clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Samurai Jack season 5 Courtesy Cartoon Network

Filed under:

Samurai Jack: The essential episodes

Your guide to catching up on the animated masterpiece

Jack is back.

After 13 years, Samurai Jack is coming back to televisions everywhere with a fifth season that promises to wrap up the journey of the foolish samurai warrior wielding a magic sword, once and for all. Whether you’re an old fan looking to refresh your memory of the series before the new season hits on March 11, or someone who’s curious what all the buzz is about, this post should help.

Samurai Jack follows the adventures of a lone samurai warrior, stranded in the future, seeking a way to return to his native time period. Jack isn’t even his real name, just the slang that was thrown his way shortly after he arrived in the time period. The show takes place in a variegated, dystopian future Earth: a planet filled with aliens as well as recognizable human cultures, monstrous creatures as well as recognizable earth animals, magic as well as robots — lots and lots of robots.

Jack wields his father’s magic katana, the only weapon capable of harming the shapeshifting master of darkness — and overlord of this future earth — Aku. When Jack stepped forth to oppose Aku in the past, Aku flung him into the future, counting on the fact that he would be all-powerful before he had to reckon with the samurai again.

Jack seeks to return to the past and undo Aku’s future, but his compassionate and righteous nature leads him to offer aid to any who need it, sometimes to the detriment of his larger mission. Aku’s goals are to kill the samurai at all costs — and to destroy any means he might find of returning to the past. This push and pull between the show’s hero and villain fuel most of Samurai Jack’s 22-minute episodes (and a few two- and three-parters). Jack travels the world searching for time portals and wishing gems, doing good wherever he is needed, while Aku’s minions and the evil wizard himself dog Jack’s every step.

That said, Samurai Jack doesn’t really have a continuity, per se. Jack never ends an episode closer to the end of his quest than he was when it started. Episodes can be watched in practically any order, and there are no recurring characters other than Jack and Aku (with one single, memorable exception). Which makes it the perfect series for a Watch or Skip list — there’s no overarching narrative, just 40-some standalone stories, and it’s all available on Hulu.

The appeal of Samurai Jack was never in dense plotting or cliffhanger endings. It was in watching a team of writers and story-boarders craft a perfect samurai movie, trippy magical interlude, noir detective story or epic historical battle in only 22 minutes of set up, payoff, and resolution — often with virtually no dialogue. It was in watching a team of animators push the boundaries of the show’s hand-painted backgrounds and minimalist design to glorious lengths. Samurai Jack had the sort of deliberately slow pacing, stylized design and highly choreographed action sequences rarely seen in Western action, Western animated action, or Western animated action television.

Here’s what to watch and what to skip in Samurai Jack

Cartoon Network

The Premiere Movie (S1:E1-E2)

Samurai Jack premiered on Cartoon Network in 2001 with a 90-minute spot, showing the first three episodes of the series — “The Beginning,” “The Samurai Called Jack” and “The First Fight” — back to back. This is the place to start with the series, covering Jack’s origin story, his childhood training and his banishment to the future.

But you can skip S1:E3, “The First Fight.” It opens with a very cute training montage full of talking dogs, but a huge chunk of the episode is devoted to a slow and repetitive fight between Jack and a horde of robotic beetle warriors. This is something of a hallmark Samurai Jacks first season: The show’s flare for dramatic staging and pacing is undeniable, but once Jack actually comes down to trading blows with an opponent, the fight scenes are unremarkable.

This improves greatly over the course of the series, and there’s no reason to subject yourself to it now. “The First Fight” ends in the same way every other episode of Samurai Jack ends: with Jack walking off into the sunset, neither further or closer to his goal.

Cartoon Network

Jack, the Woolies and the Chritchellites (S1:E4)

Here, we have an introduction to the purest form of a Samurai Jack story in the show’s first stand-alone episode. Jack encounters a strange new culture and place, finds something wrong there and rights it, forging a new friend along the way — only to leave them behind as he continues on his lonely journey.

Jack and the Three Blind Archers (S1:E7)

Most cartoon shows of its era waited at least a season or two before doing their first no dialogue episode. Samurai Jack barely has any dialogue to begin with, and in its second stand-alone episode it goes even further — an episode whose climactic battle completely lacks any sound.

Jack vs. Mad Jack (S1:E8)

After setting up its main rivalry so spectacularly in its opening, it actually takes Samurai Jack until its ninth episode to directly involve Aku again. The episode follows the evil wizard essentially pulling Jack’s id out of him and making a Jack-shaped assassin out of it.

Voice actor Phil LaMarr cited this specific episode as the place he went to when crafting an older, wearier Jack for the new season, so that alone makes it worth a rewatch.

Jack and the Scotsman (S1:E11)

Cartoon Network

Against the quiet, un-talkative samurai, place Samurai Jack’s only recurring character: the loud, motormouthed Scotsman. He has a machine gun for a peg leg.

“Jack and the Scotsman” is an old story: Two dissimilar warriors meet, they fight, and when they are handcuffed together they must work together to defeat a larger enemy, while bickering the entire way. Show creator Genndy Tartakovsky has confirmed that the Scotsman will return in the final season of the show, so you should brush up on his appearances — the closest thing the show ever has to a continuity.

Aku’s Fairy Tales (S1:E13)

“Aku’s Fairy Tales” is a glimpse into an alternate universe where Samurai Jack was not renewed after its initial 13-episode order. With no way to know whether they’d get to extend Jack’s adventures beyond one season or not, the folks behind the show managed to create an episode with all the catharsis of a full series wrap up — but without actually wrapping anything up.

It’s also just very funny to watch Aku attempt to rewrite fairy tales so that he is the world’s savior — as a group of bored children pester him to tell them about their greatest hero, the samurai called Jack.

Cartoon Network

Jack Learns to Jump Good (S2:E1)

Jack is unable to reach a time portal because he cannot jump high enough, but a tribe of benevolent and peaceful primates train him in their ways of jumping good.

I promise you, this basic plot is one of the most delightful and compelling episodes of Samurai Jack.

Jack and the Scotsman II (S2:E4)

The Scotsman returns.

Jack Remembers the Past (S2:E6)

In his travels, Jack discovers the ruins of his now-ancient civilization and his childhood home, and we are treated to several heartwarming vignettes of Jack’s adventures as a child — a tiny, innocent version of our samurai, before Aku destroyed his home and he spent his adolescence training to defeat him. Also, there’s totally a cameo from Ogami Ittō and Daigorō from Lone Wolf and Cub.

Jack is Naked (S2:E11)

What it says on the tin. A white rabbit steals Jack’s clothing and he spend the entire episode running naked through a strange wonderland, trying to get them back.

Cartoon Network

Jack and the Spartans (S2:E12)

Samurai Jack’s first Emmy-winning episode — and one of its only episodes to be entirely letterboxed into widescreen — is a better reimagining of the Battle of Thermopylae than either Frank Miller or Zack Snyder have been able to produce.

Plus, it has robot minotaurs on tank treads.

Jack’s Sandals (S2:E13)

The elements of Jack’s ensemble are simple and few — his sword, his nagaki, the fundoshi beneath it (to preserve his modesty when the nagaki inevitably gets trashed by an enemy), his straw hat and his geta sandals — and yet Samurai Jack uses every part of the wardrobe buffalo.

How else do you explain a charming episode that revolves entirely around Jack’s geta being destroyed by a roving biker gang? The samurai’s search for new footwear eventually leads him to a family who, though they live in the future, lovingly preserve a culture he finds very familiar. Just like the close of the first season of the show, “Jack’s Sandals” gives us a welcome look at what life is like for normal people at “peace” in Aku’s world — and how the wandering samurai warrior’s heroics proceed him.

Chicken Jack (S3:E1)

Cartoon Network

In this episode, a wizard turns Jack into a rooster for no reason — and he is scooped up by the unscrupulous boss of an underground robot animal fighting ring and forced to compete without hope of escape — until he bumps into the wizard again and is turned human for, again, really no reason. Then the episode ends.

It’s amazing.

Jack and the Zombies (S3:E4)

Jack and the Zombies is remarkable for being the only episode in the four original seasons of Samurai Jack in which Jack fights and destroys a horde of something other than robots.

Also Aku steals Jack’s sword, in order to destroy it so that he will be truly invincible, so that’s pretty high stakes.

Jack and the Traveling Creatures (S3:E7)

Samurai Jack’s second Emmy-winning episode is also the closest the show has ever come to revealing Jack’s eventual fate — until now. Its a much watch, if only to see whether Genndy Tartakovsky has really known how all of this was going to end since 2003.

Cartoon Network

Jack and the Creature (S3:E7)

Jack finds an adorable but somewhat infuriating creature that begins to follow him on his travels.

Also, that creature is clearly Totoro, from My Neighbor Totoro.

Jack and the Haunted House (S3:E9)

Samurai Jack has its standard episodes, and it has its wild divergences in tone and genre. In “Jack and the Haunted House,” that divergence is the ghost story, and the show plays upon that theme as well as it does everything else — and with a brand new this-episode-only art style, as well.

The Birth of Evil (S3:E11-12)

Samurai Jack began with a nearly complete history of Jack’s life. At the end of its third season, we finally get an origin for its antagonist, Aku. In the two installments of “The Birth of Evil,” we find out how Jack’s sword came to be, how his father managed to defeat Aku a first time. We also learn about how his parents resolved to create at global network of enlightened warriors to train their son to defeat Aku, should he ever rise again.

Samurai vs. Ninja (S4:E1)

Cartoon Network

Ask me to show you a visually arresting episode of Samurai Jack that pushes “simplistic design” and “fight scene staging” to an incredible zenith, and I’ll put on “Samurai vs. Ninja.” It would take about fifty words to describe the visual trick of this episode, when you could just watch it and be amazed when you realize exactly how things are about to go down.

Just watch it.

The Scotsman Saves Jack: Part I & II (S4: E6-7)

Finally, Samurai Jack’s only recurring secondary character gets his own two-parter. After finding an amnesiac Jack, the Scotsman sets out on a quest to find what caused his heroic friend’s memory loss and cure it — all while defending a defenseless Jack from all of Aku’s bounty hunters who still want to kill him.

Seasons of Death (S4:E10)

“Jack faces four different menaces on different seasons of the year,” reads the Wikipedia description of this episode. It’s a simple sentence that belies a masterfully crafted 22-minutes of television — an achievement recognized with the show’s final (so far) Emmy. The four vignettes of “Seasons of Death” are each a full episode of Samurai Jack in microcosm. Each one is themed to a season of the year, each one shows Jack triumphing over an obstacle, and each subtly showcases a different aspect of Jack’s heroism and the tonality of the show overall.

Cartoon Network

Tale of X9 (S4:E11)

“Tale of X9” is the only episode of Samurai Jack in which Jack is not the main character, and one of the most extreme breaks in structure the show has ever done (and two episodes before it would end, no less).

It’s a narration-heavy noir detective story set in the Samurai Jack universe, where our “Sam Spade” is a robot detective named X9 who is blackmailed out of retirement by Aku for one last hit.

Think of this as the Brick of Samurai Jack. What happens to a Samurai Jack story when the assassin trying to kill Jack is our hero? I won’t spoil the ending.

Jack and the Baby (S4:E13)

If you’re expecting the final episode of Samurai Jack’s fourth season to be something of significance to its overall story, reign in those assumptions. “Jack and the Baby” is simple: Jack has to take care of a baby. The beating heart of this episode is Jack retelling the story of the Japanese folk hero Momotarō, but it doesn’t really come together as a whole until the punchline of its final moment.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Patch Notes

A weekly roundup of the best things from Polygon