During my rewatch of the first season of Samurai Jack for this column, I’ve become increasingly aware of just how similar it is to Cowboy Bebop, not necessarily in terms of just style or influences, but in the way it completely changes genre and storytelling methods on a dime and yet still feel entirely like the show it’s always been. Reaching the penultimate episode of season one, you might think Genndy Tartakovsky and company had exhausted a lot of their tricks in one of the most visually interesting cartoons ever made, and yet…they haven’t at all.
In Episode XII, “Jack and the Gangsters,” the show decides to emulate 1940s crime movies and the ever-popular heist flick. This show, I’m telling ya.
One of the best things about the series is that, once the future world is established, any and all things can be used and make sense. The fact that the baddies are often robots doesn’t necessarily mean the episode will be a straight-up science fiction narrative; that’s really just so Jack can hack things up with his sword without killing living beings. In the very first story, if you’ll remember, Jack helps talking dogs, and in another he fights robot insects — this show can literally be anything, so why not an ep with zoot suiters, jazz clubs, elemental sentinels, and a mystical crystal that can control and produce water? By the twelfth episode, we don’t even blink about that.
“Jack and the Gangsters” begins with a group of robots in pinstripe suits and fedoras entering a jazz club followed by a figure in white robes (guess who!). They sit at the bar whilst a singer began to croon. The bartender darts his eyes toward a table where a group of diminutive ’30s-style gangsters sit. This plays out exactly like a thousand gangster movies we’ve seen. The robots then stand up and take aim at the table with futuristic Tommy Guns, only to be stopped from killing the men by Jack, who does his trademark swinging, slashing, and otherwise destroying of the robots. Afterwards, the bouncers and bartender of the place ask him to leave at gunpoint, but the head gangster, whose life was saved, tells them to “cool it, see?”
This gangster is drawn and voiced to mimic one of the great gangster movie actors of all time, Edward G. Robinson, right down to his sneering and saying “See?” at the end of every sentence. Such a genius and hilarious touch, and one that probably wouldn’t play to younger audiences but, like the show always does, it’s a reference there for cinephiles. The gangster introduces Jack to the other members of his gang (with names like Shifty and stuff like that) and invites Jack to join them. Jack asks about the nature of this “gang” and when the answer begins to lean toward criminal activity, Jack declines firmly. But when the gangster mentions they make regular visits to Aku’s castle, Jack changes his tune. See?
Before being made a full member of the gang, Jack has to prove himself. He is given the task of teaching a lesson to someone who was behind on protection — an old man who runs a humane society for wayward puppies and kittens. Yeah, for reals. They want him to blow up the shelter, and that is technically what Jack does. However, in actuality, he told the old man about the bomb and helped to get the man and the animals out prior to the explosion. He is a hero after all. That was all it took, though, and Jack is soon clad in a striped suit of his own and a sharp fedora. His name becomes “Jackie the Blade.”
But Jack doesn’t have to pretend to be a gangster for long — the gangster leader has concocted a honey of a heist and only Jack can carry it out. It seems that centuries ago, the Big Shot, Lord Aku, wanted a mystical jewel that could control water. It was, however, protected by a powerful being who was able to thwart Aku’s attempts to steal it. She put it deep inside a temple, which eventually became a giant skyscraper, surrounded by three elemental sentinels: Earth, Wind, and Fire. Not the funk group, but they may as well be. Jack agrees to the heist, knowing such a jewel would gain them an audience with Aku.
So begins a protracted and supremely awesome action sequence wherein Jack infiltrates the temple via a sewer and makes his way to the room with the jewel. The three elementals then appear and begin their various attacks, which Jack dodges as best he could, looking awesome with his sword and suit. Unfortunately, there appears to be no way for him to beat them. However, ever the smarty pants, Jack is able to use their own powers against them, having Wind spin around the circular room, eventually sucking up Earth and Fire in a glob of elements. With that, Jack is able to retrieve the jewel and leave as the temple floods.
As expected, the gangsters are allowed an audience with Aku who could not have cared less about talking to them, but changes his mind when presented with the jewel. “How did this happen?!” Aku asks, and the lead gangster announces it was because of their new guy, Jackie. “Jackie?” The tall, shadowy figure steps forward and says, “I’m usually called Jack.” And then, it’s on like Donkey Kong, friends. Jack draws his sword and attacks Aku, and just as happened in the first episode, he very nearly defeats the evil lord, but before the final blow was struck, Jack is struck in the head by a blackjack.
Jack wakes up many hours later, in the gangsters’ hideout. They clocked him to keep him from killing Aku, thinking he’d just lost his mind, and tried to save his life. Little did they realize that this was Jack’s plan all along. He is sad and despondent, but apologizes to the gangsters for deceiving them, admonishes them for their criminal activities, and asks for the jewel, which one of the gangsters swiped before leaving the now-disappeared castle of Aku. However, the lead gangster asks if he might be the one to return the jewel to its rightful place, and Jack agrees. But that was pretty naive, since clearly the lead gangster merely wants to use the stone for himself to sell water. What a jerk.
This was a really fun and exciting episode, and got Jack the closest he’d yet come to finally stopping Aku. Naturally, the series kept going so he couldn’t have actually killed the Shogun of Sorrow, but it proved that Jack’s skills are more than a match for Aku’s trickery, if given a fair fight (which, let’s face it, is rarely the case). On top of the cool heist movie visuals, the episode also allowed composer James Venable to create some jazzy, big-band music for the fight scenes which really put you in the mind of something like Ocean’s Eleven or the original Thomas Crown Affair. Super cool.
Next week, it’s the final episode of Samurai Jack‘s first season, a bit of a standalone entitled “Aku’s Fairy Tales.” This week may have been the end of the first season arc, but it’s certainly not the end of the action. See you then!
Images: Cartoon Network
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!