How 'Samurai Jack' Returned to TV and Ended in the Most Brutal Way Possible
This article contains spoilers for the fifth season of Samurai Jack.
Samurai Jack was never designed strictly for kids, so when director and series creator Genndy Tartakovsky revisited the world this year on Adult Swim, he took the chance to do more with the character in 10 episodes than he'd ever done in the 52 that aired in the early '00s.
"Before, we weren’t allowed to do a continuous storyline," he tells Thrillist, citing the norms of Cartoon Network's typical original output at the time. "Back in the day, nobody was really doing that. So we were forced to not have cliffhangers and not do the continuing story arc. And so for this we wanted to do one story arc."
The result of Tartakovsky's labor is a tight, 10-episode final season that tied off the eponymous samurai's story and ended his centuries-spanning feud with the evil wizard Aku. The revival debuted in March 2017 and packed action, romance, comedy, and nonstop references to the show's past, lighting the internet on fire every week as longtime fans clamored to watch their hero's final journey. For Tartakovsky, it was an attempt to tie off a loose end and advance Jack's story toward a more cinematic conclusion than he could have done 13 years prior. "We wanted to get into Jack’s head more," he says "We wanted to see the effects of all this time. And of course, the ending."
Samurai Jack was special, and a revival took a lot of time to get right
To understand what made Samurai Jack's return so special, you have to understand a little bit about Samurai Jack. Tartakovsky, got his start in cartoons as a storyboard artist, later creating the dynamic series Dexter's Laboratory and Star Wars: Clone Wars. He conceptualized Jack as a serious samurai with a magic sword displaced in time. The cackling Aku destroyed his homeland, cast the samurai into the distant future, and brought the population to heel in a dark technocracy.
"I love action," he says. "I want it created stylistically and interestingly enough that it’s unique."
That was always the goal for Jack. Most episodes were filled with stylized sword fights and framed like classic samurai films, and while the show had a keen sense of humor (because obviously the future has talking dogs and angry, gun-toting Scottish warriors who also practice Celtic magic), it was mostly notable for how unique its artistry was. Samurai Jack episodes could be excruciatingly slow and were often dialogue-free, even while referencing the likes of Star Wars, blaxploitation kung-fu movies, Destiny's Child, 300 (the comic, before the film came out), and more. Samurai Jack's characters were animated without outlines. Nothing else looked like this show in 2001, and nothing else looked like it 2017.
The show shut down production in 2004, but for years Tartakovsky and his collaborators were trying to turn Jack's final story -- when he would "return to the past and undo the future that is Aku," as the show's refrain went -- into a movie. The project never materialized, but Tartakovsky finally managed to turn it into a miniseries after pitching it to Mike Lazzo, the executive vice president in charge of Adult Swim. As the creator told it in behind-the-scenes materials for the show: "Lazzo called me the next day, and in two weeks the deal was done. We were off."
Tartakovsky had to ramp up Jack's core conflict
Airing the show on Adult Swim, in a timeslot seemingly tailor-picked for only the hardcore fans (Saturdays at 11pm), offered Tartakovsky a lot of creative freedom. "So because we were on Adult Swim," Tartakovsky says looking back, "we could do something that’s darker or more real, and more -- not dumbed down for kids, not that Jack ever was really that dumbed down -- but we didn’t go that deep, for the most part."
Tartakovsky turned Jack's final story into one of a hero wracked with post-traumatic stress, seeking redemption after 50 years of fighting. Jack never got old, never had a family, never had love, and this season portrayed his breaking point before it got to his final battle. Nowhere did those stakes matter more than the first time Jack killed an adversary, in the season's second episode, one Tartakovsky called one of his proudest.
"The best of Jack is usually one idea, and then we execute it for 22 minutes the best we can. Not a lot of twists and turns and stuff," he says. "Jack kills a human for the first time. And it’s just a simple chase episode but there was so much more in it than what we’ve ever done previously."
It may be a matter of logic that a show about a samurai would involve killing, but that never happened on Cartoon Network in the early '00s. For four seasons, Jack only "killed" robots. And this fifth season portrayed Jack's full emotional reckoning with that spur-of-the-moment act of self defense. He has visions of dead bodies surrounding him everywhere he goes. He is followed by a ghostly samurai who wants to drag his soul to Hell for his actions. His hatred manifests in darkly distorted split personalities that taunt and humiliate him. It's excruciating because Jack's trauma is treated seriously, and it's not always explained. All that's on purpose, Tartakovsky says: "Really good filmmaking, you actually don’t get everything spelled out for you."
Jack's partner had to feel real and sincere
Compared to the early seasons, the narrative turn that carries the most weight in Season 5 is the addition of Ashi, one of Aku's assassin daughters. Ashi, born and raised with the sole purpose of killing Jack, eventually becomes his ally and -- though it takes some time -- his lover. Before this season, she was a non-entity. By the end, Ashi and Jack's relationship form the emotional backbone for the whole season.
"In actuality, this whole thing was centered around my desire to see if I could have two characters fall in love in a sincere way, not in a cheesy filmmaking way where you know you look her, he looks at you, and then they’re in love, you know?" Tartakovsky says. "The big thing about it was Jack falling in love."
He also didn't want to rush it -- even if he just had 10 episodes to do it. "We created this character that was filled with pure hate, and then slowly show that there’s a little chink in the armor and then go from there," he says. Without relying too heavily on dialogue or long episodes of exposition, the show frames Ashi as much as the victim of Aku's totalitarian rule as anyone. She's physically and verbally abused growing up and turned into a child soldier. She's cut off from the outside world her whole life, meaning that in adulthood, she has to assimilate much in the same way Jack had to adjust to life in a distant, technologically advanced future.
In a way, they were perfect for each other, and when they get past several episodes of sexual tension, they finally consummate their relationship. It happens at the end of a horror episode influenced by Alien, with a full-blown makeout cued up to Dean Martin's "Everybody Loves Somebody." It's spectacular and feels earned.
"There’s really no realism really about it," he admits. "But can we get real feelings and emotions and get the sense of how awkward it is to stand next to a girl if you’re not comfortable, if you’ve never really experienced it a lot? And then turn that awkwardness into this horror episode where they’re being hunted."
Not everyone on the internet agreed with it, but Tartakovsky laughs that off. "Definitely I heard a little bit about the uproar over the kiss," he says. "That’s something that I was really proud of. The way people reacted to it, negatively and positively. But you know, I always say, I’d rather have somebody hate something or love it than to be just like, 'Eh, that was OK.'"
Every scene -- even obvious callbacks -- had to feel organic
If there's one scene that illustrates the central worry of bringing back a show like Samurai Jack, it's the tea ceremony. At the end of a spirit quest, in a sequence bathed in bright colors and utter silence, Jack participates in a slow, traditional Japanese tea ceremony, spending a full two minutes of dialogue-free screen time meticulously cleaning, brewing, and serving green tea to the spirit who will eventually help him. At the end of all of Jack's effort, the spirit sips the tea and informs him: "This is terrible."
It's a great gag, but it also functions like a meta-commentary of what's at stake after you revive a show that's been dead for 13 years. In some cases, like Jack or the new DuckTales or Twin Peaks, it works, offering something new while enriching your appreciation of the original. In other cases, the new effort fails your nostalgia spectacularly.
No TV show is ever going to please everyone, but if Samurai Jack has any lessons to teach in reviving something great for a final hurrah, it's that the artistic vision needs to be clear and you have to be willing to cut what's not working. Samurai Jack's revival was loaded with crowd-pleasing nods to early episodes, but Tartakovsky cut the things that obviously didn't fit.
"We had an idea for the assassin robot, the X49 episode, the film noir one," he says. "It felt like it was too much of a tangent to make all of it work and make sense, so we left it out."
The end of Samurai Jack had to be clear
At the very end of the fifth season, Jack fights his final battle with Aku. Ashi helps him defeat the evil wizard by carrying the samurai back to the past. In the span of a few minutes, we watch Jack return to his parents who are alive, and just as he is about to marry Ashi, she fades away. The final reveal of the show is that because Jack killed Aku, Aku never enslaved humanity, and thus never created her.
"I knew Jack was going to have a bittersweet ending," Tartakovsky says. Some complained that the finale felt rushed, but whether you love it or hate it, this was what Tartakovsky had planned for years. It was never going to end any other way. And its implications, if you consider them beyond the half-second it takes Google to give you results for "samurai jack season 6," are staggering.
"All those people in Jack’s timeline -- they were there," Tartakovsky says, insisting that the finale shouldn't be interpreted as a timeline bait-and-switch. "He did have all those experiences. That all did happen. And he’s the only one who’s left with all those memories."
Jack went back to the past and undid the future that was Aku. "There was no way it can be just perfectly happy," Tartakovsky says. "It’s not a samurai’s road."
Samurai Jack is available for purchase on Blu-Ray or streaming on Hulu.
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