“XCVII” is a pretty unusual episode of Samurai Jack, in that the samurai himself is barely featured. The only real precedents for this are “Aku’s Fairy Tales” (which still sort of includes Jack), “The Birth Of Evil,” and this episode’s closest spiritual predecessor, “Tale Of X-9,” which also follows a confused henchman of Aku’s searching for Jack. But where X-9’s story is tragic, Ashi spends this episode learning about all of the people Jack has helped, and discovering for herself why his life is worth saving.
The bulk of this episode could have felt dangerously close to a clip show, with several different flashbacks illustrating the heroic deeds that Ashi is only just learning about from the original run of the show. Over the course of the episode, we see, among others, the seemingly-thriving, badass Woolies, an entire village that has sprung up in the wake of the blind archers, and Da Samurai, now 50 years older and voiced by Keegan Michael Key. This could have come across as just blatant fan service of the sort that would have characterized a less inventive and driven TV revival—and while there are certainly some elements of that, it’s mostly delightful. None of the scenes go on for too long, and even though they mostly serve to guide Ashi toward Jack, they give the episode a feel of slight, contemplative moment. Rather than an exciting plot episode, it’s a reminder of what Jack is fighting for. (Also, the parts of the world Jack has explored this season have been pretty barren, and it’s nice to know that not everyone is dead or suffering in some capacity.)
And though “XCVII” moves toward its seemingly inexorable conclusion and Jack’s final confrontation with his inner despair, it’s full of some of the most visually inventive and striking imagery of the season so far. (Which is saying a lot.) At the rave, Ashi discovers that making an “S” with one’s hands has become a symbol of support for Jack, kind of like the three-fingered salute in The Hunger Games. The dancers depict Jack’s battle with Aku, and the flashing lights and dancing creatures make a feast for the character designers. Meanwhile, Ashi undergoes a full transformation as she learns to interact with people and embrace nature, eventually sloughing off the blackened skin that marked her as Aku’s, and as a ninja assassin. (This is super weird, because I assumed it was some kind of ninja outfit, and also her body probably should not be as pristine as it is.) I’m not the biggest fan of her new look, which is a little too sprite-core and aggressively innocent for me (also, her old look rules), but it’s worth it for the simultaneously seductive and pure shot of the newly clean Ashi emerging from a waterfall, only to put on a dress made of leaves.
It’s a good thing that Ashi achieves some semblance of purity—when she finally finds Jack, he’s preparing to commit seppuku in the middle of a graveyard surrounded by the spirits of past warriors and egged on by the mysterious figure (credited as The Omen). This season has felt like it’s danced around the logical conclusion of Jack’s depression, but it finally makes the subtext explicit. Even if you don’t know what seppuku is, it’s hard to ignore the implication of Jack holding the sword with The Omen, noose around his neck, looming over him with another sword. We know he isn’t going to actually do it, but it’s still deeply satisfying to see Ashi finally, definitively, bring Jack out of his funk—not only did the children from the last episode not actually die, no matter what happens with Aku, Jack has still made countless people’s lives better over the course of his adventures in the future.
Meanwhile, this episode also gets a B plot, as Scaramouche’s head goes on a hapless, comic quest to tell Aku that Jack has lost his sword. The visual gag of Scaramouche’s head bouncing up and down is a little on the goofy, childish side for this show, but it works as a counterbalance to the grimness of the showdown with The Omen—and it’s full of great moments like the ever-growing signs telling Scaramouche why he can’t get on a boat heading to the megacity where he can reach Aku. Also, when he eventually does get on the boat, it’s thanks to an alien creature that “looked like a talking penis.” (Yes folks, this is Adult Swim, so Tom Kenny can say that now.) He’s thrown off the boat eventually, but there’s no reason for the show to spend this much time on Scaramouch as a character if he isn’t going to actually tell the depressed Aku that Jack has lost the sword. It’s not hard to see Scaramouche finally succeeding in his quest, provoking an assault on Jack by Aku just as the samurai recovers his weapon. But that won’t make the eventual, final showdown any less satisfying—it was always meant to be this way.
- Ashi is also a great source of comedy, especially when she screams that she’s looking for Jack.
- Where is Ghost Scotsman?
- The song from the rave is probably the most instantly dated part of the episode (and maybe the season) so far. It basically sounds like a more generic version of “We Found Love,” which, like, sure, that’s what people listen to at raves in the future.
- I almost did a spit take when the High Priestess says Aku was “born from” the dark. Has she not seen The Dark Knight Rises, or what?
- Solid cameo appearance by Demongo, The Soul Collector.
- I must, must have a poster with the blaxploitation-era Samurai Jack lettering.