when she sees a ladybug and remembers the high priestess squashing one during her training.
As far as motivations for this kind of big reversal go, the presence of a ladybug is pretty small—albeit very Samurai Jack. But the season so far has been setting up this turn by establishing Ashi as interested in and awed by the natural world. We’ve spent a few episodes establishing that Jack has become his old self again, for the most part. But once she gives up her maniacal insistence on worshipping Aku and killing Jack, who is Ashi?
- Tara Strong hasn’t had a ton to do thus far as Ashi, but she really acquits herself this episode. I’m excited to see what her friendlier interactions with Jack look like.
- The art style for Jack’s hallucination of himself is a bit different than usual, or maybe it’s that I’ve only just noticed that the shape of his head is a little off.
- Jack looks up at a bunch of flying creatures and a pool of acid: “Seems simple enough.”
- No antlered samurai vision this week. And Aku hasn’t been shown up since that one scene in episode two—when do we think he’s making another appearance?