It’s weird. When Samurai Jack did their Frank Miller tribute episode with the Spartans back in the day, Miller was still revered as the trendsetter of comics. Who aside from some rough spots like Dark Knight Strikes Again, was one of those names every fan of comics knew. But in 2017, Frank Miller’s now a laughingstock and a pariah because of his recent works like The Holy Terror, failed attempts at a directing career with The Spirit movie, and controversial political views that have painted his previously renowned works in a poor light. Admitting to liking him, even his seminal works like Year One, is a rarity to see now. You’re about as likely to see people openly admitting to liking Ken Penders than Frank Miller. No matter how good any of his new comics will be, his name always carries a burden. So seeing the new season allude to Frank Miller works feels like it’s from another time, with the first scene between Jack and the wolf harkening back to Sin City. If anything, it strengthens how flashback-heavy this episode is. That Jack’s recalling a simpler time while the show is also doing just that.

Jack recalling his childhood and reciting his father’s words to the Daughters proves something pivotal to his character: He’s still figuring out how to fill his shoes. Even when he’s mentally in his mid-70s, he has to figure out what wisdom his father had that he needs to attain. The Emperor managed to seal Aku not long after first encountering him, while Jack has had decades to kill him but to no avail. Perhaps in some ways, Jack hasn’t mentally aged, and he’s still somewhat of a child in need of education. Maybe all these decades have scarred him so much, that he’s somehow regressed. Like where’s his flying cloud and glowing silver samurai armor? Why haven’t the gods given him the tools to finally vanquish Aku once and for all? If he’s essentially become a plaything and an understudy for his father, then how can he possibly succeed?

Of course, that applies for the Daughters too. They’ve been so excessively trained and secluded from regular society that the sight of a deer nuzzling another confuses them. They even think one with antlers is meant to be Aku’s servant. It highlights how even though they are all grown women, simple moments that even toddlers can comprehend are out of their reach. Like how the Daughters chasing Jack last episode was as much the mission as it was also them exploring their surroundings and being almost curious about the tomb they infiltrated. So cold, yet so simpleminded, all because their mother never showed them her copy of Bambi. The worst part? There’s indication that their mother isn’t even allied with Aku since a troupe of mud people could easily gain access to him while she could only bow to a statue in his image. So all of this bloodshed and death in the last two episodes isn’t even because of an ancient evil, but some crazed woman indoctrinating her chldren.

PS: I don’t know what to think of the fan theory that not only will Ashi survive, she’ll be the one who goes to the past and kill Aku. Maybe that could work, but I’m not sure. If executed poorly, it would feel like Jack sacrificed decades of his life for nothing while someone else took his place.

In which someone has inflicted pain on themselves within a current day.

In which someone has inflicted pain on themselves within a current day.

Let’s talk about mirror scenes, which we previously saw in Jack rescuing a couple dogs from beetle drones like he did in the first show. This time, we get a callback to when the water aliens agreed to build a totem in Aku’s honor in exchange for living in his domain. There, he wasn’t particularly emotional or hammy like his usual self, but he seemed to take a little joy in the idea of ruining a species’ homeworld and having them grovel before his essence. But in this episode with a similar situation, except replace water with apparent fecal matter, Aku’s just apathetic and irritable. He couldn’t care if this race sang songs about his magnificence, because he’s just not feeling it. Because what he really wants is beyond his grasp. He wants Jack dead, but Jack keeps evading death. On and on and on, until Aku feels a Myth of Sisyphus crisis going, knowing that fifty years of evil have done little in harming Jack. And ignorant of Jack’s sword being misplaced, Aku’s stuck with the knowledge that he and Jack are at a standstill. Such an issue that even he’s talking to himself the way Jack is, but in less of a psychological way and more psychiatric.

But all of that’s hampered by Greg Baldwin’s performance. Needless to say, he just doesn’t sound like Mako enough. He was a good enough Iroh that it was hard to notice the difference, but his Aku doesn’t have that right tenor. Greg sounds a little like Kevin Michael Richardson doing a Mako impression in a few lines. I’ve heard he sounds much better in future episodes, but there’s some oddness in seeing a lighthearted scene that’s not out of place from the previous seasons, and Aku sounds like he has strep throat. Giving Aku a new environment would have alleviated this issue, but a need for visual consistency wins this round. Still, the idea of Jack and Aku’s battle starting with giving each other life (Jack’s father accidentally giving Aku sentience, and Aku unintentionally giving Jack agelessness) and leading to a mental war of attrition is intriguing no matter the voice actor. Jack waiting days after villagers have died before bothering to fight. Aku no longer reveling in his villainy. It’s yin and yang almost about to merge and become a pool of gray, but each side is too stubborn to let it happen.

Which was more fascinating than all the talk about Jack finally killing a fellow human. Jack’s killed plenty of sentient creatures and robots in the past, some of whom weren’t evil like X9 was. What makes a human life worth more than a non-human one? It would’ve been more interesting to focus on how the Daughters are Aku’s answer to Jack’s training, being raised from childhood to fight and kill a legendary foe, and how Jack essentially slayed a version of himself. Have him focus on the face of the dead Daughter, and he comes to a slow realization that children are being raised to fight him the same way he was raised to fight Aku. Jack’s lived in this world for 50 years and has gotten used to its brutality, yet he has to assure himself that his foes are mere nuts and bolts? But maybe it’s a sign after all these years, Jack still had a lingering trace of idealism, and a belief that humans could do no wrong.

Oh, you think darkness is your ally. But you merely adopted the dark; I was born in it, molded by it. I didn't see the light until I was already a woman, by then it was nothing to me but BLINDING.

Oh, you think darkness is your ally. But you merely adopted the dark; I was born in it, molded by it. I didn’t see the light until I was already a woman, by then it was nothing to me but BLINDING.

It’s always fascinating to see a show come back and have to adapt to modern storytelling practices. For the most part, the original Samurai Jack played by standalone episode rules. One-in-done. Little continuity in the way, with the occasional follow up episode. But this is the current year! Where even cartoons for toddlers have intricate lore and ask you to watch every previous episode to understand the latest one. So our revived Samurai Jack has to adapt, to evolve in order to appeal not only to its established fanbase but to any intrepid viewers who got bored and turned onto Toonami. And it’s hard to have it any other way, because would people prefer this new season to be exactly like the old days? With reviews saying this felt exactly like a show from 2004?

That was one of my issues with Sym-Bionic Titan and why I couldn’t warm up to that series. Felt too much of a throwback that it didn’t have a lot in the way of original vision. And while the new Samurai Jack is certainly derivative, it carries a fresher flavor in its plot. With a destined endgame in mind, and a ten episode run to keep the show focused, this new Jack is now at a crossroads. In the original show, Jack was allowed to go off on so many side-adventures like with the Woolies, the Mafia, the baby, the rave kids, and the Ringo Starr seamonkeys. But now, those goofy little miniquests of his have wearied him, where he can only muster so much mental strength to go to a decimated village and fight a Sammy Davis Jr robot. Jack’s grown sick of fighting so much only to see the bloodshed of those he couldn’t save, leaving him almost apathetic to the cries even if he denies such thoughts. It’s been fifty years, so many of those he saved have probably died. Those talking dogs from his pilot movie have certainly passed on. All those undertones in the earlier show about how people could rise up against Aku, all those higher beings watching over Jack to make sure he wouldn’t stray from the path, they’re all gone.

But what was also absent in this first episode, besides a brief phone call, was Aku himself. Any presence he has is merely secondhand, with that cult of his worshiping his statue but never making any direct contact with him. He’s almost like a ghost. Before Scaramouche called him, I had a brief thought that Aku might have died off screen, and that revelation would lead to Jack breaking down further, knowing he’s worked and struggled so hard to fight an opponent who will never show up. Granted, that would be anticlimactic, but Jack’s enemy this episode was certainly his own past as much as it is the robots in front of him. And if he ever does get back to the past, how much will he welcome a realm that’s plagued his visions for decades?