Many of us will spend our entire lives grappling with the idea of our legacy. When we are gone, what will be left of us? Some seek a legacy through fame and fortune, others build a legacy through family and friends. When SAMURAI JACK returned, the show’s creators made the bold choice to jump the timeline ahead half a century. While trapped in Aku’s nightmarish world for decades, Jack sees the futility of his mission becoming greater and greater. It’s hard to imagine trying to accomplish the same goal relentlessly only to have that goal pulled further and further away from yourself. However, the thing that ends up saving Jack is his very legacy.

Series creator Genndy Tartakovsky presents us with a far more optimistic view of Jack’s time in Aku’s warped reality. In the time spent as one of the few forces for good in the world, Jack became a symbol of righteousness to all of those he helped to free. As the first half of SAMURAI JACK’s final season explored Jack’s entrapment in an endless cycle of violence, the second half has shifted its focus to the power of a selfless life.

Legacy of a Samurai

After spending most of our time focused on Jack and Ashi, episode 5 suddenly checks in on a beloved character from the original series, the Scotsman. In his typically brash fashion, the Scotsman mounts an attack against Aku but is quickly defeated. The Scotsman’s last hurrah is spent as a trash talking hype man for Jack. He rubs Aku’s snout in the fact that Jack still lives and inspires people against Aku’s tyranny. With these final words, the Scotsman is killed by Aku, but his words give the audience a different perspective on Jack’s mission.

In the first episodes of the season, Jack sees his work as a complete failure. However, the actions of the Scotsman and the events of later episodes show us Jack’s work hasn’t been entirely in vain. In fact, we see Jack’s influence on others in the blossoming relationship between Jack and Ashi. Ashi’s abusive upbringing still makes it difficult for her to believe that Jack is right and Aku is the source of evil in the world. Jack shows her the way Aku has ravaged the once peaceful world, and in the process, they stumble upon a village beset by one of Aku’s minions who has captured all of their children.

Jack and Ashi follow the trail of the children, only to discover that the children are being mind controlled. Jack’s distress over taking human life returns as he battles the brainwashed children. Unknown to Jack, Ashi frees the children by short-circuiting the mind control chips in their heads. From Jack’s perspective, it looks as if he has slaughtered a group of innocents. With this thought in his mind, he wanders off with the mysterious shadow warrior, known as the Omen, that has been stalking Jack since the first episode of the season.

CLICK: SAMURAI JACK returns and deconstructs its own use of violence

Jack’s greatest battle in this final season continues to be an internal one. He first hits his lowest point, willing to subject himself to a death via ritual suicide to restore his lost honor.

As he vanishes, Ashi begins her search to find Jack. During her travels, she encounters numerous people who also had their lives changed by the samurai. While this could have come across as fan service, it reinforces that Jack may have failed in his mission to undo Aku’s tyranny, but he succeeded in bettering the lives of so many who needed his help.

One of the great tragedies of Jack’s existence is that he can’t see all the good he has done. His single-minded focus on returning to the past blinds him from all of the light he has returned to Aku’s world of darkness. It’s this inability to see his good deeds that drives him to the point where he believes he is better off committing seppuku than to continue living.

Ashi rescues him from this fate by revealing to him that the children are safe. She also tells Jack all he has done and the truth of the world he has revealed to her. Jack may not have defeated Aku, but his deeds helped others to destroy their own personal demons. Jack knows that he has to retrieve his sword, but even that can only be accomplished through restoring his internal balance.

It was, after all, a lack of balance that caused Jack to lose his sword in the first place.  

Learning to Let Go

Initially, the audience is not privy to how Jack lost his sword. One could only assume that it must have been in the midst of a battle with some terrifying foe. The truth, however, was much simpler. While journeying to the only remaining portal through time in existence, Jack encountered a flock of helpful mountain goats. They guided Jack to the portal, but when Jack arrived, Aku was already there to destroy his only way home. Aku used his magic to turn the goats into monstrous beasts, forcing Jack to slay them.

Jack’s act of violence returned the goats to their original states. When Jack sees the dead creatures before him, he lashes out. Aku’s manipulations caused him to take innocent lives. As Jack slashes the rocks around him, he inadvertently causes a small avalanche. His sword flies from his grip and goes tumbling into an abyss.

It was Jack’s rage that caused him to lose his sword. In order to get it back, he must purge himself of the anger that has stewed within him following his half a century quest. Jack and Ashi journey to the top of a mountain where Jack mediates. He finds himself on an astral plane in search of tranquility. What he finds is a realm not unlike his feudal Japanese home.

Jack quite literally returns to his roots. He tries his best to make tea while Ashi rages a battle with an army in the physical plane. Jack’s tea turns out to be terrible. Perhaps that’s the tragedy of Jack. He’ll never be the man who peacefully makes a cup of tea. He will only know the art of battle.

CLICK: What are the best episodes of SAMURAI JACK? Click here to find out!

Jack confronts the manifestation of his anger, a twisted version of himself, and banishes it. In the process, the gods Vishnu, Ra, and Odin appear. This holy trio forged the sword for Jack’s father centuries ago, and they bestow the same honor onto Jack.

Jack restores his balance, but he also restores his sense of hope. Just as Jack opened Ashi’s eyes, Ashi has reminded him of the importance of his own mission and value of hope in the darkness. While some may roll their eyes at this development, Jack and Ashi’s mutual support made their romance tug at the heart strings.

For all the hell Jack and Ashi have found themselves in, they finally let go of their rigid codes and get swept away with the love between them. SAMURAI JACK has never given Jack a romantic partner, but both of these characters certainly deserve this brief happiness. Their kiss is scored to the beautifully anachronistic Dean Martin song “Everybody Loves Somebody.” A song that fits perfectly with the “anything goes” tone of SAMURAI JACK. Everybody, even warriors who have been shaped into killing machines since childhood, loves somebody.

Aku, The Petty Tyrant

While we’re on the subject of tone, let’s discuss Aku. Aku’s arc throughout this final season has been an interesting one. Tartakovsky and the rest of the SAMURAI JACK creative team have always blended humor with action, and their portrayal of Aku has been no exception. As Jack was dealing with the futility of his mission, Aku was grappling with an existential malaise. With every opportunity for Jack to return to his original time apparently destroyed, Aku no longer had to fear his enemy. What good is a villain without a hero to destroy?

However, knowing that Jack no longer posed a threat to Aku’s world was not enough. Aku, whether he’ll admit it to himself or not, still fears Jack. Aku’s anxiety over Jack’s ability to destroy him with his magic sword manifests as an Aku duplicate dressed as Sigmund Freud. Aku may rule the world, but like so many despots before him, his own paranoia and madness keep him from peace.

Aku’s portrayal may come across as occasionally too comedic, but it taps into a truth about all dictators: they’re deeply insecure. Why else would they demand endless adoration and monuments built in their honor? Their actions are evil, yes, but those actions are meant to cover up their feelings of inadequacy. They are not monsters to be feared, but rather tin dictators to be overthrown.

Jack is the revolution personified. Each person he frees means a little less control for Aku. As long as he lives, Aku will not have peace. When Aku learns about Jack’s apparently missing sword, he believes his victory is at hand. He confronts Jack directly to engage in one final battle. In that confrontation, Jack and Ashi learn a horrible truth.

Nature vs. Nurture

In the beginning of the season, we saw the birth of Ashi and her sisters, the Daughters of Aku. At the time, we didn’t know that Aku had literally given their mother a part of himself to ingest. Aku becomes the sperm donor from hell and the Daughters of Aku are born. Ashi is more than just a highly trained assassin, she is a part of Aku. As such, Aku takes control of her.

Ashi attacks Jack, but manages to break free of Aku’s hold for a moment. She begs Jack to kill her, but Jack refuses. He drops his sword and for the moment, Aku seems victorious. Here is when the idea of legacy comes to the forefront in the season. Ashi discovering her own agency and escaping Aku’s control is central to the themes; now her change is more than a revolt against tyranny, it’s a battle against her own nature.

CLICK: Trace the inspirations for SAMURAI JACK back to classic samurai films with the documentary MIFUNE: THE LAST SAMURAI

When we learn that Aku is essentially Ashi’s father, new questions arise. Are we more than the sum of our DNA? Can we break from the programming that our genetic material instilled in us? The answer from SAMURAI JACK is undoubtedly yes, but only with a powerful emotional connection to others. Ashi is only able to overcome Aku’s thrall during the final battle when Jack proclaims his love for her. Their love for each other continues to manifest as life-saving actions.

Gotta Get Back

Before Ashi manages to awaken from Aku’s control, Jack is aided by just about everyone who he helped over the course of his adventures. Aku broadcasts his victory to the entire world. Yet, it is his vain gloating that becomes a call to arms for Jack’s many allies. Aku swats them aside like gnats, but their sacrifice provides enough time for Jack and Ashi to free themselves and confront Aku.

When Ashi faces her father, she realizes she shares, not only his shapeshifting ability but his ability to create time portals as well. Without hesitation, she sends Jack and herself back to the moment we saw years ago when Aku first sent Jack back in time. Just as Jack had to seek balance, it is balance that helps Ashi outsmart Aku. Ashi’s new sense of morality and the power given to her by her evil father are the tools that help her and Jack to defeat Aku. Jack immediately reemerges and slays Aku. His quest finally ended.

While Jack was certainly a mighty warrior, it was ultimately his compassion that saved him. His willingness to sacrifice his life and body for others, in turn, led those same people to come to his aid when he most needed it. The ultimate sacrifice comes as Ashi realizes she cannot exist in the past with Jack if Aku had never ensured her birth. Ashi vanishes and Jack finds himself once again alone.

CLICK: Like SAMURAI JACK? Then you’ll love the awesome action comic HEADLOPPER! Click here for our interview with the creator

There’s a cosmic cruelty to this ending. Perhaps there always would have been. Jack’s choices were always to restore his past or erase all of the good that he had done in Aku’s future. The consequence of that action was never tangible for Jack until Ashi.

In the end, Ashi ended up learning more from Jack than we realized. Just like Jack, she chooses the well-being of others before her own life. As Jack mourns Ashi, we spy a familiar sight from this season: a single ladybug that landed on Jack’s hand. The very thing that first showed Ashi the world’s true beauty and began the rejection of her violent destiny.

Her sacrifice preserves the very thing that helped her discover the goodness within herself. The world she wanted can now bloom without Aku’s madness. Her existence is maintained in every blade of grass, every tree, and every humble insect in the sky. Jack’s legacy was left behind in a broken world; Ashi’s legacy is a world reborn.

Genndy Tartakovsky’s final season of SAMURAI JACK was a simple truth. No matter how much the world may turn to shit, it’s our small acts of compassion that will chip away at the darkness and make the world a better place.

Addendum: The End for Ashi

Let’s talk about fridging female characters. The popular term, coined by comics writer Gail Simone, refers to the killing (or harming) of a female character for the purpose of giving a male character motivation. Think Gwen Stacy, or the shooting of Barbara Gordon in THE KILLING JOKE, or the death that originated the trope, Kyle Raner’s dead girlfriend who was stuffed into their refrigerator. Following the finale of this episode, I found myself confronted with a difficult question: is Ashi’s death a fridging?

I discussed this with fellow ComicsVerse contributor Madeleine Slade, and our conclusion was…kinda? Any time a character in a beloved show is killed off, it is always going to cause controversy. But genre fiction is unfortunately built on a pile of needlessly killed female characters. I personally saw Ashi’s death as having a noble quality to it. Madeleine, however, made an excellent point about Ashi in our conversation:

“She’s had to battle PTSD and restructure her entire worldview once she realized she’d been lied to. Like, she felt like a real person, and the prospect of positive representation for a bunch of different groups was so close. And then, she died in a way that made it seem like her life was more about making Jack suffer than it was about her. And that’s the big problem here.”

I certainly can’t disagree. I began to wonder: have the obnoxious amount of dead female characters made it impossible to give a female character a heroic death? For a finale filled with so much hope, the ending for Ashi felt like a contradiction. A hopeful ending should not come at the cost of a great female character. It’s a mistake to make a character’s death more meaningful for others than that character’s place in the story. My advice for any writers out there: if you’re going to kill off a female character, make sure she unquestionably goes out on her own terms and like a damn hero.

One Comment

  1. […] Taki Soma create art that gives off some 90s cartoon nostalgia. The style closest in comparison is Samurai Jack. The visuals portray similarly two-dimensional art as a cartoon would. The characters are drawn […]

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