Last week’s episode of Samurai Jack was an emotional one. “Jack and the Warrior Woman” found our stoic hero finally opening up to, and even becoming enamored of, a mysterious and formidable woman who aids him in his long search for a gem that holds the secret to time travel, only to be utterly defeated and deflated when it’s revealed she’s actual Aku himself in disguise.
For Episode VII, “Jack and the Three Blind Archers,” the show returns to its action-packed, largely-dialogue-free episode structure, and it’s got one of the coolest (literally) settings and premises of the whole show so far. Really, every episode could be that.
This episode mostly takes place in a snow-covered forest, and it looks really good. By and large, I’ve decided anything that takes place in a snowy landscape is going to be something I enjoy. I should list some? Great! The Empire Strikes Back, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Doctor Zhivago, Reindeer Games… maybe not one of those. At any rate, we’ve seen Jack now in just about every setting except the snow, and for an episode all about using your other senses besides sight, about listening to the stillness around you, a blanket of snow is certainly helpful.
The episode begins not in the snow, but with a massive army of robotic vikings marching through the forest in summertime along with huge tanks and other such machinery. It’s a long trek toward wherever they’re going, and there’s a lot of time setting up just how huge and ominous this army is. Sitting in the tank is the lone organic life form among them — a large viking dude with red hair.
Eventually, the army reaches a single stone tower with parapets at the top. As they inch nearer, a barrage of red arrows rains down upon them, destroying every single one of the soldiers, save the human. It’s a slaughter. Probably a good thing the creators made the army all robots or, ooh BABY, the blood.
At this point, we find out that the story of the decimation is being relayed by the Viking lord to a man in a bar. Jack is sitting quietly at the bar, listening intently. He learns that the tower possess a wishing well that can grant one wish to anyone who can reach it. Jack immediately knows this is where he has to go. We learn that the bar is actually aboard a ship, and that the lord has become a lowly deck-swabber. The Viking lord points out the window to a small island and say that is where the tower is. Jack ignores the warning and takes a small boat to the now-snowy island. (Can an island in the middle of an ocean that has large trees on it get snowy? Oh, right, it’s a cartoon.)
Jack walks past the very foreboding image above and eventually makes it to the clearing in which the tower resides, but the second he steps on foot into it, an arrow lands right at this foot. He tries the other foot, and arrows land in between his sandaled toes. He gets more brazen, and this leads to more arrows fired. He hides behind a tree, narrowly escaping more arrows. He tests the waters by taking his hat off and waving it, but nothing happens. He drops the hat and when it hits the ground, the arrows destroy it. Jack puts two and two together and realizes the archers are hunting based on sound and not vision. He goes to sit in a waterfall and meditate.
We then get a flashback to Jack’s time learning from Shaolin monks in China, and a lesson whereupon Jack was forced to be blindfolded and dodge and counter various attacks. He takes his blindfold off angrily and says it cannot be done. But, of course, it can be done, and the master of the temple tells him to use all of his senses as a weapon, not just his eyes.
So Jack decides to do this. He removes most of his clothing (I guess to be in tune with his sense of being butt-ass cold?) and makes a blindfold out of a piece of cloth. The screen goes dark and the sounds of things begin to fade in. Then one of the coolest things in the episode happens: images start to appear over the black as sounds of deer foraging, birds flapping their wings, wind blowing through leaves, and eventually even individual snow flakes falling and shattering, fill Jack’s head. This is an awesome way to visually depict Jack’s heightened auditory sense. This show never ceases to innovate.
It’s then time to test his mettle again. Still blindfolded and beloinclothed, Jack and his sword make a dash through the clearing, listening for the sounds of arrows as the three strange, kind of Anubis-looking archers bend their ears in all different directions, searching for the noise. They almost get him about a million times before he gets to the tower itself and manages to climb up and jump upward, landing near the center of the pillar. All three archers spin around and fire, the arrows converging on Jack’s head, but he is able to duck and the arrows glance off each other, hitting each of the archers. With a shock of electricity, their visages fade away to reveal three long-necked humanoid people.
They say Jack has freed them from their curse and he can have the wishing well as he sees fit. He is about to make the wish when one of the freed archers says that Jack should be wary, because every wish has a price. They had wished to be the greatest warriors on Earth and were changed into the blind and unstoppable bodyguards they had been for so long. Jack grits his teeth, knowing once again his quest is not over, and he uses the wish and his sword to destroy the well and its trickery. He walks back toward his boat while the warriors praise his skill and nobility.
Another defeat through victory for our friend Jack, but at least this time he was able to help some people. I feel like I’m saying this a lot, but this is an episode that is gorgeous to look at, narratively innovative, and uses stillness to build tension. And silence! Each little sound becomes important when you remove as many attention-drawing sounds as possible. So few animated films or TV shows actually use silence or lack of movement to make a point. The action herein is unique thus far for the series, and it feels like the best meld of old Kung Fu movies and mythology. It’s really just wonderful. There’s got to be a bad episode of this show, right? I mean, just law of averages?
Next week, Jack faces his greatest challenge yet: an evil copy of himself! It’s “Jack versus Mad Jack” next time. Let me know how you like this column so far in the comments below!
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!