The last season of ‘Samurai Jack’ rose above all expectations, only to fall embarrassingly flat in the last moments.
By Daniel DeAngelo, University of Tampa
After sixteen years, the highly anticipated concluding season of “Samurai Jack” ended recently.
Directed by Genndy Tartakovsky, the creator of “Dexter’s Laboratory” and “The Powerpuff Girls,” the show originally ran for four seasons on Cartoon Network starting in 2001. Known for its unique art style and occasionally having deliberately jarring shifts in tone, the program was popular with both children and adults and retained a cult following that persisted long after its abrupt cancellation in 2004. After years of rumors, and despite the unfortunate passing of veteran voice-actor Makoto Iwamatsu, a fifth and final season premiered on Adult Swim earlier this year, and after well over a decade, the long-awaited finale arrived.
Things started out pretty well. The first episode of the new season featured aliens who communicate exclusively through holographic emojis and followed a now-jaded Jack as he faced off against a robotic, singing mass-murderer. Tartakovsky deserves a lot of credit just for coming up with something like that, never mind that he somehow manages to make the whole thing feel tonally appropriate.
The same episode also introduces the Daughters of Aku, an all-female band of half-demon ninja assassins sent to eliminate Jack once and for all. Unlike the first four seasons, which discarded any overarching narrative early on, Season 5 told a single continuous story. Episodes 2 and 3 are a protracted game of cat and mouse between Jack and the Daughters, and contain some of the most engaging combat sequences in the series. Jack manages to kill all of the Daughters except for one. The lone survivor, who is named Ashi, eventually becomes a secondary protagonist and Jack’s love interest. A theme of redemption is carried throughout the season, with Jack overcoming his guilt for having failed to save his homeland and Ashi coming to terms with her whole life having been based on a lie.
After recovering Jack’s magic sword, the two finally face off against the demonic overlord Aku. It is then that Ashi’s true nature becomes clear. “Daughters of Aku” isn’t just a fancy name; Aku was literally their father. Aku uses his connection to her to take over Ashi’s body, first controlling her like a marionette and then transforming the young woman into a demonic shapeshifter bound completely to his will. Although Jack succeeds in wounding her, he cannot bring himself to strike Ashi down, allowing Aku to capture him.The finale starts on the right foot, picking up where the previous episode left off. As Aku gloats and Jack tries unsuccessfully to break Ashi from his control, all of the people Jack helped over the years band together to rescue him. These include futuristic Spartan warriors, an absurdly huge family of Amazonian Scotswomen, flying apes, fish-men, a giant robot, alien archers riding sentient mammoths and ravers with laser guns riding giant birds. Awesome and nonsensical, it is the perfect zany battle to end one of the weirdest and most original shows of all time.
Unfortunately, that isn’t the actual ending. The battle starts to turn against Jack’s allies, but he is able to break Ashi from Aku’s control by declaring that he loves her right before the final blow is struck. As hackneyed as that resolution is, it only gets worse. Ashi discovers that she still has Aku’s powers, fortunately without the antlers or flaming eyebrows. This is actually a pretty cool idea, one that the show normally would have built a whole episode around. Instead, the battle between the two supernatural beings is disappointingly short. After less than twenty seconds of exchanging blows and laser vision, Ashi realizes that she now has the power to send Jack and herself back in time. They return to Jacks’ first battle with Aku, which had been the plan since Aku sent him to the future in season one, allowing the samurai to finish what he started.
Jack slays Aku, and the demonic overlord’s lair collapses, as does his daughter. It is at this point some may wonder how Ashi can exist after killing her father more than a thousand years before she is born. It seems like the show hasn’t taken this paradox into account. The next scene shows Jack’s homeland rebuilt, with all the characters who trained him way back in Episode 1 showing up for the celebration. It’s soon revealed to the audience that Jack and Ashi are getting married, but just as the ceremony begins the bride collapses. Jack runs to her side and Ashi realizes that without Aku she never would have existed and fades way, leaving Jack holding her empty robe.
The whole scene might have been very sad, if it hadn’t been both nonsensical and completely obvious. Tartakovsky clearly wanted the ending to be emotional, but that’s not possible when there are so many nagging questions going through the audience’s mind. For one, if they changed history so that Ashi never existed, would Jack even remember her? If he would, why didn’t she disappear immediately after defeating Aku, when she initially collapsed? Most importantly, why didn’t Jack or Ashi realize this would happen? The whole point of going back in time was to stop Aku before his rise to power. Exactly what was supposed to happen happened, but that apparently never occurred to any of the characters involved.
If the ending absolutely could not be happy, there are ways it could have been done without Jack and Ashi looking like idiots. One option is to have had Jack, as he’s about to finish Aku off, suddenly realize that doing so would prevent Ashi from being born. It doesn’t actually matter whether it’s Jack or Ashi who thinks of it first, as long as one of them does. Since Jack had refused to kill Ashi while she was under Aku’s control, he would presumably do so again. Seeing Jack hesitate and knowing there is no other way, Ashi could’ve taken the sword and slain Aku, sacrificing herself in order to save the world.
That would have been an end worthy of the last Daughter of Aku, and worthy of the show. Instead, Ashi dies because both she and Jack failed to notice something that should have been blatantly obvious.