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Sunday, June 25, 2017

Reflections: The End of Samurai Jack

**spoiler alert for the final season of Samurai Jack**

            We all have a favorite show from years past that got cancelled or shut down before it reached its natural end, and for each we can never help but wonder what might have been had the creators been allowed to complete their visions.  In some cases, like Firefly, all the speculation is doomed to remain just that.  In other cases, like Arrested Development, years of cultural build-up finally bring about the long-awaited continuation of the story, but the result ends up disappointing or dividing a great number of fans, leading to the obvious question; was it worth it to return to this world, or would it have been better to leave well enough alone? 

            This year, nearly 16 years after its first episode aired, Samurai Jack entered a rare realm of television show that not only was able to come back after a long, long hiatus, but also managed to succeed in concluding the story and vision of the show’s creator in a way that made the wait worth it. 

            The driving core of the samurai’s tale was, of course, his quest to find a way back to the past and defeat Aku, thus preventing the terrible, dystopian future Jack witnesses after being tricked and trapped in a possible future by the master of darkness.  The first smart decision the show made when it came back was to have the resolving season be short, compact, and laser-focused on resolving the central dilemma of the entire franchise; does Jack succeed in defeating Aku and saving the future?  Any final season that didn’t find a good way to answer this would have been a failure, no matter how good everything else ended up being. 

            It was also a rather brave choice to make the setting so much darker and bleaker than any past one; it’s been decades now, there are no more time portals on Earth, and not only has Jack lost his sword, a lifetime of nonstop fighting has worn him down to the point where we find him in the midst of a severe existential crisis, on the verge of falling apart entirely.  The scenes depicting his arguments with himself, the voices he hears, and the stalking ghost encouraging him to just end it all are haunting, easily the best depiction of PTSD to come out of American animation since the fourth season of Legend of Korra.   

            On top of that, while the original seasons were always extremely violent, they could get away with a lot by only having Jack fight machines, which (somewhat) made up for how brutally he dismembered them episode by episode.  This season is far bloodier, literally, with Jack finally facing an army of human assassins that he can only beat by killing them, in one of the most heart-pounding action sequences in the entire show.  Viewers can differ on whether Jack was justified in making this decision, but the show itself doesn’t try to trivialize it or make it seem simpler than it is. 

            The redemption arc of Ashi may divide fans a bit more- her budding with romance with Jack might seem out of place at times- but in a way, given their cold and hard lives, it makes sense than they could only find a partner in someone like the other.  The scene that turns her- the simple sight of ladybugs in the setting sun- is a striking image, as is the concluding image of Jack standing between a blooming cherry tree after being forced to come to terms with the final price of defeating Aku.  It is not an ending that pulls any punches, which this series very much needed. 

            I was not sure, at first, what to think of the use of Aku himself- given the absence of Mako, it was perhaps smarter to use him less often in order to avoid distracting us with the different voice- but he was almost too goofy and comical at times.  I never found that too problematic, though, because it is also a fascinating twist to see such a villainous character after getting effectively all he wants.  He really does rule the world, and for a period of time has no reason to fear the samurai, but he slowly realizes that ruling the entire world and having no one capable of challenging him is….well...boring.  And that’s certainly a take most shows like this wouldn’t bother with. 

            Ultimately, the final season does exactly what it needs to.  It powerfully resolves the tale of the samurai, and although one episode is devoted to revisiting some of the key moments from the past show (including several inspired cameos by the best Scotsman in the world not named Billy Connelly), the season skillfully avoids losing itself in its own nostalgia, making sure we have fresh characters, settings, and stories to focus on.  I never expected us to actually this conclusion, but I am glad we did, and especially glad that it’s one worthy of the show that preceded it and any expectations I could have had going in.  Samurai Jack remains one of the seminal works of American animation, a must-see show for anyone who likes good storytelling.  And now we must move onwards to new pastures.  Goodbye, Jack.  Take care. 

-Noah Franc 

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