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Samurai Jack has a captivating battle with human consequences

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Samurai Jack

"XCIII"

Season 5 , Episode 2

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It looks like I spoke too soon last week when I said Aku wasn’t coming back any time soon—tonight’s episode starts with an extended scene focusing on the Shogun Of Sorrow himself. Aku goes through his morning routine, putting on his eyebrows and yelling at supplicants, then tries to pretend that he isn’t concerned with catching Jack anymore. But when he’s alone, he sits down with a therapist alter-ego to talk about his existential malaise and frustration with Jack’s lack of aging. (Notably: Aku doesn’t say Jack’s name, because his session is a “safe place.”)

Jack hasn’t died yet, which puts him and Aku at a weird sort of impasse—it’s even more uncomfortable than their fight in “Jack Vs. Aku,” which is already one of the funniest episodes of the original series precisely because of how aggressively it hangs a lantern on their stalemate. Greg Baldwin isn’t Mako, but he’s not bad—and it helps that he’s mostly muted in between outbursts of Aku shouting to himself. Even though there’s an ineffable element of Mako’s performance missing, this is a delightful scene, and there’s just enough of it to keep Aku menacing without sliding into full-on buffoon status. The root of his problem is, in fact, that he’s become so powerful. What, exactly, is the demon overlord supposed to do once he finishes taking over the known universe?

The slickness of Aku’s fiery lair contrasts with the more natural settings of the rest of the episode, ranging from tranquil woods to an overrun temple. (Okay, that’s not quite natural, but it looks old enough that it might as well be.) There are the fireflies that wander through the catacombs, the vines covering the ruins where Jack takes on the Daughters Of Aku, and, of course, the repeated scenes of a literal lone wolf fighting giant green tiger monsters—an obvious analogue of Jack’s fight. This stuff is gorgeous to look at, but it’s a little too on the nose for my taste. Still, moments like a ladybug crawling across a leaf—these are the things that make Jack’s world worth fighting for.

Besides, the natural settings are important to balance all of the fighting that happens here, in the extended sequence of Jack fighting first the beetle drone, then the Daughters Of Aku. (I don’t have a ton to say about the drone fight, other than Jack’s new weapon really seems like it was designed to ravage the wires and circuitry of Aku’s robots.) The show is just really running at the top of its game here, so I just want to point out one of my favorite shots: Jack flying through the air, then landing safely before he’s buffeted by the ninja assassins. (I don’t know if they’re technically ninja assassins, but that’s what we’re calling them for now?) Even the sound design is on point—sirens, drumbeats, and of course, Jack’s guttural cries punctuate the battle.

We know Jack isn’t going to die—or that if he does die, it won’t stick—but the fight is still tense. There’s too much for me to point out individually, but I do want to single out a moment where Jack is hiding in a coffin in a giant throne room for some long-dead ruler. His eyes well up, and he grips his blade harder. Partly, that’s because there’s actually risk to the Daughters Of Aku, who Jack assumes are simple robots. It’s a moment of real, earned vulnerability and fear, especially because it’s happening so slowly. Slow is the name of the game here—shots are slowed down both for effect and because that’s how Jack is moving, culminating in a final pan down to the river, as Jack uses the tuning-fork sword to blow up the exit. He’s, um, too old for this shit.

At one point earlier in the fight, Jack is cornered and has to deal with himself in an even blunter fashion. Faced with an onslaught of skilled opponents—and the prospect of having to live forever, doing the bare minimum to save individual lives, a part of him rebels. “I’ll find a way. I always have,” he mutters to himself, as a spectral version of his past self tries to get the samurai to just throw in the towel. Phil LaMarr uses voices that are different enough that it almost seems like the ghost of the original series, and it makes the scene all the more powerful.

Of course, the tensest, most gripping moment of the episode comes when Jack kills one of the Daughters Of Aku: a human. The blood spurts, and we know we’re in a different era of Samurai Jack. This happens much earlier in the season than I thought it would, which is legitimately thrilling—it means there’s much more going on than simply Jack facing Ashi before Aku. I have no idea what’s going to happen next, and that’s the most exciting thing I could say about this season so far.

Stray observations:

  • Aku does squats, because of course he does. (In this, I am reminded of HIM’s exercise clothing.)
  • The scientist who designs the beetle drone is voiced by Chris Parnell, whose voice-acting career really took off after the original run of the show.
  • The wolf has all sorts of parallels in animation, though the one it brings to mind for me is Wolf’s Rain, an anime series that ran roughly concurrently with Samurai Jack’s original run.
  • “Just nuts and bolts” might be one of my favorite LaMarr line readings on this show, period.
  • Do we think Jack feels bad about all of the apparently sentient robots he’s destroyed over the course of his time in the future? Scaramouche might have been made out of metal, but he definitely had a personality.
  • This is the last one I have screeners for, so I’ll be seeing you Sunday morning, mostly likely.