For a couple of episodes, the shape of the end of Samurai Jack has been relatively clear—Jack will overcome his inner demons, retrieve his sword, and face Aku alongside Ashi and a small army composed of his allies from his decades of struggle. It’s impressive that a season this expansive and weird has managed to suggest such a clear direction, even as it leaves the specifics up in the air. So “XCVIII” is an important episode, as Jack finally gets his sword back and Ashi makes a definitive break with her old life, but it’s one that’s also primarily concerned with setting the pieces up for Jack’s final showdown.
We open with the first extended flashback of the season, to the moment that Samurai Jack transitioned from being a Cartoon Network show to an Adult Swim show. After climbing a mountain to get to the last time portal, Jack flings himself back to the past only to be grabbed by Aku at the last moment. Consumed and contorted by rage, Jack briefly takes on the shape of his eventual inner demon, and his despair at having missed his last chance to return to the past fuels his butchering of the goat monsters Aku created from the pleasant little creatures who had followed Jack up the mountain. Their blood spewing, Jack realizes what he’s done and drops the sword, which falls down the hole left behind by the time portal. I don’t know if we needed to see the details of this exactly, but it’s a gripping sequence, and a good reminder of what the show used to be. (A bit less sophisticated, honestly—I‘m not sure if this is a taboo opinion or not, but this season is pretty clearly a cut above the original run of the show.)
Back in the present, Jack and Ashi fly to the bottom of the pit, only to discover that the sword is gone. In response, Jack goes to the top of the mountain and starts to meditate. The ensuing vision quest sequences are pretty phenomenal, capturing the dizzying motion of the purple sky as he spends what seems like several days motionless before finally emerging into a vibrant, natural, abstract landscape, where he passes beyond the physical world before arriving at a simple monk’s house. The monk asks him to make tea, and declares it “terrible,” because it lacks the crucial ingredient of balance. Oops! I’m not totally sure what balance Jack was missing, other than as a catchall term for not having inner peace or overcoming his guilt or whatever. (Jack’s alt-rage personality has a point when he says the monk is kind of spewing some bullshit.)
Jack’s inner rage at having to “earn” his way back to the sword, after decades of ceaseless fighting is, uh, not unreasonable. But the expressiveness of this personality is in deep contrast to the humility with which Jack brews the tea, keeps himself controlled during his long meditation, and eventually admits his own culpability in the loss of the sword. There’s probably a version of Jack somewhere who can experience righteous anger, but as a character he has always been about control and withholding, maintaining stoicism and a focus on justice in the face of apocalypse. And he’s finally back to being that version of himself, as he repudiates his rage once and for all, meeting the three gods Ra, Indra, and Odin clean him up, return him to his former glory, and give him back the sword. Of course it’s exciting to see classic Jack, and it’s thrilling to see him regain the sword, but this feels both like it was a long time coming and like it happened a little too quick. (It’s the closest this season has felt to being a kids’ show, which I don’t mean as a compliment.)
Meanwhile, Peter Pan Ashi protects Jack by taking on an army of grotesque zombie-looking dudes, who have somehow found out the samurai’s location and try to kill him. At first I really thought this was going to be the Ghost Scotsman, and Ashi was going to spend the episode preparing for their arrival only for Jack to be reunited with his closest ally. Instead, we get some of the coolest action sequences of the season so far, full quick cuts of Ashi’s fists to show her slaughtering an entire army and a shot of her bowling over hundreds of soldiers. (This feels like a bit of an action hero-style exaggeration of one person’s abilities, but I guess Ashi is being set up to have Jack-like abilities, so.)
And when she reaches the top, the High Priestess shows up to confront her. Like Jack throwing off his monstrous apparition, eliminating the High Priestess—Ashi’s mother—is the last thing Ashi needs to do in order to fully be ready for her role in the final battle. So she throws an arrow through her mother’s heart, in order to save Jack. (Interestingly, Ashi spends this whole episode covered in blood, but Jack jokes about how she’s been busy when he wakes up, and there doesn’t seem to be much indication that she’s done anything wrong—it’s very much in the “you’ve made your choice” model Jack applies to the Daughters Of Aku.) With both of our heroes in this more or less enlightened position, there’s only one target left: Aku.
- I appreciated the brief glimpse of classic Aku during the flashback sequence, when the demon tries to goad Jack into having a heart attack.
- The specific uses of dizzying camera angles continue to be my favorite visual touch from this season, specifically as Jack goes through his time-lapse meditation.
- At this point, it seems kind of unlikely that Jack is going to wind up as the future version of himself that uses the Guardian’s time portal. (If only because this episode seems to place a high premium on Jack ending the series visually the same as the way he began it.) Does anyone have any thoughts on how that’s going to be resolved?