Was Samurai Jack a fundamentally different show in its final season than in its first four? It certainly seemed like it for a while. Jack was forced to deal with real, serious ethical questions when faced with the death of human beings. He struggled with some pretty messed-up mental health issues, and the toll of several decades’ worth of ceaseless struggle. And, of course, he finally made a lasting commitment to someone, sacrificing his chance at victory for Ashi. But, after all that, the show’s biggest swerve was giving us the ending we’d expected all along: Jack does, in fact, get back to the past, and undoes the future that is Aku.
“CI” is, in many respects, almost shockingly conventional. Jack is about to be killed by Aku when the combined forces of the darkened Earth show up to save him, returning the collective debt they owe. (Including, of course, Ghost Scotsman and his army of hearty daughters.) Check. Jack gets through to Ashi, stopping her from killing him. Check. And eventually, he returns to the beginning and stops Aku. Check, check, check, check. It’s all satisfying enough—and it’s a little unreasonable to demand anything like full-on surprises at the end of this kind of story—but there’s still something wanting, something more that feels like it’s missing from the finale.
Most of the episode is rather entertaining, if a bit rushed, even—especially—when it veers on the edge of fan service. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the big fight between Aku and pretty much everyone who has ever appeared on the show, including the Woolies, the Spartans, and even the dog archaeologists from the very first episodes. This is pretty predictable—especially the very literal callback to the end of “Jack Learns To Jump Good”—but this is the series finale, and Genndy Tartakovsky has earned it.
The best moment of “CI” is a meditation on the end of the series in general, as Aku broadcasts the original intro to the series on screens across the world before triumphantly announcing that he’d captured Jack. Has anything else ever united this world? (Besides, it’s not like Tartakovsky doesn’t know how over the top some of this stuff is. When the Robo-Samurai shows up, Aku scoffs, “A giant stone samurai. Really?”) The question is whether it will hold up to the rest of the series, and feel like a proper ending to the whole thing. And that’s probably dependent on how you feel about Ashi.
For the bulk of the episode, Ashi’s internal struggle against Aku is visually interesting (I love how Aku is depicted as a virus during the massive fight, and a swamp threatening to drown Ashi), but also feels a bit like marching toward the inevitable scene where she casts off his influence. Besides, even if you’re invested in Ashi and Jack’s relationship (and I am, but I know a lot of people aren’t), it doesn’t come anywhere close to the long-standing antagonism between Jack and Aku. The two main characters of the show barely interacted this whole season, which robbed us of its best dynamic, from episodes like, say, “Jack vs. Aku.” Instead, once Jack admits that he loves Ashi, she discovers she can control Aku’s abilities and use them against him—including shapeshifting, laser eyes, and, um, creating time portals.
I really didn’t see this coming, but it’s a good twist, and a rather fitting way for Jack to finally get home. He didn’t have to beat Aku physically, just take advantage of the demon’s hubris and use Aku’s powers for good. So we return to the very beginning of the show, with Jack being sent into the future, then immediately returning with Ashi. The final fight is, almost intentionally, anticlimactic, with Jack easily slicing Aku into pieces and blowing up the demon’s tower in a very cool explosion. The various nations of the world return to their homes. And in a sequence that’s pretty reminiscent of the end of Return Of The King, Jack marries Ashi. It’s a happy ending, suggesting that the show couldn’t shake its roots after all. But the grimness of the season wasn’t a total fake out—Jack really does have to give something up. Ashi’s existence has been erased, and she vanishes in Jack’s arms at their wedding. (Genndy Tartakovsky really liked Gurren Lagann, huh?)
Returning to the past means that Jack finally does succeed in his mission, and stops Aku from causing unimaginable suffering for thousands of years. But it also erases millions of people from existence, including everyone Jack has met over the course of his decades in the future—and Ashi. Would he willingly decide to return, knowing what would happen? A simple, triumphant conclusion would have made sense as the cap on the earlier incarnation of Samurai Jack, but this season hinted at a version of the show capable of asking those questions, of forcing Jack to actually make a choice instead of being blindsided. We’ll never know what he would have done.
Instead, looking younger than he ever has, Jack goes to sit under a tree, and sees a ladybug—reminding him of Ashi—and smiles. It’s a vibrant pink, and a beautiful image that serves as a calm capper to the series, allowing him to reflect on his memories of the people who will never exist. Samurai Jack was about action and sword-swinging, yes, but it was also about silence, spiritual peace, and the contemplation of nature. It’s fitting that Jack gets to go out doing the one he prefers. For years, Jack plodded along on a single-minded quest, constantly telling himself he needed to get back to the past. Finally, the future is uncertain.
- I get that he can’t do this for narrative reasons, but, uh, why does Aku keep the sword in the same room as Jack? Why didn’t he, like, fling it into the center of the Earth or into space or something? (Also, if Ashi never existed, how did Jack get back to the past? Why am I asking these questions?)
- The Scotsman floating through Jack is a great gag, as is Aku struggling to decide which weapon to use to kill Jack. I really love how neurotic Aku was this season, even though none of it technically happened.
- As crowded and rushed as some of the finale is, the episode still has as much of the hand-drawn feel as ever, including several really remarkable, slow pans—the most Samurai Jack has felt like its early episodes all season.
- And that’s it for Samurai Jack! I loved the original episodes, I loved this season, and I loved getting to write about this beautiful, beautiful show on a weekly basis. Thanks for reading.