Spoilers ahead for anyone who isn’t caught up with the Samurai Jack series finale.
In 2001, Cartoon Network debuted the follow-up from Dexter’s Laboratory creator/director/artist, Genndy Tartakovsky. As different as you could get from the pint-sized boy genius, the new project centered on a simply-drawn samurai who wielded a magical sword and embarked on seemingly endless quest to destroy darkness, as embodied by a powerful demon. Taking inspiration in part from ancient samurai culture and bushido code, the classic sweeping adventure cinema of the 1970s, the films of Akira Kurosawa, and comic books like writer Kazuo Koike and artist Goseki Kojima‘s “Lone Wolf and Cub” and Frank Miller‘s “300”, the series also featured Tartakovsky’s particular brand of quirky–and occasionally dark–humor as his samurai traversed the unexpected wasteland of the far-flung future. This, of course, was Samurai Jack.
Over the course of four seasons, Tartakovsky’s title character encountered all sorts of characters, from cyborgs to Scotsmen, in his attempt to return back to the past and defeat Aku, the Master of Darkness, once and for all. However, the series came to an end before Jack could attain his goals. The fourth season of Samurai Jack ended in 2004 without a satisfying conclusion, leaving Jack, his past, and the fate of the world hanging in the balance. The good news: Tartakovsky returned earlier this year with Season 5 of Samurai Jack on Adult Swim. The bad news: Season 5, and Samurai Jack itself, is now over. While satisfying, it was also bittersweet and quite a bit heartbreaking. Let’s get into it.
Long ago in a distant land, I, Aku, the shape-shifting Master of Darkness, unleashed an unspeakable evil! But a foolish samurai warrior wielding a magic sword stepped forth to oppose me. Before the final blow was struck, I tore open a portal in time and flung him into the future, where my evil is law! Now the fool seeks to return to the past, and undo the future that is Aku!
So begins Samurai Jack. Not only was it a fantastic introduction to the world of Samurai Jack back in the early 2000s, it acts as a tether to the modern revival and an anchor back to the past, both for Jack and for viewers, like myself, who have been watching his exploits across a 15+ year span. Of course, it’s also a nice nod back to the late Mako, who lent his incredible voice talents to the villainous Aku; Greg Baldwin did a wonderful job replicating his performance for Season 5, but archival footage and audio is also used as an homage.
Speaking of homage, Season 5 of Samurai Jack is a massive love letter to fans of the series who have been keeping tabs on the various characters and creatures of Jack’s world. For casual viewers, you’ll probably recognize the Scotsman above all else, but more attentive fans will also enjoy appearances by Sir Rothchild of the Canine Archaeologists, the Woolies and their enslavers the Chritchellites, the Spartans, and many, many more, some of whom continue to carry out fruitless attacks against Aku. These returning, fan-favorite characters–and likely favorites of Tartakovsky himself since this season is as much an indulgent experience for him as it is for fans–look little worse for wear, even though Jack himself appears ragged, unkempt, and in a deep, unending despair.
Fifty years have passed, but I do not age. Time has lost its effect on me. Yet the suffering continues. Aku’s grasp chokes the past, present, and future. Hope is lost. Got to get back—back to the past. Samurai Jack.
There are, of course, news characters aplenty. There’s the fast-talking robotic assassin Scaramouche, a horseman known as the Omen, the leech-monster Lazarus-92, and the High Priestess with her lethal assassins, the Daughters of Aku. While these antagonists all complicate Jack’s travels throughout the season, it’s the Daughters of Aku who really dog his steps in the early episodes. They’re arguably more successful in their attacks than any opponents Jack has ever faced, even though Aku himself has almost lost interest in killing the samurai at this point. Ultimately, he’s able to defeat them, however, their defeat has two effects on Jack: First, he learns that the Daughters were living beings, not robots who could be dispatched with impunity. This realization tore open the original psychological wound that caused him to toss his magical sword aside years earlier. And second, he takes pity on the assassin known as Ashi and even saves her life multiple times despite her own repeated attempts to kill him due to her brainwashing under the priestess.
This is where Samurai Jack Season 5 succeeds far beyond what the previous seasons were able to accomplish. This final season treats Jack as an adult man in the “real” world, allowing him not just to live and laugh, but also to love. Ashi also becomes an instant fan-favorite through her introduction, first as an accomplished assassin with an underlying heart of gold (as seen by her grief over a ladybug crushed to death by the priestess) who soon learns to respect and ultimately love Jack. This relationship, though condensed, goes through a number of highs and lows, tugging at the heartstrings all the while; their shared pain caused by Aku formed the foundation of their relationship; Ashi’s innocence coupled with Jack’s sense of propriety leads to some very sweet moments; and the two saved each other on more than one occasion, usually in a self-sacrificial manner. But the reveal that Ashi was indeed formed from Aku, and that Aku’s darkness could overwhelm and control her, was almost too much to bear for fans pulling for Jack and Ashi…