It’s been nearly 13 years since Samurai Jack ended its fourth season on Cartoon Network in 2004. This month, Adult Swim is premiering a 10-episode fifth season. The return of Samurai Jack isn’t like Fuller House, The X-Files, or even Arrested Development where the original cast and creators returned to satisfy the fans’ nostalgia. Samurai Jack actually never ended. This is the ending for which fans have been waiting over a decade.
Jack (voice Phil Lamarr) was a samurai in ancient Japan. Just as he was about to defeat the evil Aku (voice of Mako), Aku sent Jack into the future. Jack spent four seasons trying to get back to his time and defeat Aku. Now 50 more years have passed. Jack is weary and sports long hair and beard.
Samurai Jack creator Genndy Tartakovsky (seen above demonstrating art from the show) and LaMarr spoke with Rotten Tomatoes recently about the series’ return and finale. Here are the 10 ways they planned to finally conclude the Samurai Jack saga.
When Cartoon Network canceled Samurai Jack, Tartakovsky had the option of wrapping up the fourth season. He chose to leave it open ended so that one day he could come back to it.
“I had three or four episodes left,” Tartakovsky said. “There was no mandate. I realized I really don’t want to rush a conclusion all of a sudden without thinking it through. Back then I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do for the end, so I decided I’m just going to trust it. Let’s just end it. Maybe we’ll take a break and then finish it. We just sort of quietly went into the night.”
For the first four seasons of Samurai Jack, the format was a standalone story every week. The television landscape of 2017 allows Samurai Jack to tell a single continuing story, so the fifth season is one big final story.
“The approach is different,” LaMarr (pictured above) said. “The old episodes, each episode was exploring a different aspect of Aku’s world. These episodes are all telling one big story. We go a little deeper emotionally and into Jack as a person.”
Over the years there had been several attempts to make a Samurai Jack movie. Every time, development stalled because the idea wouldn’t fit in 90 minutes. Ten episodes gives Tartakovsky enough room to do everything he wanted to do.
“Luckily it never got going, because there was never a perfect movie that I’m like Oh, I wish we would’ve made that version,” Tartakovsky said.
The first few episodes reintroduce Jack and establish the new world in which he finds himself. Tartakovsky says the fifth episode fully reveals the direction of this finale.
“You get a little bit more in three, a lot more in four and then five it starts to kick in a little bit more,” Tartakovsky said. “It all feels like it’s one thing, but the third act of this journey is definitely the last three to four episodes.”
Tartakovsky set the new season 50 years later so he could explore the consequences of Jack’s long journey after 52 previous episodes.
“Rather than just episode 53 and you get going, I wanted there to be more weight,” Tartakovsky said.
This worked for LaMarr, who was able to infuse Jack with the extra decade plus of maturity he’s experienced.
“We’ve all grown,” LaMarr said. “We’ve all matured. How do we do this work from where we are now? We’re all the same people but we’re different. These 10 episodes are the same way. It’s the same series but different.”
Jack never says much, but when he talks, fans might notice he sounds like he’s been through more.
“Obviously my voice has changed a little bit over time, and also my interpretation of Jack has shifted a tiny bit,” LaMarr said. “Some of it, you don’t even realize until you listen back to the old stuff. The way Genddy structured these 10 new episodes, it totally fit. I don’t have to try and go back and do it the same way I did in 2001. He’s different. I’m different.”
For four seasons, Jack was fairly unflappable and able to overcome any weekly obstacle. Season 5 picks up when Jack is more vulnerable and hit harder by the events he encounters .
“Jack is in a different place,” LaMarr said. “The original series was about his ability to withstand so much and accomplish so much. He was always so zen. He’s not in the same headspace anymore. Things affect him in a different way than they did before.”
This wasn’t just something Tartakovsky threw together. He began thinking of the conclusion five years after the fourth season. When the network and the viewers were ready for it, he fleshed out the story.
“It was always this lost-soul idea,” Tartakovsky said.
LaMarr was on board: “Genndy and I had talked about it beforehand, so I knew where he was placing it and doing with it, although he did not tell me the ending. I didn’t get the ending until I got the last script. We were pretty on the same page about the fact that Jack is Jack, but he’s Jack with some miles on him now.”
If you’ve never seen Samurai Jack, you can just jump in. Each episode opens with a recap of Jack’s story and how the story has jumped 50 years. Still, Tartakovsky recommends watching a few old episodes.
“I think it’s always good to know what he’s from,” Tartakovsky said. “It’d be great if you watched a few episodes to get the feel of it but you could jump in and pick up the details.”
When Jack springs into action, the screen often splits to show different actions at at the same time. Some of the images are vertical, some horizontal. Samurai Jack did this long before cell phones included video. Now that viewers are used to vertical video, Samurai Jack could be more accessible.
“Split-screen stuff has been around since the ’70s, so it’s not like I invented anything,” Tartakovsky said. “It is definitely easier. In a weird funny way, I’m doing it a lot less in these 10 than I did in the past. Sometimes it became, not a cliche, but it almost becomes a caricature of yourself. Here’s an action scene, here comes the split screen. So we tried to do it a little bit more meaningful and definitely less than I think we’ve done before.”
Aku is still the main threat, but Jack encounters some new ones along the way, including some of Aku’s new forces. Every new villain Jack faces was created to illustrate his final journey.
“They were all story driven,” Tartakovsky said. “We needed things to get to Jack. Usually I’ll just do a doodle. Scaramouche just came out from a drawing and then we started to develop what he is as a bad guy.”
One enemy through the final season is The Daughters of Aku, an army of human female warriors.
“They’re a big part of the story,” Tartakovsky said. “They’re not going to go away, not to give anything away. I wanted to show the human side that’s been treated like a machine. Aku builds robots and all these robots are singularly programmed to kill Jack. What if it’s humans? What if the one purpose in your whole life is to kill this one person and you’re raised from birth that way?”
Samurai Jack returns March 11 at 11 p.m. on Adult Swim