A few weeks ago, while stuck between stops on the N train (thanks, De Blasio) I used my smidge of cell reception to scroll. I came across an 8-second clip of a caveman waiting patiently to strike, which was followed by Genndy Tartakovsky’s PRIMAL.
Holy fucking shit. For those unfamiliar with Tartakovsky, he’s the creator of a show called Samurai Jack which from 2001-2004 aired on Cartoon Network. Wikipedia sums up its premise the best:
The series follows a young samurai who is cast into the future by the evil shape-shifting demon Aku mere moments before defeating the demon. He adopts the name Jack and continues his fight in the dystopian future ruled by Aku. Jack seeks to find a portal back to his time but is constantly thwarted by the demon’s forces. The series was left open-ended after the conclusion of the fourth season.
Open-ended indeed. It wasn’t until 13 years later that Tartakovsky decided to bless us with the fifth and final season of Jack, which was tonally also its darkest. As a 12-year-old watching Samurai Jack, I was always surprised by Cartoon Network making such a macabre choice in its programming.
The show used serenely hand-drawn landscapes and a vibrant color palette to disarm its audience and draw them into the closer and quieter moments with Jack that often dealt in very serious themes — death and isolation were its bread and butter.
Yet these topics and the environments they yielded are what made SJ’s brilliant action sequences possible, such as Jack versus the Shinobi. In Samurai Jack, Tartakovsky mastered keeping his audience off-balance.
Every episode he focused our attention on Jack walking the earth utterly alone. He made us feel this solitude via close-ups of his forlorn eyes and images of desolate landscapes, and just when we were adjusting to Jack’s isolation and despair, Tartakovsky would place him in a moment of peril. It worked like a charm every time. In Primal, he leans even further into this approach.
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Nothing forges a common bond quite like shared tragedy and there’s very little tragedy more traumatic than seeing your children being eaten.
This is how Tartakovsky creates an unspoken pact between Spear, the caveman, and Fang, the Tyrannosaurus rex. I say unspoken because in the many various battle cries, howling, scratching and general sounds of survival heard in this prehistoric Mad Max hellscape, there is not one actual bit of dialogue.
But yeah, Spear and Fang both get jumped by a gang of dinosaurs who destroy their families and cause them to seek revenge. It’s an absurd narrative, but because the pacing is so sudden, you’re caught off guard in what would otherwise be a foreseeable plot point.
What really impressed me about the pilot was something more unpredictable — a short-lived scene that couldn’t have been more than 45 seconds. After his family is murdered, Spear lets out a roar and chases off the dino gang. He’s left in anguish and slowly begins to ascend a cliffside.
By the time he’s peering off the edge and contemplating casting himself into the abyss, I found myself considering… “at what point in human evolution did the development of our emotional capacity become powerful enough to completely abandon our survival instinct?”
Primal is a fantastical piece to be sure, but Tartovsky does such an effective job of seamlessly oscillating between Spear’s savagery and vulnerability that it can sneak up on you even in these quieter moments. As with Samurai Jack, one of Tartovsky’s most potent tools here is his use of eyes.
On the other end of the spectrum, there were moments of violence so graphic they’d make Tarantino blush. Case in point: the moment when Spear crushes this dinosaur’s leg with a rock he randomly grabs. Complete with a robust bone-crushing and flesh-tearing sound production, Tartovsky makes you watch his newest venture between your fingers.
The first four episodes are available for critics, though thus far I’ve only seen the pilot. From what I’ve read, the first half of the season focuses on Spear and Fang surviving together and champions the importance of companionship in the face of intimidating odds. While there are no greater stakes than life and death (and in a show titled “Primal,” what were you expecting?), I can’t help but hope that the second half of the season introduces more nuance into Spear and Fang’s day-to-day.
While Samurai Jack was constantly under threat of death, the endgame was always the salvation of humanity. Jack helping the random unfortunate soul here and there served as microcosms of that idea, while not forcing their survival to be essential to his overall success.
This variance of stakes gave the audience room to breathe and for Jack to become a more fleshed-out character; one who was allowed to make a wrong decision without everything falling apart.
As characters who have already lost everything, Spear and Fang’s stakes seem solidified in one another’s survival and with little to no margin for error. I’m dubious of how invested an audience can remain on this single plot point for 10 episodes but thrilled to see Tartovsky try.