When Genndy Tartakovsky’s Samurai Jack was cut off at its fourth season in 2004, the unresolved story thread was left dangling to the whims of debate over the ideal means to finish it. A proposed movie never materialized to fruition. But now the samurai has made his return to the long-awaited fifth season in 2017.
To recap, the shapeshifting demon Aku (voiced by the late Mako in early seasons, and now voiced by Greg Baldwin) flings a feudal Samurai prince (Phil LaMarr), the magic katana-wielding Chosen One of the Earth, into a future where the demon’s evil has ravaged the land and its inhabitants for thousands of years. In search of a time portal to reverse the condemned future, the Samurai, adopting the “Jack” alias, traverses through wastelands, cryptic landmarks, and bizarre civilizations anachronistic to his eyes.
To parse the ingenious of Tartakovsky’s imagination, Samurai Jack eschews the traditional criteria of “greatness”, such as thought-provoking insights of the human heart and relevant social themes, and instead focuses on maximizing its artistic aesthetics, though that's not to say it is bereft of narrative cleverness, catharsis, and philosophical introspections. If anything, the show favors sensations over emotions. The pacing of the first four seasons is less a step-by-step progress toward Jack’s goal, and more of a chain of chance interludes in the samurai’s expedition to keep the viewers hypnotized with the sheer audacity of Tartakovsky’s visual etymology, like a succession of Cirque du Soleil acts with the plot as its spine. Samurai Jack is a playground of light and shadow, the (un)fettered discipline of movement (and stillness), the ambience of nature where dialogue is sparse, and the interplay of comedy and levity, such as a later sequence where uninhibited physical violence is intercut—ying-yanged, if you will—with Jack, in a spirit plane, engaging in the intimate stages of tea-making.
The fifth season moves plot progression toward its endgame. The samurai has drifted for an eternal-like 50 years in Aku’s wasteland. Due to circumstances, he has lost the signature katana that could defeat the immortal overlord. In place of his traditional Heaven-white ghi is the heft of bulky armor and guns. The nomadic mortal warrior is ensnared in the circular liminality of saving individuals in an already-doomed dystopia. He later acquires a long-term companion on his journey, young Ashi (Tara Strong), a warrior initially brainwashed into allegiance to Jack’s arch nemesis, before she gains equal footing with Jack in the narrative to assist him.
Booted to the time-slot of Adult Swim, the final season of Samurai Jack upgrades its illustrious violence from bolts and bleeding oil (which were devised to get pass the Cartoon Network family-friendly radar) to crimson gore. The debut of blood can be an opportunistic license for an adult-oriented production to boast “maturity,” but here, the animators utilize their palette of gore to externalize the drudgery of physical combat and Jack’s psychological struggles. There is a harrowing instance where it isn’t a nuts-and-bolts machine assassin he has cut down, but a human he has killed. He gets so sidetracked by his inadvertent breach of his morals that it takes the camera titling down to his bloody wound to remind him—and the audience—that he had been fatally stabbed by this same human, kicking off his dilemma over self-preservation and bending his no-killing tenet.
Regarding the finale episode, the hype disillusionment can cast its adverse effect. Despite the explosive fun, levity, and continuity nods of the battle sequence, the animation and story team might have deployed too many of their firecrackers from their sleeves all at once, as if Tartakovsky’s team stuffed excessive concepts into the miniature bottle of the 22-minute format. The ensuing payoff, even if the melodramatic beats are the staples of universal tragedies and Kabuki theater, remains quite contentious and can come off as, yes, even for the series' own wild standards, cliché, instead of classic and inspired.
Audiences had been cognizant of the tragic paradox: if the Samurai must return to the past, then what of the inhabitants of the future he—and we—built emotional connections to, especially regarding his burgeoning relationship with Ashi? Everything that transpired in the realm of this “future” felt very much like the present to Samurai Jack and the audience.
For a season so engrossed with the motif of Jack weighing out consequences, this is where the much-lauded odyssey falls too short regarding the hero’s dilemma. Should Jack run back to the past to undo centuries of unbridled evil? Or should he settle within this new future, in which escape is near impossible, and let the past wane into bygones? Ultimately, the kinetic gust of the climax dodges any meditation on this potential dilemma and hurls straight into its operatic outcome, where any attainment of bliss comes with the price of heartbreak, not unlike the Greek tragedy of Eurydice and Orpheus. Samurai Jack ends like an archaic legend, where discrepancies remain subjected to scholarly—or fandom, in this case—dispute.
The aftermath, which feigns the motions of a happily-ever-after before unfurling into a bittersweet reality, may appear to be nihilistic in its approach to remind the audience that what they had invested in was an illusion, like a memorable dream. The curtain call imagery is of the isolated Samurai, swordless, beneath the atmosphere of nature. His last interaction a visual gesture. It means something to the Samurai prince personally with another layer of message for his audience. Samurai Jack had always been a series that takes its sweet time to mute the verbal language because it trusts the audience to fill in the rest of the verses.