At the beginning of this final season of Samurai Jack, everything seems like it‘s at its lowest point. This is a formal element of the show: The opening shots are characteristic low angles, framing a wide, open plain that’s a part of the series’ dystopian future. There’s the low rumble of approaching robots, on their way to summarily execute a terrified mother and daughter. (Who also communicate with little projections that show up between their antennae, ensuring a minimal need for dialogue.) And then there’s Samurai Jack himself, who’s in his lowest mental place in decades.
When Samurai Jack went off the air in 2004, it didn’t really need to come back—at least, not for plot reasons. The episode “Jack And The Traveling Creatures” featured a glimpse of an aged, battle-worn Jack using a well-protected time portal to finally return to the past, decades after his arrival in the future. It was enough, narratively, to know that that’s where Jack’s struggle was going, that after years of this, he would finally earn his way into the past and prevent Aku’s world from ever coming to pass.
A new season of Samurai Jack, then, is exciting. But, especially in a TV landscape characterized by an embarrassing number of pointless revivals, it really needs to say something new to justify its own existence. And judging by “XCII,” it looks like this season will do that by exploring something that intentionally received very little scrutiny over the course of the show’s original run: Jack’s psyche.
Part of the point of Samurai Jack was always that Jack was something of a blank screen. It’s not that he didn’t have a character, more that his resolute commitment to helping others, his insane competence, and above all, his silence, made it hard to latch on to him as something deeper or more complex than a cool, occasionally troubled hero. Now, though, 50 years after he was sent to the future, Samurai Jack’s dedication is wearing thin. Even though it happened thousands of years ago, the suffering of Jack’s ancestors has finally caught up to him.
Jack is a chosen hero, but that doesn’t stop him from contemplating all of the suffering that’s happened before his journey even really began—something that’s highlighted in not one, but two visual sequences. (First, a series of falling leaves, then crackling tendrils of fire.) Though often Jack is capable of saving individuals singled out by Aku’s forces, here he’s confronted with countless pained souls screaming in agony as the direct result of the demon reign. It’s a powerful critique of the concept of the show. Jack’s resilience is what keeps him moving, but it also kept him single-mindedly focused on his goal, without spending much time contemplating the disastrous consequences of Aku’s initial victory voice on the phone. “Everything is burning,” the specter of Jack’s father tells him.
It’s a big change from the original flavor of Samurai Jack, where Aku was frequently treated more as comic relief than as a terrifying, unspeakable villain. (I, for the record, love both versions of the character.) Here, Aku is so far nowhere to be seen—instead, he shows up briefly as a voice on the phone. A group of seven women warriors, painfully, ritualistically born to hunt down Jack, have seemingly replaced him as the primary antagonists. The scene of their birth, surrounded by nebulas of light and shrouded in screams, is something a bit more horrifying than the show has been in the past. (Thanks, Adult Swim!) And the scenes of their training call to mind Jack’s training in the show’s very first episode—they’ve been raised to kill the samurai, the same way Jack was raised to kill Aku.
Another callback to the beginning of Samurai Jack: a zoom in on the spiked wheels of Jack’s motorcycle, which evoke the tank he destroys upon his arrival in the future. It seems that, after a few decades, Jack has finally, reluctantly, become a creature of his new time period. And nothing symbolizes that more than the loss of his sword, an outdated weapon that nonetheless was the only tool capable of defeating Aku.
Jack might have access to all sorts of cool weapons, like his new spiked staff, the motorcycle, and a pretty shocking array of guns that seems more suited to a ’90s comic book antihero than an elegant swordsman. But none of them quite feel the same. In fact, when Scaramouche, a robot jazz assassin in a purple robe with a telekinetic flute and sinister scatting powers, realizes Jack has lost the blade, he simply calls Aku—without the sword, the demon has nothing to be afraid of.
The fight with Scaramouche, a ridiculous villain who nevertheless manages to be pretty imposing, is by far the closest “XCII” gets to classic Jack. And it’s a delight to watch, especially when the robot starts using a sword that essentially works like a tuning fork, blowing up anything it touches after a few seconds. But the most important moment of the fight is when Scaramouche notes that Jack is, uh, having some mental difficulties. I love Samurai Jack’s action sequences, but something tells me this season will spend a bit more time exploring interiors.
- Jack has repeated visions of a terrifying knight with a horned helmet, seated atop a horse. Is this supposed to be a future, grim(mer) version of him?
- Ashi, one of the Daughters Of Aku, seems like she’ll be a more important character moving forward. A brief, poignant shot of her looking through a crack in her prison out at the world suggests that she and Jack might find some common ground.
- I can’t believe this show is finally back! I’m excited to talk about it with you! One thing: I love talking about Tartakovsky’s framing, use of color, and camera angles—but sometimes I don’t pick up on some of the specific in-shot references. Please, point those out in the comments when you see them!