Season 5 | Episode 502 | “XCIII” | Aired March 18, 2017
Samurai Jack was always a quiet show. One of the characteristics of the show was the secretive nature of the protagonist. But in its current iteration, Jack seems less quiet and more contemplative. It isn’t just the number of lines of dialogue the show has. It’s the tone. The color palate. The show’s overall theme. This season of Samurai Jack is about Jack’s internal struggle, and it wants the viewer to turn inward as well.
As if to try and underscore the emphasis on natural beauty and quiet meditation that were so striking in the last episode, XCIII starts in Aku’s lair. The garish red flames in the background, the distinct tones of voice, and the evil schemes seem like something imported from another Cartoon Network show. Aku’s distinctive attitude, his morning routine, and his nihilism are reminiscent of HIM from Powerpuff Girls.
Aku is irate that Jack hasn’t died yet. In his lair, he sits opposite an alternate version of himself playing psychiatrist and patient, bemoaning Jack’s continued existence. Aku is upset with how complacent he’s become. He’s conquered the universe. His assumption was that once he destroyed the time portals, Jack would just die eventually. But somehow, 50 years later, Jack fights on. His continued existence is so upsetting to Aku that he’s reached a point where he won’t even say “the Samurai.” His therapy is a safe space.
The deliberate pacing of Jack’s world is even more noticeable after Aku’s scene. We cut from Aku screaming at himself in a pit of flames to a close up of a ladybug crawling across a leaf. That isn’t just the kind of thing that doesn’t happen in cartoons. That isn’t the sort of stuff that happens on television. Jack goes so far out of its way to make the audience stop and think, and the process was beautiful.
On a surface level, the plot of the episode is straight forward. Jack is attacked by the Daughters of Aku. He fights them. It seems like he might not win the fight. He comes back from a bad position and wins the fight.
This episode shines in building on the work done in XCII. In that episode, we were let deeper into Jack’s mind than we ever were before. We see Jack’s vision of a dark rider on the back of a horse. We see Jack’s ancestors yelling at him, disappointed in being left to die. We see Jack surrounded by a sea of children who need his help. All these hallucinations take the strong and silent Jack that we were used to in the first four seasons and twist them in a way that makes us wonder of those characteristics had always just been a part of Jack’s instability.
We go from that ladybug to Jack driving through the forest. Suddenly, without warning, he is set upon by the newest and most sophisticated beetle drone Aku has. Where the old Jack would have pulled out his sword, this Jack unloads his machine gun into the drone. In parallel to this fight, we see the beginning of a fight between a wolf and three large tigers. This scene is probably less than a minute long watched start to finish, but we cut back to it continuously over the duration of the episode.
Once Jack takes out the beetle drone, he begins to fight the Daughters of Aku. Compared to the struggle in XCII against Scaramouche, this fight is so anxiety-inducing. The Daughters of Aku dart in and out of the frame without spending hardly any time on screen. We spent most of the last episode watching these seven girls grow up. We watched them devote every minute of their lives to killing Jack. It didn’t seem like they would confront him this quickly. But now we’re driving straight into the action.
To take cover from his assailants, Jack dives under a small dome. As he hides in there, he is confronted by a real ghost of his past self. Facing a decision between living in Aku’s dystopian future forever, or dying at the hands of these assailants, past Jack tries to argue for giving up. The scene itself is haunting, showing us the weakness inside our usually silent protagonist’s head. Even more unsettling is Phil LaMarr’s voice work in this scene. The difference between Jack’s past and present self is stark enough to make the scene incredibly powerful.
As Jack fights the Daughters of Aku, they run through the rain across a plain into a temple. The seven daughters split up and search for Jack. The feeling of danger and anxiety builds up even more as the Daughters find Jack and follow him into a crypt. The room is filled with dozens of tombs. Jack hides inside of one and the fear on his face is startlingly honest.
There was never any risk that Jack wouldn’t win the fight. Jack’s covered in the plot armor that will take care of our protagonist. But this fight has built up such incredible stakes over the course of the episode that something is off. As Jack escapes the tomb, he makes a bee-line for the exit to the temple. He’s cut off by one of the Daughters of Aku, and he slits her throat and kills her. But when she starts to bleed instead of spark, Jack is devastated. Looking down at the knife in his stomach, Jack seems more emotionally defeated than physically defeated.
The episode ends with Jack using Scaramouche’s swords to destroy the temple and throwing himself into the river. If seeing Jack bleed out into the river didn’t fill the viewer with enough concern, we cut back to the wolf who has died fighting the tigers.
This incredible season of Samurai Jack airs on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim on Saturday nights at 11:00 PM.