It’s been 50 years since we last saw Jack, and he hasn’t aged a day. After the unexpected side effects of time travel finally catch up with him, guilt and hopelessness plague the once bright-eyed samurai. In the first season of Samurai Jack, he still retains an air of optimism, continuing to press on despite a world enslaved by Aku. But the season five return portends far more grit, weariness and darkness than all the previous ones combined, and we couldn’t be more ready for it.
As engine grease and bullets replace white robes and swords, season five is painfully — though not awkwardly — evocative of Mad Max: Fury Road.
When you think of dry wastelands and hulking monster trucks, it’s hard not to immediately think of Mad Max. A nuclear disaster wipes out the majority of humanity and civilization, and the survivors are left fighting for basic commodities like water and medicine. Max Rockatansky is a drifter in a post-apocalyptic land, fighting for survival and living with the guilt of those he couldn’t save.
“I am the one who runs from both the living and the dead, hunted by scavengers, haunted by those I could not protect,” Max says in the opening of the film. “So I exist in this wasteland, a man reduced to a single instinct: survive.”
Fury Road doesn’t address the specifics of what happened with those deaths, but we do know that Max is now fighting back flashbacks and some serious post-traumatic stress. He doesn’t seem to have any real sense of purpose until he meets Imperator Furiosa, who he eventually agrees to help find the “Green Place.” It’s a similarly vague and elusive concept as Jack’s “return to the past,” a sort of cure-all that seems like it could manifest with a mantra along the lines of “if I just reach this, everything will be OK.”
Unfortunately, later on, we discover that the Green Place died long ago. Max’s goal then shifts from an escape in the name of self-preservation to an almost selfless return. As Furiosa takes control of the Citadel, Max fades into the crowd. With nothing else left to pursue or accomplish, he disappears.
It’s that same sense of disappearing that Jack seems to be so afraid of. He continues to ride through the wastelands, similarly searching for something that might not even exist anymore. With no more leads on how he can return to the past, he wanders aimlessly while fending off bounty hunters, killer robots and assassins. Decades of running and killing leave his hair and beard unkempt, gaze distant. Noticeably absent is Jack’s magic sword; guns, knives and electrified spears now fill up his arsenal. The change in weaponry seems to reflect a change in nature — he’s become hardened, now assimilated in the grit and smoke that is the world.
Right away in the first two episodes, we learn that all the time portals in the world have been destroyed. There’s no longer a way to return to the past. Not only that, Jack has lost his sword. It’s a devastating blow for him — the magic sword was never about the power it provided, but rather the anchor back to his family and sense of self. Guilt and shame have consumed Jack; hallucinations of his dead parents demand to know why he’s abandoned them, why he’s lost sight of what’s important. In this season, it becomes clear that Aku is no longer the villain: It’s Jack.
Creator Genndy Tartakovsky says of Jack in the new season, “The haunting of the past and the self, is a pressure that you either need to forget or grieve. He’s traumatized and he cannot let go.”
Max also isn’t a stranger to the same kinds of hallucinations — they start out innocent enough, like Jack’s, and progressively become more terrifying. He hears their voices even when he doesn’t see their faces. Both are men of few words, relying mostly on action and thoughts unknown. There’s also something far more deliberate about setting, framing and visual language with these two works; a definitive visual language takes precedent over what could’ve been a cheesy script about death, hopelessness and honor. Conveying a sense of intense self-dread is difficult with words alone. Sometimes all you need are a few quiet shots of people just being who they are.
A very real sense of cruelty lives in Samurai Jack season five and Fury Road. It’s vastly different from what we’re used to seeing in the former. Longtime fans may even remember the episode where Jack gets turned into a chicken. But in just the second episode of this new season, we witness an unspeakable act never explored in the series before. There’s an implicit code of conduct that we assume all samurai to have, and for that to get violated so quickly and unexpectedly, it’s hard not to question where this is all going.
A few years ago, the words “violent” and “traumatized” wouldn’t have been the right words to describe Jack. But as half a century crawls on and he keeps killing, over and over, we’re seeing his very sense of self grind down to the bone. That’s to be expected, but for Jack to contemplate suicide? Definitely not.
The beginning of season five hits hard and fast like Fury Road, but the sense of dread and existential crises lingers far longer with Jack than it does with Max. We have yet to see if Jack finds purpose in an alternate route, in someone else’s plight like Max did with Furiosa, but that remains to be seen.
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