In October of last year, Samurai Jack creator Genndy Tartakovsky’s new series, Primal aired its first five episodes. With the next five scheduled to air sometime in the second half of 2020, what better way to build up anticipation than to count down the top ten episodes of Tartakovsky’s most renowned series? Samurai Jack aired from 2001 to 2004 on Cartoon Network. The show follows the adventures of a skilled warrior known as Jack. Jack is teleported into the future after failing to stop an evil, shape-shifting wizard named Aku who now reigns supreme.
Samurai Jack’s first run concluded with a slew of fantastic episodes in a two-hour finale block. But the series’ main story arc remains unresolved. After years of campaigning, Tartakovsky decided to make a fifth season that would serve as a conclusion for the show. The revival of Samurai Jack aired in 2017 and was met with overwhelming praise. In this list, we’ll look at the top ten best episodes of Samurai Jack from both the original and revival series.
10. The Beginning
“The Beginning” is literally the one that started it all for Samurai Jack. Although it is only the first episode, Tartakovsky lays an excellent foundation for the series and builds a clear arc that is indicative of future conflicts and episodic maturity. The episode was quick to start, immediately jumping into the rebirth of Aku, followed by the crushing defeat of Jack’s father in the face of the seemingly unbeatable shapeshifter. Aku’s conquering of the humble Japanese village that is Jack’s hometown serves as the iconic prologue for the original series.
The following montage of Samurai Jack’s training around the world is enthralling and crafted so Jack’s incomparable prowess as a warrior is believable. Simply put, he is the only person, place, or thing capable of defeating Aku. Such capability brings the viewer to the climax of the episode, a duel mono y mono between Jack and Aku. The fight scene is the episode’s, and possibly even a series highlight; contributing to the episode’s position on this list.
9. Jack’s Shoes
Samurai Jack has a reputation for being a stoic, reticent TV show. However, there were several episodes that were quite funny, reminding viewers that the original series was a kid’s show. In “Jack’s Shoes,” we see that humor on display in full force. After Jack jumps barefoot out of the way to avoid an approaching biker gang, he lands safely back on the ground to discover that his footwear, a staple of his attire, has been destroyed by the Transformer-like robots.
Jack tracks down the bikers only to find that he is incapable of defeating them without proper footwear. What follows is a humorous encounter with the owner of the local shoe store, Foot Chalet. Jack tries on various shoes, from high heels to sneakers, ultimately finding that none can serve as a usable replacement. Eventually, Jack meets a Japanese auto repairman inspired by Jack who is able to build his new geta. The episode proves that Samurai Jack can be as funny as it is serious, showcasing the series’ versatility and ingenuity.
8. Tale of X49
Airing as part of the two-hour series (at the time) finale in 2004, “Tale of X49” has the distinction of being the only Samurai Jack episode in which Jack is not the protagonist and possibly even the villain. The episode follows X49, a highly-advanced robot assassin given an “emotions chip” by one of the scientists hired by Aku. After fulfilling his many missions as an assassin, X49 goes into retirement, filling his days with jazz music and a small bulldog mutt named Lulu. However, Aku gets wind of the robot’s emotions chip which enhances X49’s durability. In turn, Aku kidnaps Lulu and holds the dog hostage in exchange for X49’s assassination of Jack.
“Tale of X49” is a clear imitation of film noir with X49’s downtrodden narration dominating the episode’s rainy and monochromatic landscapes. The episode is fantastic, visually and emotionally, with viewers, and Jack, genuinely saddened by X49’s inevitable demise at the hands of the samurai. With this endeavor, Tartakovsky proved the Samurai Jack universe was rich enough to center a story on someone besides Jack and still make it compelling.
7. The Princess & The Bounty Hunters
“The Princess and the Bounty Hunters” is another episode that utilizes the expanded universe of Samurai Jack. The episode introduces numerous dangerous bounty hunters that, together, formulate the ultimate plan to take out Jack. Samurai Jack’s top ten lists often exclude “The Princess and the Bounty Hunters.” Although underrated, the episode is thoroughly captivating from start to finish. The bounty hunters’ strong and distinct characterization also lifts the episode up significantly.
The princess, the leader of the bounty hunters, establishes a plan in which the group will coordinate their attacks to subdue Jack and, ultimately, capture him. However, the plan backfires and Jack successfully turns each of the bounty hunter’s skills to his advantage. The final fight scene is less than a minute long but emphasizes Jack’s strength and speed. The episode showcases just how powerful Jack has become. Through careful pacing, incredible suspense, and a surprise ending, “The Princess and the Bounty Hunters” earns its spot on this list.
6. Jack & The Traveling Creatures
In season three of Samurai Jack, Genndy Tartakovsky really started to let us see all the facets of the bizarre future world that is Aku. The episodes where we were thrust into unfamiliarity and strange territory with Jack proved to be some of the most enjoyable. In “Jack and the Traveling Creatures,” the viewer sees Jack travel through odd, prehistoric landscapes by sea, air, and land. Jack is, of course, seeking a time portal. Immediately, there was a sense that something was off. The creatures that guide Jack conspicuously whisper and stare at him. Eventually, they delivered him to his destination. However, in order to gain access to the living time portal, Jack must defeat an unbeatable warrior.
There were only a handful of moments in the show where Jack actually lost. The majority of episodes displayed how unbeatable Jack was. However, “Jack and the Traveling Creatures” was the first time where Jack lost in single combat. Up to this point, Jack had only been beaten by being overwhelmed or tricked by Aku. The episode is great because Jack’s defeat is credible. He hangs tough, but the mysterious blue guardian is ultimately too powerful even for Jack. Best of all, the ending has a twist. As the blue guardian is about to land a final blow, the portal stops him and displays a future in which Jack is king of the dystopian future. Sparing him, the guardian mutters that it is not Jack’s time, “not yet.”
5. The Four Seasons Of Death
Yet another of the fantastic episodes that aired as part of the season four finale block, “The Four Seasons of Death” shows us a year into Jack’s life. In each season, Jack must battle an element of nature. The first story depicts Jack fighting sand monsters in the desert. Finding that his sword cannot harm them, Jack eventually makes peace. Then, an inaudible, sharp-toothed scientist is shown laboring over a poisonous concoction he intends to deposit in a water well.
Unfortunately, Jack arrives at the cistern and, well, the monstrous scientist ends up dying. In winter, we see ice giants painstakingly crafting an indestructible sword; however, Jack easily destroys it with his, emphasizing the sword’s magical abilities.
I won’t lie, the episode’s final segment is what ranks it so highly. Jack is lured into a tranquil and relaxing spring paradise by a seemingly benevolent sprite. Jack quickly discerns that all is not as it seems when he continues to have visions of Aku. When he attempts to leave, the sprite forces him to stay. Eventually, he escapes, but the episode lingers on the sprite’s growing grin as Jack flees the barren, thorny illusion. When this episode was released, it was clear that Tartakovsky had become a master of telling great Jack stories. The episode’s small details and clever endings are topped one after another, culminating in a compelling, well-paced, and incredibly well-written antepenultimate episode.
4. The Birth Of Evil
By season three, viewers were definitely itching to discover Aku’s backstory. We had known Jack’s since the first episode, but where did Aku come from? Why was he so powerful? And why could only the sword harm him? Well, “The Birth of Evil” answered those questions beyond fan expectations. The idea that Aku had been around since prehistoric times and was once a part of a much larger evil and shapeshifting dark entity from space was incredibly original.
Not only this, but we also got an explanation for why Jack’s sword was so powerful: it was forged by Odin, Ra, and Vishnu of course! This Samurai Jack episode was truly groundbreaking in terms of its slow-paced storytelling, elements of magical realism, and a rather graphic finale that certainly pushed the boundaries of children’s television. The episode’s trailblazing efforts on behalf of cartoon animation culminated in a primetime Emmy win for best-animated program.
3. Jack & The Spartans
One of the best parts of the future of Aku was that it was more of a hodgepodge, Land of the Lost combination of various cultures and societies from all over time and space. Tartakovsky utilizes this diversity in almost every episode of the series. One of the best instances was when Jack stumbled upon a group of Spartans ferociously engaged in a mere hundred-year war with a seemingly limitless army of machines. The story is compelling precisely because of the soulless and easily disposable machines: the Spartans’ skill and strength is vastly superior to the machines’ but their vast numbers make a victory impossible.
With Jack’s entrance, the Spartans decide to attack the mechanical beast that spawns the infinite army. The spider-like machine head is both terrifying and unnervingly silent, making for a spectacular fight scene. Jack throws himself in front of the exploding machine giant to save the Spartan king and is presumed dead. In a pre-credits scene, Jack is revealed to have survived. It is precisely Jack’s nature to always put others above himself. When Jack meets equals who are willing to do the same for him, the result is one of the series’ top episodes.
It was a tough call to put this episode at number two. Most fans would argue that this was the best episode of Samurai Jack and the arguments would be completely valid. The revival series did not mess around with needless plot devices. Apparently from the first episode, Tartakovsky showed the odds were stacked against Jack; but still talking about Jack. He couldn’t die, right? “XCIII” made the audience wonder if Jack could really face the Daughters of Aku and live. The showdown between the two encompasses nearly the entire episode, and it was epic.
The episode was interspliced with scenes depicting a lone white wolf facing off against a band of three large, blood-thirsty tigers. The wolf, like Jack, ultimately prevails, but the battle is costly. The final closing shot of the wolf bleeding out perfectly compliments Jack’s own narrow escape and injury from the Daughters of Aku. Tartakovsky also hand-picked “The Ecstasy of Gold” from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly soundtrack to use as background music while the Daughters search for Jack. When the episode aired, it was clear all the elements had come together perfectly and fans got one of the best Jack episodes of the whole series.
1. Jack Under The Sea
At the end of the day, Samurai Jack has two main characters: Jack and Aku. What makes a good Jack story is having those two characters interact in some way, adding in a bizarre setting that only could exist in a cartoon, and meeting supporting characters who are strong enough to help that story. In “Jack Under the Sea,” we got all of that. The episode is filled with twists and turns. First, Jack ventures underwater to find, you guessed it, a working time portal.
Then, he meets the strange, amphibious creatures known as the Triseraquins. Eventually, the entire journey is revealed to be a ruse orchestrated by Aku. The Triseraquins turn on Jack in exchange for their freedom. But when Aku refuses to honor his end of the deal, a massive underwater battle ensues. The resulting final confrontation between Jack and Aku is possibly the series’ best.
“Jack Under the Sea” is beautifully animated and written from start to finish. We get a myriad of neon lights and flashes when first introduced to the Tiseraquin’s underwater city, several rather terrifying incarnations of Aku, and an appetizing array of sushi. The episode also does a great job capitalizing on the strength of supporting characters. The Triseraqunis (modeled after Sean Connery, Ringo Starr, and Alec Guinness) are already fascinating, three-dimensional characters.
When Jack plays on their honorable nature to set him free and face Aku, their characterization becomes stronger than most any other guest-star we’ve seen in the Jack-verse thus far. “Jack Under the Sea” is Genndy Tartakovsky at the height of his power. It’s episodes like this that transcend the medium of cartoons and inspire people to pursue animation and writing. All I can say is, thank you, Samurai Jack.