Genndy Tartakovsky is a genius who almost gets his due. He made Dexter’s Lab, the more awesome version of Star Wars: Clone Wars (cue the hate mail), Hotel Transylvania, and among the greatest 23 minutes of television, Korgoth of Barbaria. The latter is only not on this list because I acknowledge that it is only my particularly dark sense of humor that makes it amazing to me.
Despite all of those accomplishments, I’d argue his crowning achievement is Samurai Jack. It was a show that managed to create the least friction in a “fantasy kitchen sink” world, which is to say a world in which all mythologies are true, from Greek to Norse to Japanese. It was even more notable because it used all of these mythologies while taking place in a dystopian sci-fi future.
The villain, Aku (voiced by the late, great Mako), is an Elder God who was smote by Ra, Odin, and Vishnu at the beginning of creation until only a piece of him landed in Japan where he was brought to life by magic, then later conquered the world, turned it into a super-science based intergalactic empire, and endorsed a delicious sandwich shop.
That sentence was amazing to write.
Jack (real name unknown, voiced by Phil LaMarr) is a samurai who was sent from the past to the far future and wanders in search of ways to kill Aku/return to the past, depending on the writer’s needs. Because of such a vague premise in such a vague world, episodes could be almost anything, from deadly serious to childishly light-hearted, as long as Jack was there.
This episode is based on one of the most storied events in real-world history, the battle of Thermopylae. More specifically, this episode is a tribute to Frank Miller’s graphic-novel adaptation of the battle, 300. The events in real-life were that the Persian army was invading Greece, and 300 Spartans led by King Leonidas (along with thousands of other Greeks which got overlooked) met the forces at a narrow pass and managed to hold them off for several days despite being outnumbered at least 20 to 1 (depending on whose account you believe). But, ultimately, all of the Spartans were killed, the Persians conquered most of Greece before being kicked out about a year later, and there isn’t a definitive sign that the battle of Thermopylae had much of an impact on the course of that. Still, it’s a great story of a few taking on many and it remains a testament to the idea of military preparation and strategy being able to act as a force multiplier.
In this version, Jack is asked to assist the 300 Spartans against an army of robots in order to end a war which has been going on for 5 generations (referencing the first Persian invasion of Greece… I think). When Jack first sees the robots, they are shaped like Minotaurs and other creatures from classical mythology. Much like the Persians, they are almost innumerable, but they can only attack through a single, narrow, pass. Each day, the Spartans defend the pass, often at the cost of their own lives. When Jack arrives, and shows himself an incredible warrior, this version of Leonidas, Spartok (Daran Norris), decides to accompany Jack on a mission to go beyond the pass and try to destroy the source of the robots. As the episode progresses, the machines stop resembling mythical creatures and instead begin to resemble Skynet and other such robotic overlords from fiction, blending the mythologies of the modern and ancient world. It’s a small touch that adds a lot to the story. Ultimately, of course, Jack and Spartok conquer.
The overarching narration of the episode comes from the point of view of Spartok. However, unlike the actual battle of Thermopylae, Jack’s intervention allows the Spartans to survive the battle, and allows Spartok to tell the story on his deathbed to his family.
The ending is touching, to say the least, as the man relates how one stranger joined their battle “and made a difference.” By having it parallel a real event, the audience is even more aware of the difference made than the characters. Unlike most episodes, Aku had little to nothing to do with the plot. This is not Jack’s quest. Ultimately, he fought with the Spartans for no reason other than that it was the right thing to do. This episode stands as a testament to the idea that one person can make a difference, even if they don’t know it. They just need to try to do the right thing.
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