When re-watching and reviewing any long television series, it has to be about the journey and not the destination. Luckily, when we’re on the topic of Samurai Jack, pretty much the whole show is about the journey. After three absolutely stellar, stylistically interesting introductory episodes, the long journey of Jack to find the evil that is Aku begins in earnest with the fourth episode.
“Jack, the Woolies, and the Chritchellites,” is a cumbersome title for an episode that doesn’t achieve much narratively, but is nonetheless quite fun to watch. It’s Samurai Jack, for gosh sakes; how could it not be?!
Despite the futuristic setting, which can allow for any kind of storyline, Samurai Jack is a very simple and timeless TV show. It’s about a hero who is Absolute Good, meaning he’s noble of spirit and pure of heart and will only fight when he must. Jack fights against different forms of evil, corruption, or cruelty, in his search for Absolute Evil, personified by Aku.
However, he’s not going to find Aku any time soon, and will therefore walk the Earth, getting into adventures and helping the helpless along the way. (The wanderer archetype was for a time one of the most common in TV, showing up in shows like Kung Fu, Highway to Heaven, and Quantum Leap to name but a few.) “Jack, the Woolies, and the Chritchellites” is an important episode for Samurai Jack because it establishes that Jack is needed all over the future where Aku’s evil is law and everybody could use his help. Aside from the opening credits which has Aku narrating the premise of the show, the Lord of Sadness does not appear at all, save a brief shot at the end.
Jack is in some kind of jungle. We have no idea where it is or how he got here, but we can assume he walked. This is a very important motif; Jack’s wandering doesn’t seem to follow any real path. He gets directional help from people occasionally, but to the audience everything is very vague.
We also quickly find out that Jack hasn’t eaten in awhile and he sets up a snare trap to try to get supper, which is a wild boar. Before the pig steps in the snare, it’s startled away by a large ruckus which ends up being a huge furry creature being chased by little guys riding other large furry creatures. The beast steps in the snare and Jack is dragged along, stopping the creature mere inches before it throws itself and Jack off a cliff. The little guys (all of whom have Tom Kenny’s voice) are grateful and they begin zapping the runway beast with electrified tridents. They invite Jack to their camp for dinner. Despite Jack’s reticence at the treatment of the beast, he agrees to go back with them.
Along the way, the general of the little guys, who is only recognizable for having a yellow visor instead of a blue one, explains to Jack that the Woolies, as they call them, were once wild, bloodthirsty monsters who trampled and destroyed the Chritchellites’ (that’s the little guys) ancestral home, which they built up from nothing when they arrived. Arriving at the settlement, Jack is immediately aware that it looks very old, ancient even, more like ruins than a bustling city. All of the Woolies look sad and downtrodden while the Chritchellites laugh and eat. Jack mentions the cruelty but he’s met with “That’s what you humans do with — what do you call them? — horses.” Sick burn from the Chritchellites.
During dinner, Jack is “treated” to a show in which Chritchellites force the Woolies, through a lot of zapping, to dance and perform tricks, and when one doesn’t do it exactly right, his angry trainer begins zapping him mercilessly. It’s troubling to Jack to say the least. He walks over to the cage with the escaped Woolie and gives him a piece of fruit, petting him on the head and saying “You’re not so bad.”
As Jack walks away, the Woolie says “Help me,” which startles Jack, but before he can ask any questions, two Chritchellites descend on him and tell him to get out of here.
That night, Jack has a prophetic dream about fighting off Chritchellites in order to smash an orb that would cause the Woolies to be able to stand upright. This dream sequence, a shot from which is above, is a gorgeous piece of one-off animation. Very stylized and full of shadows, like the last episode.
Jack wakes up from his dream and is determined to figure out what’s going on. While the Chritchellites sleep, Jack goes to the cage and talks to the Woolie who responds and says that his people are trapped. Jack frees him and they walk to a giant holding area where the Woolies, each as sad looking as the next, sit. The caged Woolie has Jack walk up the stairs of a temple of some sort in the center, and in there Jack sees a very ancient old Woolie with glowing eyes. He explains to Jack what really happened.
The Woolies were a happy, peaceful, and artistic race who lived relatively secluded from the rest of the world. They didn’t know much about technology and had no use for it. All of that changed the day the Chritchellites landed from another planet and enslaved the Woolies with their superior technology. They have been tortured and made to do demeaning tasks ever since. The Elder Woolie tells Jack he must smash the orb that powers their electronic weapons in order to free them. Jack, ever the hero, sets about to do just that.
This quick flashback sequence is awesome, I think, simply because it letterboxes to an almost ridiculous degree. The series often does splits in frame or three strips either horizontal or vertical in order to add drama; here, we only get a thin strip of action, but that’s all we need. It only takes up a third of the actual screen but it gives us a lot of color and a lot of motion. I’m not sure if it’s meant to signify the narrowness of history or perhaps memory, or if it’s just a way to let us know we’re watching something different and special.
At any rate, as you might expect, Jack is able to free his friend who helps him smash the orb and the Woolies all get up and start fighting their tormentors until the Chritchellites return to their spacecraft and leave. The Elder asks Jack if there’s anything he might want, and Jack says there is one thing. The Elder, who can see all, it seems, tells Jack that the path to Aku must take him north. Jack walks on.
This isn’t my favorite episode, but as I said, it’s an important one to establish that Jack is a hero who will fight any kind of wrong, not just specifically the wrong done by Aku, and that his adventures will take him all over the globe as he searches for his foe.
This is a straightforward story about one race enslaving another, like livestock, a nice way to call out ourselves for how we have historically treated animals in captivity, and it turns out exactly as you think it might. Still, it’s beautifully drawn and I could look at each frame all day, every day.
Next week, we’ll be talking about Episode V, entitled “Jack in Space.” I wonder what happens in that one.
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Follow his silliness on Twitter!