Monday, July 15, 2024

Samurai Jack Pushes On

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The final season of Samurai Jack continues where it left off, and does so in style. The action of the newest episode is more focused than the first one, devoting itself almost entirely to a confrontation between Jack and the Daughters of Aku.

The Fight Begins

And as far as confrontations go, it’s a savage one. Before the Daughters attack, Jack encounters an enormous beetle drone, much like those he had fought since the beginning of the series. He destroys it effortlessly, with a single throw of his new polearm. It’s a perhaps deliberate contrast between the enemies from the older seasons, and the threat that he faces immediately afterwards.

The Daughters’ attack has little in common with the anticlimactic demise of the massive robot. They strike ruthlessly and without warning, quickly destroying Jack’s motorbike, disarming him, and forcing him on the defensive. It’s clear that it takes all his skill just to survive, much less strike back.

There have only been a few other occasions where Jack was so outmatched. The first one was during the graveyardfight in Jack and the Zombies, where he desperately fought off hordes of undead, and what eventually saved him was Aku’s ignorance of his sword’s properties – that it couldn’t harm the innocent. Then there was his fight with the Minions of Set, where he only survived through literal divine intervention. He had faced many challenging enemies, but those fights, just like the one in this episode, have a level of desperation you can’t see elsewhere.

The Daughters of Aku are each incredibly capable. They might not be a match for Jack individually, but they dominate the battle through cooperation and stealth. They coordinate their attacks, and frequently vanish, only to strike again from hiding. Anyone with less martial skill than Jack would have been dead before they knew what hit them.

Jack’s strategy throughout the fight isn’t concerned with victory, so much as with survival. He flees the Daughters into an ancient ruin, that reminded me of Angkor Wat and similar architecture. There, he leads them on a chase through the crumbling halls. It’s a very tense sequence, with a contest of stealth that Jack ultimately loses, utilizing light, shadow, and the recurring element of a green lightning bug. The tension is real, and captivates the viewer instantly.

The pursuit reaches its climax when the Daughters chase Jack into a burial chamber. The assassins spread out, searching for the samurai, as he hides in one of the sarcophagi. What caught my attention there was the music: far more intense than is usual for the show, underscoring the palpable tension of the situation.

The Daughters do finally locate Jack’s hiding place, and he once again has to desperately fight for his life, using whatever he can get his hands on—a sword, and then a battleaxe, stolen from the tomb. He soon loses both, and flees deeper into the complex. There, he enters a labyrinth of tunnels, and faces a lone Daughter of Aku. In a pitched, hand-to-hand fight, he headbutts her and finally strikes a telling blow, slitting her throat with her own sword… but also earning a knife to the stomach.

This moment deserves some attention. Early on in the episode, Jack dismisses Aku’s mechanical assassins as “just nuts and bolts”. But when he sees the Daughter’s human face under her cracked mask, and the blood flowing freely from her throat, it’s clear that she’s very much flesh and bone. How much does it affect him? It clearly does, to some degree—we see his shock when the blood spurts. His pain and fatigue might be overriding it, however.

In the old seasons, Jack only ever strikes robots with his sword, because the cartoon couldn’t show blood and injuries. Has Jack really not killed a single living being until now? And given the level of self-awareness and consciousness some of those robots have, is there really a difference? Regardless of Jack’s feelings, we, the viewers, know that the Daughters are Aku’s victims themselves. The death of one of them is therefore a tragic event, devoid of any real triumph. Aku’s evil claimed another innocent, this time by Jack’s own hand.

Hearing the others’ footsteps, Jack staggers towards a window, using Scaramouche’s vibrating knife, which he had retrieved from the Daughter, to collapse the tunnel behind him. He falls into a river, trailing blood. He managed to escape, and kill one of his pursuers, but he’s wounded and lost most of his equipment. All he has is a loincloth and Scaramouche’s dagger, which he might well have lost. Things aren’t looking up for him.

Jack has had Enough

So, that’s the chase-and-fight sequence that occupies most of the episode. But that’s not all there is to it, by far. Soon after the Daughters’ first attack, we witness another testament of Jack’s deteriorating mental state. This time, instead of seeing visions of his parents, and others he’d failed to save, he has an argument… with himself.

As he huddles under an empty metal shell to hide from the assassins, Jack witnesses a vision of his younger self, berating him for keeping up the useless fight. The apparition argues that he lost his sword and has no hope of ever beating Aku or returning to the past. Why not let go? Let it end and finally find peace? Or, in other words, just die?

The real Jack argues that he’s doing just fine without his sword, and that the assassins are “just nuts and bolts”, like I mentioned. His words lack a certain conviction, though. He doesn’t seem to have any alternative to his inner voice’s thoughts of suicide than to keep running and keep hiding. Even if the Daughters hadn’t appeared, or if he’d been able to defeat them, how long could he wander and hope Aku doesn’t destroy him?

And then we see the vision of a rider, once more. This time, it doesn’t appear to be triggered by Jack’s guilt, but rather his despair and lack of purpose. Its meaning and source remain a mystery.

As an aside, the fight between Jack and the Daughters uses a framing device of sorts. We see a wolf walking through a forest, and attacked by a pack of massive cat-like monsters. When Jack finally gets away, we also see the wolf lie bloodied among the bodies of its enemies.

Aku isn’t Doing too Well

Finally, I’d like to talk about something that appears in the very beginning, ironically enough. The episode opens with someone who was conspicuously missing from the first one: Aku. Despite some speculation, he’s not gone or indisposed. He still dwells in his lair, receiving supplicants. Not all is well with the shape shifting master of darkness, however. When his scientists inform him about a new, powerful beetle drone (the same one Jack off-handedly destroys), he starts to pretend he doesn’t care about Jack at all, and slithers away.

What follows is an absurd sequence that serves as a dose of the old series’ humor in a new season that is otherwise considerably darker. Aku has a therapy session… with himself as the doctor. The parallel with Jack’s internal dialogue is certainly no coincidence.

Jack’s continued existence is a source of considerable depression for the Deliverer of Darkness. He had apparently destroyed all the possible pathways to the past, and hoped that Jack would just die. But, as we know, Jack does not age.

And so, Aku is stuck in a situation he can’t seem to solve, worried that the samurai will torment him for eternity. Thus, ironically, Jack’s adversary is as tired as he is of the unending stalemate. When Aku expresses a wish for someone to dispose of his problem, things take a turn for the serious, as the assassins appear and the battle is joined.

An End is in Sight

The second episode of the fifth and final season of Samurai Jack raises the stakes and keeps driving the hero to his limit. We get the strong impression that it needs to end soon, one way or the other. Not only through the dialogue and monologues, but through the general atmosphere and design of the new episodes.

There’s a very real sense that Jack’s endless quest has gone on long enough…even Aku feels it. And things seem to be heading towards a resolution.

Images courtesy of Cartoon Network

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