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Samurai Jack returns deeper, darker, and more violent than ever before

Probably no cartoon series today needs and deserves a conclusion more than Samurai Jack. The series, from legendary animator and director Genndy Tartakovsky, ended its run on Cartoon Network back in 2004 with a painfully incomplete story and a legion of diehard fans. The protagonist — a virtuous medieval samurai thrown through time into the far future — was last seen protecting a baby and searching for its lost mother. Yet as the final credits rolled, Jack remained stuck in the future, trapped by the demon Aku, who had conquered the world and remade it as a techno-dystopian hellscape. Jack’s ongoing quest to return home — “back to the past,” as the opening credits song says — remained unfulfilled.
More than a decade after that 52nd episode aired, Jack’s tale is getting its conclusion in the form of a final 10-episode season, directed by Tartakovsky and featuring many of the original key creative team. The first episode of the final arc airs on the Adult Swim block of Cartoon Network on March 11th. And it lets Tartakovsky explore more mature themes, thanks to its bump from a TV-Y7 to a TV-14 rating. What’s clear from the first two chapters of the final saga is that this season will take full advantage of that freedom to flesh out Jack, his ideals, and the pain he’s suffered from fighting Aku for more than 50 years.
Samurai Jack isn’t an average American cartoon. The Emmy Award-winning show did enjoy the Cartoon Network spotlight for three years, starting in 2001. But while it’s nominally a children’s show about a battling hero and a scary monster, it carries a subtle, somber undertone that made it unlike anything on TV at the time. It’s a tale about a lost man, a warrior whose insurmountable power and drive to protect the innocent ultimately trapped him in an alien world, and left him waging war against a foe that might as well be the devil himself.
Like so many great cartoons of its era, Samurai Jack speaks to kids and adults alike, in different yet equally powerful ways. Tartakovsky, responsible for Dexter’s Laboratory and the excellent Star Wars: Clone Wars microseries, has a knack for giving material from a known universe — Japanese folklore, for instance, or the story of Darth Vader — a style, polish, and identity all its own. With Samurai Jack, Tartakovsky mixes in one part anime, one part myth, and one part cyberpunk. The resulting combination is a widely stylized success tinged with equal measures of action, humor, and sadness.
 Photo: Adult Swim
When we meet Jack again in the new series, more than 12 years after the September 2004 episode that cut his narrative short, he is not the man we once knew. Heavily bearded and heavily armored, Jack has come to rely on the machinery and weapons he once fought against. He rides a motorcycle, carries a pistol, and wields a metal staff pulsing with electricity.
But the most telling transformations reside inside his psyche. Over 50 years of fighting Aku, he has not aged a day. This is, he says, an unforeseen byproduct of his journey through time. He is haunted by his inability to protect his family in the past, and reverse the course of history that brought Aku to ascendency. Aku has also squashed every portal back in time, turning Jack into a ronin, tortured by his failure and with no mission in mind.
Of course, much of what critics have come to enjoy about Tartakovsky’s work over the years is not its minimalist storytelling, but in the way those stories are told through visuals. As critic Matt Zoller Seitz pointed out in Vulture in 2014, shows like Samurai Jack and Clone Wars illustrated Tartakovsky’s masterful ability to use composition, cinematography, and editing to create exquisite and unforgettable animated sequences. “The plot was never the point,” he wrote. “It was always about the visual music that Tartakovsky, his designers, and his animators created onscreen.”
In season five of Samurai Jack, Tartakovsky’s technique is on full display, helped in part by more than a decade of advances in animation. Every shot of the first two episodes is bursting to the brim with a distinct visual language and carefully crafted color choices. Even simple fight scenes, like Jack’s arrival in episode one, bombard viewers with information: the camera swiveling with Jack’s violent polearm thrusts, or time slowing down and the shot shrinking to a tiny square to show the spiked wheels of his motorcycle crushing a robot’s face. A Tartakovsky hallmark — the lingering extreme close-up on a character’s pointed expression — says more than a dozen lines of dialogue.
 Photo: Adult Swim
Season five is visually striking, but the story packs bigger surprises. As always, Jack is called upon to protect innocents and dispatch Aku’s threatening, predatory robots, but now he does so with an undeniable streak of savage anger. As he stalks the land, he remains haunted by the screams and pleas of his long-dead parents. They show up as astral presences, or as hallucinated faces in running water and fallen leaves. Even though Jack says there is nothing he can do to return to the past, he cannot shake the torment these ghosts bring him.
Even with the weight of Jack’s grief hanging over every moment, Tartakovsky manages to flavor certain scenes with an absurdist comedic flair. In the first episode, Jack faces down a robotic villain who scat-sings and wields a magical jazz flute as a weapon. In the opening of episode two, the demon Aku struggles out of bed like a cranky teenager. Scenes like this help lift the show out of Jack’s despair, and keep alive the playful, cartoony spirit of the original series’ run.
The darkest and most violent actors of season five’s first two episodes are a cadre of seven female assassins, bred as killers and disciples of Aku. These black-clad warriors move in a pack to hunt, trap, and kill Jack once and for all. When they find him, the show launches into a dialogue-devoid chase scene that cleverly uses sounds, shadows, and haunting arrangements of symmetry to create one of the best sequences in the series’ history. It ends on a startling, revelatory moment — the first time the new Adult Swim-sanctioned Samurai Jack trades in blue robot oil for the bright, tomato-red blood of a human being.
 Photo: Adult Swim
That’s also the moment when we can most clearly see where Tartakovsky plans to take this final season of Samurai Jack. The show has always been about the divisions between right and wrong, and the kinds of personal sacrifices we make to stay true to our own moral codes. Throughout the series, Jack has had endless opportunities to forgo his just upbringing and warrior’s virtue in exchange for what he desires most — Aku’s death, and a way back to the past.
Yet time and again, Jack has chosen to cherish human life and put others before himself. Now, as he faces the possibility of having to kill real people to make his own survival possible, we’re seeing just how dark, deep, and painfully true Tartakovsky is willing to go in Jack’s redemptive conclusion.
Season five of Samurai Jack debuts on Saturday, March 11th at 11PM ET on Adult Swim.


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