Entertainment

Samurai Jack's Biggest Mystery Catches Up to Him

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This post contains spoilers for "XCVI," the latest episode of Samurai Jack. Read our full reviews for the other episodes of Samurai Jack Season 5: "XCII" "XCIII" "XCIV" "XCV" "XCVI" "XCVII" "XCVIII" "XCIX" "C" "CI"

Now that we're halfway to the end of Samurai Jack's final season, we can make a few confident judgment calls about what works and what doesn't about this show. Last night's episode "XCVI" (1) reintroduced the dynamic, beloved Scotsman (2) officially turned Ashi -- who until recently wanted to kill the heroic Samurai Jack -- into one of the good guys; and (3) ended with Jack following the mysterious green samurai that's been dogging him all season. Along the way, we got another Aku scene and a refresh on the damage the evil wizard's tyranny has wrought to the world.

But what does it mean for Jack?

Who can resist that face? | Cartoon Network

The Scotsman will give Jack and the show a shot in the arm

After three few very fast-paced, emotionally charged episodes opening the season, bottling Jack and Ashi inside the belly of a monster last week felt like a dud. (I'm not shipping them for even a second.) For a show that makes a habit of showing off how methodically it can build up to an action scene, the episode's ladybug-loving payoff felt somehow rushed and painfully slow. Jack and Ashi just didn't earn that scene.

The Scotsman's return is the total opposite: all build, zero time wasted. His reintroduction at the head of a kilt-clad army, death, and Star Wars-like return due to "Celtic magic" all lock up effortlessly. As Jack's closest, funniest recurring ally of seasons 1-4, his absence 50 years later left a hole in the show, and from a practical standpoint there's no better character alive (or dead) who can re-galvanize Jack and help him get his sword back. After all, the Scotsman did the same thing before in season 4 two--parter titled "The Scotsman Saves Jack." In that episode, the Scotsman discovers Jack without his sword and suffering from amnesia, and long story way short, saves him by playing bagpipes. Then Jack and the Scotsman duke it out in a friendly brawl between rivals. It's ridiculous, but it's just what the show needs right now, because Jack's not getting out of his funk anytime soon alone, especially after the harrowing ordeal he and Ashi go through.

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Ashi cut loose with her bad self and kicked ass doing it

The Daughters of Aku made great villains for the early episodes because they physically and psychologically threatened Jack despite the fact that we know he needs to make it to a final showdown with Aku. We always knew Ashi was the most compelling and dangerous of the bunch, but this episode turned her into something more.

We got in her head, where she told her brainwashing to go screw itself. We saw Jack tell her she was a lost cause, to which she told him to go screw himself and teach her anyway. We saw her response to the takeover of children's minds for use as weapons, and she fought through capture and electrocution to save them.

Between her and the Scotsman's legion of warrior-women daughters, Samurai Jack '17 clearly wants more tries at the Bechdel test this season than it ever did in the mid-00s, but patriarchy still runs the show. The old-school Scotsman yelled at his daughters to "cover up" before a battle, and it's only funny because we know he's a protective maniac. Jack himself sounds more than a little patronizing when he speaks to Ashi and Internet reactions to her bondage situation last week didn't help matters.

But this episode gave her a lot more to do, and a renewed purpose for the road ahead. As the next-episode teaser promised us, she'll be looking for Jack after he leaves with the Green Samurai thinking all the brainwashed children had died. A Scotsman-esque role, that of a trusted and capable ally who can search for Jack when he's lost, makes more sense to me than treating her as a potential love interest and feels closer to the original set-up of Samurai Jack than anything else. Of course that all depends on if Jack can be found, because...

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"It is time"... for Jack to get his sword back

Series creator Genndy Tartakovsky has hinted that around the middle of this season, we would finally get some clarity on where Jack has to go and what he has to do. We've finally got a taste of that. The mysterious Green Samurai, whose shown up almost every time Jack has fixated on death this season, returned again after Jack found himself surrounded by brainwashed children he thought were dead. Jack snaps, looking more broken than he's looked all season long. The samurai horseman leads him into a green fog and Jack disappears. A few different theories abound as to who this guy is, and I think it's become more clear at this point. Here are the most likely competing possibilities:

1. The Green Samurai is Death: He shows up when Jack is beaten bloody, when his PTSD reminds him of the legions of dead innocents, and when he's about to be killed. In this case the samurai represents Jack's willingness to die. 

2. The Green Samurai is Jack's samurai lineage: Like the PTSD visions of his father, the Green Samurai appears when Jack is at his weakest or has time alone with his thoughts. In this case the samurai represents Jack's duty and destiny.

3. The Green Samurai is Jack's sword: Tied to the lineage theory, the Green Samurai appears in moments where Jack's sword could have been incredibly useful -- as in the battle with Scaramouche in the season premiere or when the Daughters of Aku had Jack pinned and hiding under a dome. The sword has been shown to present mystic powers of projection before, as when Jack faced the Ultra-Robots.

4. The Green Samurai is a version of Jack: Either from the future, in vision form, or an idealized version of himself that Jack lost when he lost the sword. This Jack's green coloration would contrast with the season's blue-tinged spectres Jack's been talking to (all of whom express negativity in every appearance), but it would fit more squarely in line with a version of Jack who can assist him.

Most of these theories hold some form of water, but before we pick the best one, let's look at this PR image released by Adult Swim ahead of the season premiere. It hasn't been used in a single episode and echoes next episode's promo shot of Jack meditating against a green backdrop.

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Jack is wearing the same torn shorts in that shot as he was in the final scenes of "XCVI," and the promo shot above stands out from the others in similar fashion. Here Jack is at peace, the green coloring evokes nature and serenity, not the eerie X-Files-level creepiness of the Green Samurai. It's worth noting that the scene where Jack lost his sword was also clouded in green. I think it's clear that given the promo image, Jack's fear paired with a familiarly furrowed squint of resolution, and the fact that he spent an entire episode -- thanks to Ashi -- re-upping on how evil Aku's chokehold could be, the Green Samurai has to be some ideal version of Jack -- or at minimum an ally that helps him become that person.

It's not Death because Jack wouldn't resolutely walk to his death, not after reminding himself how precious life was; moreover, Death traditionally rides a pale, sickly horse, and the Green Samurai's is upright, full-bodied, and stately. It's not his samurai ancestors -- though the armor looks like Jack's father's armor from early seasons -- because we've established that they appear in fire and brimstone and it'd be a much weaker thematic reveal. It's not the sword itself because Jack is separated from it; if it were simple enough to send him this vision, he'd probably have gotten it back by now.

The Green Samurai is something more. Visually, the green pastures of that promo image contrast with the reds and blacks of Aku's mechanized city that we saw again in this episode. which have routinely been the visual identity of villainy in Samurai Jack. This season renewed the show's emphasis on the sanctity of human life, which positions Jack as a guardian of that life. The Green Samurai's antlered helmet echoes Jack's own armor design from early in the season. Thematically, it makes no sense that he'd be revealed to be anyone other than Jack himself (likely a 2017 update on the bearded version of him that appeared in the Season 3 episode "Jack and the Traveling Creatures"). I'd argue that revealing him to be anyone else would feel hollow.

One more thing: The design also echoes that of historic samurai Honda Tadakatsu, who one site has described as "a face-obliterating samurai ass-kicker" who favored a spear and was called "The Warrior Who Surpasses Death Itself" in his day, much like Jack does. Whether or not those details matter (they do), this green warrior is clearly an ally to Jack, and will help him recover his sword, probably in the next two episodes.

"It is time," he says.

Jack agrees, and we do too.

While we wait, check out the season 5 episode 6 preview below. We'll get to see the Woolies again!

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Eric Vilas-Boas is a writer and editor at Thrillist. Follow him @e_vb_.