When Adult Swim announced it would be bringing back Genndy Tartakovsky's beloved animated scifi series Samurai Jack for one last season, many fans expected to see a show that would give them a darker, more violent Jack. The new season does give us that darker hero, but not in the way you might have expected. It's better.
Adult Swim recently made the first two episodes of Samurai Jack's final, 10-episode season available to screening for the press, and don't get me wrong — if you want a badass Jack carving his path through robot and organic foes alike in a wonderfully stylish, yet brutal manner, these new episodes deliver that in spades. But that darker tone we've been hearing about pretty much since the moment the show's revival was announced isn't just about the action and violence. Jack is now a broken man, torn asunder by decades of external and internal hardships.
The advertising for Jack's March 11 return may cry "Jack Is Back," but is he really the same wandering hero we last saw a dozen years ago? Despite how familiar Samurai Jack season five may appear to be at first, the answer is "no." Those 12 years away in real world time have translated to 50 in Jack's world — five decades of turmoil and failure that have enacted a heavy toll on Jack's psyche.
The opening of the premiere really sets this up immediately. After the opening, wordless sequence of a heavily armoured Jack ripping his way through an army of robot bugs in that classic Samurai Jack style — as you'd expect, it looks gorgeous, and the chance to see Tartakovsky's trademark, weightily-lined stylization in high definition is a complete and utter joy to behold — it quickly retreats into a more introspective shell, as our hero laments 50 years of never ageing, and 50 years of despair as his hope slowly erodes and Aku's malignant will still rules over the past, present, and future of Jack's world. Aku's victory is all but complete in this new season, as every portal back to the past has been closed, along with Jack's chances to defeat the evil wizard once and for all.
Jack is alone and defeated, and despite the fact he's relatively silent throughout these episodes, the anguished expressions etched across his face time and time again really hit home just how deeply the prospect of his failure hangs upon every action he takes. He's always moving — not because he has nowhere to settle down, but because if he sits still for a moment, the memory of his past life catches up to him, a specter that has clearly haunted him all these long years.
The new season's darkness stretches well beyond just Jack's inner turmoil. It is also reflected in the faction set up as one of Jack's new foes: the Daughters of Aku, the mysterious female assassins we've seen hounding Jack in the trailers. Their introduction across the first two episodes paints as harsh and brutal a story for them as it does for Jack's own, and when the Daughters finally clashes with Jack, it makes for a moment that rivals some of the best duels from any of the show's four prior seasons.
But despite ensconcing itself within that familiar visual language of Samurai Jack, wordless action and clashing blades, it's a sequence that also, for the first time, reveals that this is a more adult show, figuratively and literally. Jack wrestles with the act of spilling the blood of an actual fellow human being, rather than the Cartoon Network-sanctioned oil and goop of his past foes — another crucial step in the ongoing moral dilemma Jack faces, as he wrestles with abandoning the honour he holds dear to in his long-suffering attempt to defeat his mortal enemy.
Even with all this newfound maturity, both visually and symbolically, the first two episodes of Jack's return help re-affirm that this is the show we all know and love, and it still has some of those lighter moments of kookier fun that call back to just how weird and wonderful the show could get. One villain we meet in the first episode is a flamboyant, scat-singing assassin who is just as excited to meet the legend that is Jack as he is to try and kill him (with a golem-controlling flute, to boot).
When Aku makes his brief appearances in either episode, he's as wonderfully curmudgeonly and silly — and yet still deeply sinister — as he was all those years ago, even if fans will tragically miss his dearly departed voice actor, Mako Iwamatsu. Greg Baldwin, who voiced both Aku and Iwamatsu's other beloved voice role, Avatar: The Last Airbender's Iroh, in several projects after Iwamatsu's death in 2006, steps in for the new season and does a great job, but it's still sad not to hear Iwamatsu in the role. But in a way it's sort of fitting for the show's new tone that even its lighter moments are twinged with sadness. But they're still fun moments, ones that are necessary to both balance the dark path Jack is heading on and keep us rooted in the Samurai Jack of old.
Samurai Jack's fifth season opens with a bold, declarative intent for where Tartakovsky wants to take the titular hero for his final journey — all the while reminding you that along the way, it's still that beloved show we were all sad to see leave screens back in 2004, just bigger, bolder, darker, and better-looking than ever.
The battle for Samurai Jack's future is now a battle for his soul, and it's only just beginning. After this brief taste, it's a battle we can't wait to see the rest of come March 11.