August 10th, 2001: Samurai Jack first premiered on Cartoon Network, and with that, animator Genndy Tartakovsky began crafting one of the most beloved and memorable adventures in all of animation. Taking us between a vast amount of vivid landscapes and varied moods/art styles to tell a classic story of good vs. evil as our hero searched for *any* chance to defeat the lord of darkness Aku once and for all. A 13-year gap stood between the hero’s initial run and a proper conclusion to his adventures, but as of this week, May 20th, Jack’s long and arduous quest has now come to an end.
The episode opens on the many allies and societies that Jack has assisted over the years gathering around televisions all displaying a familiar fiery landscape: the Scotsman and his daughters, the intelligent dogs, the ravers, the archers, the blue gorillas, and more. The television broadcast then shifts to the introduction sequence of the first 4 seasons of the series, with the late Mako’s narration of his initial battle with Jack. Aku himself then shows up onscreen to broadcast a terrifying message: after many years of conflict, he has finally captured Jack, the savior of the world. He plans to kill Jack in front of everyone, simultaneously killing their hope for any kind of salvation from Aku’s reign. The terror and menace felt from Aku’s speech as he asserts his authority over all is legitimately intimidating, but in his typical goofy fashion, he is confused for a bit as he attempts to discern the best way to take out his enemy, with the scene playing out like someone trying to decide on a decent outfit for the night. Eventually, Aku decides to simply have the still-possessed Ashi kill Jack herself, as his repeated attempts to reach out to her seem to fall on deaf ears, with the real Ashi buried in the darkness struggling to break free.
However, just when it seems like all hope is lost, an unexpected surprise greets Aku at his base: a wide swath of Jack’s allies from all throughout his adventures suddenly arrive and have teamed up to launch one last assault and free their hero. The archers storm in riding atop the Woolies, the dogs fly in with their aircrafts, the ravers fly in on top of the large birds, the Spartan army appears, and even the cavemen join in with their superior jumping skills. Jack uses the moment of distraction to attempt to get his sword back, but Ashi relentlessly pursues him in an effort to kill him. Aku grows tired of the assault and transforms a large swath of the archers/Woolies into his own minions who begin to take out the opposition. The tide seems to turn in his favor, when all of a sudden the Scotsman arrives, using Celtic Magic to guide his army of daughters into the heart of the fortress, leading to a happy reunion between him and Jack. The two catch up for a bit as the fight goes on, but eventually Ashi sucks up Jack into her dark mass. As the assault continues, the giant stone samurai robot shows up to the fray and manages to mess up Aku quite a bit before he takes off the kid gloves, morphing into a giant mass of darkness in the sky and raining down a torrent of hardened heavy spikes. This takes out quite a lot of the opposition, including some of the ravers, the robots piloting the larger robot, and even one of the dogs. Alas, I remain unsure if the dog is 100% dead, but given how the season’s played out up to now, it wouldn’t surprise me if Genndy and co. decided to pull a Hirohiko Araki here.
The Scotsman brings out some of his Celtic Magic to deflect the onslaught of raining spikes as Jack attempts to fight his way out of the darkness and reach out to Ashi’s remaining humanity, seemingly to no avail. However, a last-minute declaration of love manages to break Ashi from her father’s control, and with a neat little bonus: all of Aku’s powers are now at her control, thankfully without the whole loss of self-control thing. Ashi fends off his attacks and manages to retrieve Jack’s sword, swinging the battle in their favor, especially when Jack realizes Ashi must also possess Aku’s time-travelling abilities. She opens up a portal for the two of them to finally escape to the past at the moment of Jack’s first battle with the master of darkness.
You know, I just realized that this climax relies on the exact same train of logic as the finale of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders.
Back in the past, we reach the moment where Aku finished sending Jack back in time as he monologues to himself, but then Jack and Ashi show up, much to Aku’s displeasure. What follows is the moment we have all been waiting like 15 years for: Jack finally goes to town on him and unleashes pure hell, making Aku pay and suffer for the decades of torment that he put our hero through, chopping him to bits before delivering the best death blow since the end of Wind Waker. I can’t even remember the last time I saw a takedown this cathartic, and our heroes quickly flee the exploding ruins of Aku’s fortress.
With the greatest evil in the land finally defeated, Jack and Ashi return to his homeland to enjoy the peace, even preparing for their eventual wedding…
…Unfortunately, on the day of the wedding, Ashi collapses on the ground, much to the surprise of our hero. Inevitably, since Jack has defeated Aku, that means that he didn’t exist in the future to help bring Ashi into existence, and so the timeline corrects itself as she fades away into being just another memory for our hero. Distraught, Jack takes a ride through a darkened forest and finds a place to mourn alone for a bit. While sitting under a tree, Jack is greeted by a ladybug settling itself on the tip of his finger, filling him with a sense of hope as he has at least some connection to his memories of Ashi, and the series ends with Jack looking out at the landscape before him, filled with hope and optimism now that the world can exist without the threat of Aku. The past, present, and future is now free of his reign.
It’s still kind of surreal to think that we’re now at this point. The many trials and tribulations forced upon our hero are now definitively over, giving us a sense of closure that many thought would never happen. I’m still in a bit of strange disbelief myself, and I’ve watched this final episode 3 times before sitting down to write this. It’s as satisfying a finale as I could have hoped for out of one the best animated shows of this generation and a perfect encapsulation of everything that made the series what it was. The grand-scale action is incredibly satisfying on every front: the stakes are constantly tense and nerve-wracking, the art and animation are as on-point as they’ve always been, and it’s great to see everyone come together for this last battle. The episode manages to alleviate some of the proceedings with the enjoyable witty banter between Jack and the Scotsman, catching up with each other like it’s just another day at the office. The final beatdown of Aku, as previously mentioned, is as intense and glorious as I always imagined it would be when I was a kid watching the original four seasons.
There’s a bittersweet tinge to the conclusion of the series, and not just because of the fact that it did end, but because of the fate of Ashi. In a way, despite the fact that Jack was able to confess his feelings for Ashi and take her back to the past with him, the very thing he feared above all else still became a reality: she now only exists as just a memory of his adventures. What makes everything that much more depressing is that she fades away right as the wedding is about to take place, the precise moment when everything seemed in the clear and they’d be able to live happily ever after. If nothing else, at least the two of them made it farther than, say, Yoko and Kamina did in Gurren Lagann (although not as far as Simon and Nia, sadly). The fading away of Ashi always reveals another subtle tragedy of Jack’s victory: she isn’t the only ally that only exists in memories. Jack spent most of his life living in Aku’s ruined future, and so all of the friends and allies he made in that future now just exist in memories as well. Even worse, while those characters might all still exist in the peaceful altered future created by Aku’s defeat, none of them would have any knowledge or clue of Jack’s endeavors, chronologically speaking. Even through all of this emotional strife, the ladybug manages to calm him down and provide a sense of hope for the future, as now he can form his own new experiences and memories free from the influence of the dark lord.
I think that’s how the experience of Samurai Jack, and the finale in particular, will stick with me and possibly many others. It was a long, stressful path taken to finally get here, and now after 16 years, we finally have closure on an important part of all of our lives. While the legend of Jack will resonate as a memory through the echoes of time, those memories will undoubtedly stick with us for the rest of our lives. Thank you Adult Swim, thank you Toonami, and thank you Genndy Tartakovsky for allowing Jack’s journey to come to a fitting end. Best of luck in your future endeavors, wherever it is you go from here.
Samurai Jack was created by Genndy Tartakovsky and is owned/produced by Williams Street Productions and Cartoon Network Studios. Episodes can be streamed online at Adult Swim’s website.