Primal: Last Year’s Best Cartoon

Increasingly it feels that a lot of good art gets lost in the shuffle of constant Capital C Content that comes out every day, and nothing in recent memory has suffered as much from that as last year’s Primal – a 5 part animated miniseries that aired on Adult Swim from October 7th to October 11th back last year. While it was watched by a legion of adult swim nerds and animation junkies, it really flew under the radar compared to everything else. So that’s why I’m writing this: to remind you to watch Primal, since it’s by far one of the best cartoons that aired last year. Of course, expect some light spoilers about the plot and themes of the show. 

Before I talk about the show, I feel I have to talk about director, Genndy Tartokovsky, who’s one of the biggest reasons that this show stands out. The Moscow-born director is, at this point, part of the old guard of animation directors working, and it’s pretty likely he made some of the favorite shows of your childhood. He created Dexters Lab, Samurai Jack (both the first 4 seasons and the much later 5th season-slash-sequel), the 2003 Clone Wars cartoon, and the underrated Sym-Bionic Titan, along with working on Powerpuff Girls as a co-director and producer. If you’re a kid reading this further in the future, he also did the Hotel Transylvania movies, which, as a future historical note, pioneered the use of 2D animation techniques in 3D, thus helping give rise to instant classics like Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse. He’s had a long career, but it’s felt like he’s been cast to the wayside with the death of action cartoons and the temporary, horrible period where Cartoon Network decided not to have any new cartoons.  After he directed the final season of Samurai Jack for Adult Swim, I was hoping that he would be able to helm a fully new show and really show his talents, which we got with Primal, a show that fully exhibits his strength as a director. To put it simply, he knows his craft, and he’s a master of it. He has a specific directorial style, where there’s plenty of quiet, introspective shots and a paucity of dialogue to put the attention to the composition and animation. Some entire Samurai Jack episodes were nearly silent, having a minimum of exposition and trusting the viewer to pay enough attention otherwise to get the picture. Meaning is carried through clear shots that are laid out perfectly, and an emphasis on using silhouettes to show what’s happening. And that’s what’s so special about Primal specifically, because it’s a silent cartoon that takes full advantage of this style. We’re shown what’s happening and what the emotional states of the characters are, instead of being told. The viewer is trusted to empathize with the characters and really take a walk in their, uh, caveman sandals. 

And fittingly, empathy is what Primal is all about. The show focuses on an unnamed caveman, referred to as “Spear” in the script, and a likewise unnamed T-Rex, known as “Fang”, as they are forced to band together to survive the countless horrors of the prehistoric world. The entire core of the show is showing how they rely on each other and empathize with each other, in spite of how alien both Spear and Fang are to each other. Over the 5 episodes of the series, we see exactly how their relationship goes from being merely an alliance of convenience to a true friendship as they overcome everything thrown at them. This is elevated by how it’s a silent cartoon, there’s a careful attention put towards every expression, pose, and non-dialogue vocalization to carry all of the feelings of the show. And that’s what makes it feel like such a human show, since we’re able to feel this for ourselves. Genndy trusts the viewers to pay attention, instead of condescending to the viewer with too much exposition. It’s a mature cartoon not in the sense that its filled with blood and swearing, but that it has real emotional stakes and trusts the viewer to follow along. 

All of this is however, just one element of why Primal deserves a watch. The other big element is the fact that Genndy is a master of action cartoons, and Primal has probably some of the best scenes of action that he’s done yet. Just conceptually, the show is awesome, and it follows through with some incredibly good action scenes that are arresting – something that we should all prize in this current era where you can count the number of western action cartoons on one hand. The direction is clear, with immaculately composed shots that communicate exactly what is happening. Being a cartoon airing on Adult Swim, Genndy has freedom to have more intense action than he did on his previous action cartoons, but shows a good deal of restraint with blood and gore, using it to help highlight the emotional stakes in each fight, rather than simply going to extremes as many other adult cartoons do. Fights feel grounded and brutal because of this, making each episode gripping to watch. However, they don’t overpower the rest of the show, giving each episode a good amount of quiet time to explore the world and Spear and Fang’s interactions. 

Warning, more specific spoilers are below, skip this paragraph if you don’t want to be spoiled on episode 3 of Primal.

An episode that I feel demonstrates the best of both worlds is episode 3, “A Cold Death”. This episode follows Spear and Fang as they cross a remote tundra, end up killing an elderly woolly mammoth for food, then face the consequences from the rest of the mammoth’s herd. The mammoths pursue them as Spear has taken the mammoth’s tusk, and so they end up being attacked by the herd. Spear looking into the eyes of his prey / enemy is a recurring image within the episode, as first he looks into the eyes of the elderly mammoth, with his reflection showing clear remorse for having killed it.

Spear’s reflection framed by the iris of the Mammoth he just killed as he looks into it, clearly showing remorse

However, he still butchers the corpse for meat and bones, including taking the tusk – for which he ends up pursued by the mammoth herd. In the final confrontation, he wields said mammoth’s tusk as a weapon of last resort against the herd, leading to him realizing that the tusk is what they want in the first place

Spear, his reflection again framed by the iris of a mammoth, but here coming to a realization of what the mammoths really want

These moments solidify the theme of empathy, as Spear literally sees himself in the eyes of his enemies, recognizing that he’s not much different than the animals he fights. At the same time, the eyes frame the change in his expression, and draw attention to it, making the viewer show empathy with him. It’s a sobering, quiet moment of realization, both in the show, and outside of it as we finish intense fight scenes with these moments. 


And honestly, those quiet moments were what I ended up liking the most out of the show. It felt real and honest in a way that not a lot of other adult cartoons that have come out recently have managed. This is in spite of how fantastical the whole cartoon is with the occult, cavemen, and dinosaurs. Even with the amount of blood and gore, it isn’t played up for shock value, and this really isn’t a show that’s simply edgy and ugly for being edgy and ugly’s own sake. And don’t get me wrong, I love all of those edgy juvenile adult cartoons too, like Ballmastrz: 9009 is one of my favorite recent shows, but it’s incredibly refreshing to have an adult cartoon that is wholly focused on another goal and pulls off going for that goal so well, while still being damn entertaining television. It’s shows like this that are the reason why I appreciate Adult Swim, as every time it gets too stale, some new show like Primal comes out and totally kicks ass.

So next time you see it on [as] or streaming somewhere, give it a watch. It’s probably the best 5 × 22 minutes of animation you’ll see. 

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