I’m not gonna lie; I was an extremely casual fan of Samurai Jack during its original run on Cartoon Network, to the point where I can barely even describe myself as a “fan” of the show like some of my fellow blerds and other nerdy associates. It wasn’t due to a lack of interest, necessarily, but of age. In my hazy recollections of childhood, I know it was a show I watched, just not attentively. I was just a little too young to properly keep track of and understand its many seasons, plot points and themes. Coupled with its erratic airing schedule, I was woefully ill prepared to fully appreciate Samurai Jack as anything other than a weird cartoon before it was canceled in 2004.
So color me pleasantly shocked when, 13 years later, show creator Genndy Tartakovsky announced that he was bringing Samurai Jack back for one final season. Despite starting 50 years in the future from the show’s last episode, audiences were assured that this season would honor the show’s well-loved attributes and classic plot of good against evil. However, Tartakovsky also made it clear that the show has grown up, and would now tackle more mature themes in explicit and graphically dazzling detail.
Now that I’ve been suddenly thrust back into the world of this little cartoon, it is with great pleasure that I can say that yes, Tartakovsky has fulfilled every promise he made to audiences about this final season. Samurai Jack is back, baby, and this season has hands down been the coolest, most beautiful and ultimately most satisfyingly heartfelt season in the show’s entire history. It’s that awesome.
Fortunately, this assessment seems to be widespread among online fans and professional critics alike. Admittedly we are going through a unique cultural period saturated with nostalgia, so that could explain some of the critical acclaims the show has received in the last few weeks. But, kind of like Linkin Park, there is a universal appeal to the show that has stood the tests of time and puberty. This final season is a persuasive demonstration of Samurai Jack’s many attractive qualities.
First of which is the simplicity of its plot. It started off as a children’s cartoon, remember, so the underlying narrative itself is pretty basic. A warrior has been raised since boyhood to defeat an ancient, shapeshifting evil known as Aku who continuously ravages the warrior’s homeland. Just as he gets close to beating him, the warrior is transported into the distant future where Aku reigns supreme over the entire world. Thus begins Samurai Jack’s journey to defeat this evil enemy and return home.
Simplicity has allowed Samurai Jack to flourish in the strangeness of its story. The show features a motley crew of characters that seem weirdly appropriate for its future setting, including talking British dogs, Roman gladiators, a vengeful Scotsman and his clan, a robot assassin based on legendary singer Sammy Davis, Jr. and a man whose head looks like a talking penis. As a show brave enough not to take itself too seriously, some its best-remembered episodes are also some of its most ridiculous. Top candidates in this category include the time Jack turns into a chicken, the time Jack almost fall in love with Aku, and the time Jack spent an entire episode butt ass naked trying to find his clothes. (Another fun fact about the show: Jack is naked a lot, and often loses his clothes during a fight. Sometimes, his clothes just literally explode off his body for no reason at all. No one knows why.) In its final season, the show continues its strange bravery by showcasing old and new zany characters and reveling in the absurd nature of its premise.
This same bravely has also resulted in some of the most beautiful animation that I have ever seen in an American cartoon series. Tartakovsky is known for his unique and exaggerated geometric drawing style – which Black Girl Nerds had previously discussed when he guest produced a Luke Cage comic last year – but it is clear that his artistic talents have soared to new heights thanks to years of practice, creative courage and supplementary advances in digital technology. His lines are now crisper and his backgrounds more defined, his already bright colors have taken on a stunning new vibrancy, and the show’s animated sequences are so smoothly rendered that they serve as near-perfect replications of real life. It’s hard to choose a screencap to showcase how lovingly created the new season of Samurai Jack is, as the show’s artistry really cannot be contained or fully appreciated in just one shot.
Ultimately, what makes Samurai Jack standout has been the show’s successful transition to maturity following its return. Now housed by Adult Swim, Cartoon Network’s late night adult programming block, the show has been given the green light to explore the inherent darkness of its protagonist’s situation. Flung into the future against his will, Jack has essentially failed his original mission to stop Aku from destroying his home and hurting his homeland’s villagers. Instead, everyone he has ever known and loved is long dead at the start of Samurai Jack’s introductory season, the first of many violent casualties caused by Aku’s centuries-long dictatorship. Jack observes these atrocities firsthand, as demonstrated on the show with dystopic cityscapes and background villages in ruins, rampant poverty, forced slavery and on-screen examples of genocide.
The future is as bleak as one could get away with on prime time TV, and yet even without allies, proper knowledge of his situation or a way to get home, the original show was always full of hope. No matter the odds Jack valiantly continued his fight against Aku, protecting the innocent along with the way and never doubting the necessity of his mission or his chances of success. It was almost cartoonish how earnestly he fought to save the future, but that was the point of the show. Even on the brink of cancellation, audience members were so sure Jack was going to win and somehow get back to the past.
In this final season, the show seems to be no longer providing audiences with this hopeful assurance of a happy ending. Quite the opposite. Fifty years have passed for Jack, yet he remains unable to find and defeat Aku. Not only has he lost most of his allies and the tools needed to fight, due to isolation and the passage of time destroying all material things, but Jack has had the inevitable peace of a natural death taken from him as well. He is unable to age due to Aku’s lingering supernatural influence, which has been negatively affected his body since he was first displaced into the future by Aku. This lack of control over his fate, coupled with the lack of progress in his life’s sole purpose, means that the classic hero’s journey that the show has relied upon for so many years is now in bitter stagnation. As a result, throughout this entire last season, Jack suffers from a barrage of hallucinations that criticize him for his failure and try to convince him to commit suicide to end his feelings of guilt and despair. These hallucinations take the form of his parents, a multitude of young and presumably deceased children from the past and future that he was unable to protect and even sometimes replicate Jack’s form in grotesque ways that mock his status as a warrior and a hero.
It’s interesting to see how Samurai Jack has matured by tackling these particular themes of stagnation, lack of choices in life, unstable identity and mental illness. Not to be too generous with this analogy, but it seems like Tartakovsky is purposely reflecting the struggles that many millennial audience members are currently experiencing in the real world. Now in our twenties and thirties, we have unwittingly entered a confusing new future where opportunities are scarce, economic stability is increasingly unattainable, and the formation of one’s individual identity is a challenging and heartbreaking process – especially for adults whose identities are undervalued in society for reasons illogical and yet impactful. These and other stressors are taking a grave toll on our mental health and happiness, and we thus view ourselves as failures despite being forcibly placed in a system set up to make sure we fail. I mean, I don’t know jack about Tartakovsky’s true intentions going into this season, of course, but Jack is just too perfect as a reflection of those new adults who’ve grown up with him and the show after all these years.
This connection is what immediately drew me into Samurai Jack’s final season, and it is what has kept me tuning in each Saturday for the past several weeks now. At the time of this writing, the series finale has not yet aired. I am on pins and needles waiting to see just how everything will end – will Jack finally succeed in his mission? Will he ever return to the past? Is there any validity in the fear that he will die, unfulfilled and unsuccessful despite all the suffering and effort he has gone through for his entire life?
I honestly don’t know. In reflecting on how the past of Samurai Jack has informed its final season, I find myself confused about Jack’s fictional future more than ever before. But I can’t help and think, for one wild moment, that this may again be the point of the show. Samurai Jack has always thrived in the strange crevices of the imagination, achieving an unusual success in its refuge in the uncertain. Perhaps this faith in the strangely uncertain is the show’s new version of hope, more realistic and fragile in its existence but no less powerful. It’s almost like a sign for the show’s anxious audiences going into this last episode: the future can be a difficult place, but if we in the real world can triumph despite all that has been against us and made it to this moment 13 years later, then Jack can do so in his finale as well. After all, it’s happened before; certainly – hopefully – it can happen again.
Paige Allen is a brand storyteller and content developer at a small public relations agency in Greater Boston. In her spare time, she’s an avid consumer of comic books, novels, and television shows. She is loving the rise of millennial angst in pop culture, and can’t wait to see what other trends will emerge in the next few years. Will emo fashion make a full comeback? Are we as a society going to make fetch happen? Will we finally accept the beauty and validity of queer relationships and thus increase their media representation so that we can continue to experience examples like episode three of the Starz adaptation of American Gods, which originally aired on May 14, 2017? Who knows!
Connect with her on Twitter @goodbye_duppy.