Samurai Jack remains one of the finest pieces of visual, action-oriented storytelling ever put to screen. Even though we had to wait 13 years to see the end of Jack’s story, it was definitely worth the wait. Now, Adult Swim—perhaps knowing we’re all looking for things to binge watch these days—has added the entire five season run of Samurai Jack to stream for free! That’s 62 episodes of amazing battles and true heroism. But what if you don’t want to watch the whole thing again? What if you just want to watch the essentials? Thank goodness for Genndy Tartakovsky, you guys!
During press for the final season of Samurai Jack, I asked the creator which episodes are the most essential of the original run. These will help fans who want to take an abbreviated journey into Jack’s history. Tartakovsky ultimately named nine episodes that end up being both his favorite and the ones that “are the purest… and execute the style, the idea of Jack most successfully.” And it’s not just he who believes so; evidently most fans tend to agree on the same batch of favorites. “Everybody tends to love the same ones. There are these iconic ones that everybody refers to.”
So, let’s dive in and take a chronological look at the creator-approved episodes (multi-part stories count as one episode) of Samurai Jack.
Season 1, Episode 1-3 – “The Premiere Movie”
I did a retrospective series all about the first season of Samurai Jack (it was called Samurai reJacked, go read it!) and the first three episodes, which were originally shown together as a single movie, are perhaps still some of my favorites. In just three episodes it introduced a) the character of Jack; b) his plight and struggle against the villainous Aku; c) the new, insane future world he now inhabits; and d) the fact that (with his magic sword) he’s a real badass. The action sequences in these episodes are as intricate and frenetic as any they’d ever do and it really gets you hyped for what adventures await. As Genndy Tartakovsky says, “You can watch the first three episodes and get a sense for the whole series.”
Season 1, Episode 7 – “Jack and the Three Blind Archers”
Few episodes ever captured the raw visual storytelling of this one, where Jack learns about a magical wishing well guarded by three supposedly unbeatable archers. They’re blind, but they have unmatched hearing. This episode has almost no dialogue and is notable for its striking snow-white setting and brilliant use of silence. It shows off the prowess of Jack and that not all the threats he faces are hulking robotic bugs. A truly landmark episode.
Season 1, Episode 8 – “Jack Versus Mad Jack”
Another truly gorgeous and simple episode, this one proves that Aku will go to almost any length to destroy Jack—even pitting him against a furious duplicate version of himself. Another episode that’s mainly one battle for the whole episode, “Jack versus Mad Jack” will have thematic resonance in the new season, even if it’s more than just Jack on Jack action. Look at those amazing, almost comic-book-panel split screens!
Season 2, Episode 6 – “Jack Remembers the Past”
For spending as much time with Jack as we do in the series (I mean, like, almost every minute of every episode, on average) we don’t get to learn too much about him. His life in feudal Japan was immediately snubbed out when he was sent to the future; the anachronism of an ancient man fighting futuristic foes and helping aliens just quickly became what Jack’s life was. But in the sixth episode of the second season, Jack happens across the land from which he came, and remembers back hundreds of years (only a couple for him) to what growing up was like, learning from his father and mother, and reveling in childhood. This is what Jack wants to get back to, and we can all hope he does in season 5.
Season 3, Episode 4 – “Jack and the Zombies”
Most of what Jack fights in the course of the series are robots–mostly because, well, it’s a kid’s show and you can’t have your hero slice up real flesh and blood people all the time. But season 3 offered a lot of interesting changes, and actually a fair amount of horror-based adventures. Jack fighting a graveyard of Aku-reanimated undead is a great wrinkle. The episode is very dark and has a distinctive monochrome color palette, which makes Jack stand out like a beam of white light. Oh, and great action as always.
Season 3, Episode 11-12 – “The Birth of Evil”
The show focuses on Jack’s past often, but now we get to look at the history of the unspeakable evil known as Aku. This two-parter, the penultimate of season 3, explored the origin of the show’s horrendous, and weirdly comedic, villain. We find out Aku terrorized the Earth all the way from the days of the dinosaurs onward. It also explores how the gods Odin, Ra, and Rama (from three different belief structures, mind you!) banded together to forge the magic sword that is the only thing that can hurt Aku, and how it was bestowed upon the Emperor, who kept it in the family until Jack finally grew up to wield it. I love lore, and it’s so cool that they waited nearly three full seasons to give us any sense of how long the evil of Aku has been around.
Season 4, Episode 1 – “Samurai Versus Ninja”
It’s a shame the final season of the original run had such a sporadic release schedule. No more than four new episodes ever aired in successive weeks from June 2003 to September 2004. But each of those episodes had something amazing to offer. The premiere episode went down as one of the coolest and most visually striking episodes they ever did, and that’s saying something. A ninja has trained extensively to be able to take on Jack, and when they finally do, the screen turns completely black-on-white or white-on-black, in a very “Spy vs Spy” kind of way. Genndy Tartakovsky told us people always talk to him about this fight. “Forget the episode, people refer to just that fight time and time again.”
Season 4, Episode 2 – “Robo-Samurai Versus Mondo Bot”
What was I just saying? Season 4 had some truly excellent episodes, and with it so close to the end, they had to have a Gundam-esque giant robot battle, right? Tiny, terrified robots inhabiting the sewers of Andromeda ask Jack to enter and pilot a giant samurai robot to take on a marauding bad guy giant robot that’s been rampaging the city surface. It’s just as badass as it sounds.
Season 4, Episode 11 – “Tale of X9”
And finally, we have an episode that, two episodes before the unplanned ending of the show in 2004, was a real break in the narrative form. X9 is the last in an experimental X-class robot series. His creators gave him emotions and for years he lived a life away from fighting. He even fell in love with a local gal. But Aku comes calling, forcing X9 to take on one last job…take out the samurai known as Jack. This episode is a love letter to hard boiled fiction and film noir; following a different character is both refreshing and tragic. I mean, we all know who will win the fight…
Images: Cartoon Network