When we first see the titular character of Cartoon Network’s Samurai Jack in his fifth and final season, he’s almost unrecognizable: sporting a full beard and a suit of armor, exhausted from guilt, and no longer in possession of his magic sword — the only thing that can harm the demon Aku, who now controls everything in the distant future that Jack struggles to escape from. Meanwhile, seven warriors known as the Daughters of Aku are on Jack’s trail, vowing to finally kill the samurai and end his quest to slay their master.
What makes the last ten episodes of Samurai Jack unique compared to many other animated shows is how these episodes have been serialized. Those of us who (proudly) still watch episodic cartoons assume that they occur in a vacuum. For example, no one expects Tom and Jerry to die of old age, despite their being “alive” since the 1940s. No one expects Wile E. Coyote to learn from his mistakes because there isn’t any continuity in The Road Runner Show; nothing is ever really permanent.But by transforming Samurai Jack from episodic to serialized, the show’s creator, Genndy Tartakovsky, declares that all of Jack’s adventures really happened. Time does pass in Jack’s world, and all of his previous actions — and failures — have left behind real consequences. It’s almost metafiction at points, an imagining of how cartoon characters might react to being stuck in the same situation for fifty years. (Aku’s response is particularly memorable: he’s become bored and jaded.)
As a result, the fifth season takes on an intensity that Cartoon Network’s kid-friendly programming had previously never allowed. The show’s extended and often dialogue-free action sequences are kinetic, bloody, and genuinely tense. For the first time, you truly fear for Jack’s life because you know that, if Jack is killed, he’ll stay dead for good.However, Tartakovsky and his writers know better than to make the show violent for the sake of violence. Instead, they remember that Samurai Jack has always had a strong spiritual side, and they use season five’s more mature tone to address serious themes, from mortality and the meaning of sacrifice to Jack contemplating suicide out of hopelessness.
This is where the show’s signature aesthetic really comes to play. While the action sequences are incredibly fluid and intricately staged, it’s in the moments of silence and introspection where Samurai Jack reminds us that it’s still one of the most gorgeous animated series ever created. Every frame is a painting, and the show’s use of colors and composition speak volumes about Jack’s state of mind and the world around him. And through it all, Phil LaMarr, who voices Jack, continues to find ways to deepen the character’s humanity. Greg Baldwin is hilarious and sinister as Aku, doing justice to the role originated by the late Mako Iwamatsu, and Tara Strong is unforgettable as Ashi, one of the rage-filled Daughters of Aku.Despite season five’s undeniable darkness (tell your younger siblings to wait till they’re older before watching), Tartakovsky still finds glimmers of hope throughout the ten episodes. This is the show’s masterstroke: by serializing Samurai Jack, Tartakovsky doesn’t just raise the stakes; he proclaims that, yes, Jack’s sacrifices mean something. He may suffer, but his selflessness also gives hope to countless individuals. In the show’s final moments, we’re reminded that, even if our existence is episodic in nature — impermanent — the good we do will last forever. This cartoon about a time-traveling samurai will move you to tears, and you’re going to treasure every second of it.
YOU CAN NOW (LEGALLY) STREAM SAMURAI JACK ON ADULTSWIM.COM.