We’re reaching the end of Samurai Jack‘s first season, and, with a couple of notable exceptions, it’s been a lot of awesome visuals and amazing action without being hampered too much with plot. In fact, plot sort of gets in the way a lot of the time. The general formula for these episodes seemed to be: Jack walks somewhere, Jack hears something or meets someone or sees some danger, Jack investigates, Jack gets involved and meets a bad guy, Jack hears the plight of the people and/or the cursed bad guy, Jack fights for freedom, Jack succeeds, Jack walks on. And you know what? It still works! Even though you can pretty much guess the beats of the story, Genndy Tartakovsky and company made the action and setting different and exciting each time. Case in point, Episode X – “Jack and the Lava Monster.”
My favorite thing about rewatching these episodes with a critical eye is that I’m starting to see how some of them are just exercises in color usage. There’s usually an over-arching color scheme going on in all of the episodes, a rich and vibrant tapestry on which all of the tableaux look particularly great. I’ve said it before, but this is a show that tried to look as much like a painting as possible, and usually it succeeded beyond measure. This episode was an exercise in Red. Makes sense, given it takes place in and around a volcano, huh? Even when they used red in previous episodes, it never quite looks like it does here, once again making each episode distinct. If one were to simply see a frame from the middle of one of these episodes, it’s very likely they’d be able to know exactly which one it came from.
The beginning of the episode, though, showed us the bleak and frigid tundra of SOMEWHERE. Jack has been in the snow before, but he never looked quite as cold as the wind here made him. As he walked, he heard a voice of some sort telling him to “Come,” which as you might imagine was off-putting to him. The first five or so minutes of the episode had Jack following the voice, passing loads of skeletons and ashen ground until finally reaching a mountain. If you guess this mountain was actually a volcano, you are right.
Once inside the volcano, the episode became all red all the time. Enormous traps made of collapsing rock and chomping jagged stone and steps that fall away into magma greeted Jack and, despite the voice continuing to beckon him further into the cavern, Jack wanted no part of it. The problem was, of course, that the exit kept collapsing behind him, making him unable to leave. One corridor had thousands of shards of quartz being shot back and forth and Jack was forced to take two ancient shields and make himself sort of a tank. Jack ran on, finding more and more charred and skeletal bodies, and all the while yelled to the unseen voice to show itself.
Finally, Jack reached the center and the king of this volcanic fortress showed himself. He was a giant warrior made of magma and rock. Jack refused to fight but was attacked and made to defend himself. After landing a blow on the creatures side, the Lava Monster turned and said to no one in particular that he’d finally found a worthy opponent.
After hearing that the Lava Monster needed the sportsmanship of a proper adversary, Jack promptly sheathed his sword and sat down, refusing to fight for such a stupid reason. Sport? Amusement? This is no reason to fight and kill. The Lava Monster then became confused and upset. He needed Jack, or someone, to fight him and he couldn’t just strike Jack down unarmed as that would be dishonorable. Here was where Jack, and the audience, learned that, like a lot of the baddies this season so far, the Lava Monster was cursed to be this way. From the ground, he unearthed a written history of his life before the curse which is depicted in animation made to look like scratching drawings on a rock.
The story was that he was once a warrior much like Jack, only of Norse decent. He defended a kingdom and all the people in it, until one day, a massive evil beast (which we see as Aku, of course) arrived and began laying the kingdom to waste. The warrior attempted to fight but was defeated. Instead of merely killing him, Aku cursed him to be perpetually frozen in a huge quartz crystal located inside a volcano. Over time, the warrior’s hatred built up until he was a magma creature but his soul was still cursed. The only way for a warrior to make it to Valhalla is through death in honorable combat, so he had for centuries beckoned warriors to his massive deathtrap to see if any could make it through and defeat him. This was all Jack needed to hear and he stood up and drew his sword again.
After another fight, Jack struck the Lava Monster in the gut and he began to glow. So happy was he that he was dying that he gladly dropped his sword. The spell was indeed broken and the rock prison in which he was trapped exploded, leaving a large, handsome Norseman in its place. As Jack marveled at the warrior, he began to age rapidly, finally able to die, eventually becoming a shriveled old man, lying in a giant fur cape, grinning from ear to ear as he was finally able to join his people.
As I said earlier, narratively, this episode is about on part with the majority of the other episodes, but it’s among the very best episodes visually speaking. This makes for an excellent companion piece with “Jack and the Three Blind Archers” episode, though I would still give the edge to that one for being so sparse, and so much about a theme. This is just Jack running through lava traps and fighting a big rock warrior. It’s a lot of fun, it’s got some badass moments, and while it doesn’t enrich or shake things up, it’s a solid (as a rock?) episode.
Next time, we’ll be talking about an episode that everybody loves, and proved so popular that it was given a sequel in the second season. Episode XI, “Jack and the Scotsman,” will be next time!
Images: Cartoon Network
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!