Mild spoilers for Primal below.
It’s so easy to think of the anachronistic caveman-dinosaur relationship as one between a boy and his dog. Chuck Jones’ first Daffy Duck cartoon introduced Casper and Fido, while Alley Oop has been riding his dinosaur since the ‘30s. Even Winsor McCay’s landmark animated character Gertie the Dinosaur was domesticated.
This collected cultural idea, from McCay’s pioneering personality work to the ubiquitous partnership between man and beast, is what Genndy Tartakovsky channels in his life-or-death Adult Swim show Primal. Lovely animation and heightened action only serve to illuminate the show’s grounded central premise: life is hard and it’s better together. Even if it takes stretching history millions of years, Primal finds an innate truth buried deep in the fossil record.
The beloved animator behind Samurai Jack and Clone Wars returned to TV after some scattered pilots and a Hotel Transylvania trilogy. What he brought with him is everything fans have come to expect from a creator whose legacy is filled with spartan storytelling and aesthetic elegance. Despite Primal’s Slipknot-but-if-cavemen font, its most pressing use of its title isn’t raw, base, animal violence, but instinctual facets of life. Things like survival, purpose, and companionship. How best to get at that than silent animation, where slapstick and gore hold equal weight?
Sometimes silly yet always life-or-death, Primal’s simple and dialogue-free premise (a caveman and a dinosaur, linked by loss and a stubborn unwillingness to succumb to nature’s harsh demands, push on together) may have a newfound Conan the Barbarian flavor, but its base is present in Tartakovsky’s most-beloved work.
Reuniting with Samurai Jack’s art director Scott Wills and composer Tyler Bates (who teamed with Joanne Higginbottom here), the show’s lack of dialogue is just one returning formal element. Episodes consist primarily of stories told by slumped shoulders, unblinking eyes, and actions repeated at tempos representing anguish or comic futility. But the teamwork is what Tartakovsky is so good at highlighting.
Obi-Wan Kenobi’s squad of ARC troopers and pairings of unlikely Jedi (Foul Moudama and Roron Corobb forever) are some of Clone Wars’ most beloved elements. Jack, the time-displaced ronin on a quest to stop evil, was at his best and most effective when he was beside friends. Spartans, alien royalty, and, of course, The Scotsman—it’s no coincidence that most episodes of the show are entitled “Samurai Jack and the X.” His good deeds are more than good plot instigators. They serve as recruitment fliers, rallying speeches, and acts of hope against evil’s tyranny. The caveman and his Tyrannosaurus forge a similar path, though the hope they generate is against nature’s unrelenting march.
Depicting the boons of togetherness is one thing, but finding the tragedy of lonesomeness was the first thing on Primal’s merciless agenda. The caveman’s children and partner are bloodily devoured in front of him, in front of us. The same goes with the dinosaur’s offspring. Tartakovsky is no stranger to the dark thoughts that follow. Jack’s stranded, Sisyphean samurai must be talked down from hopelessness by an ally, just as Primal’s caveman needs the glowing memory of his family to keep him from going over the side of a cliff early in the series. As time goes on, these flashbacks (like teaching his son to hunt) are slowly replaced with, or inspired by, the here and now—the dinosaur who is his new family.
So why a T-Rex? There’s something more charming and scrappy—more in line with the human spirit—about befriending something that definitely wants to kill us. Sabertooths and direwolves are a bit too familiar. But a world where a tragic human has to travel with the lawyer-chomper from Jurassic Park? Well that’s a classic Tartakovsky odd couple, primed for his harsh world. And historically, no matter how giant the lizard, we’re ready to domesticate them.
Old-school animation is full of dino pets. Modern animation turns to dragons. How to Train Your Dragon drew from cats (the Jurassic Worlds even made its hero a glorified lion tamer) while Pete’s Dragon looked to dogs for inspiration. Primal’s dino is more like a wolf, even if its animation is decidedly reptilian. There’s an autonomy to the dinosaur that usually isn’t present when fiction tames them. There’s more dignity and more room for humor—and more room for the caveman to play the frustrated straight man.
Clone Wars’ Fordo wouldn’t be memorable if he was simply a servile clone commander, while all of Jack’s teammates are laugh riots in comparison to the stoic warrior. Primal follows suit with its double act, giving its partnership a begrudging egalitarianism perfect for a product of the era’s ruthless individualist landscape.
As the show goes on, its criticism of this landscape and support of cooperation links to Tartakovsky’s past more clearly. The fourth episode of Primal, “Terror Under The Blood Moon,” shares the most with Jack. Its random do-goodery for the sake of a strange and weak underdog community also showcases the central duo’s dedication to each other. When separated, they’ll do anything to reunite—even if it means playing dead so a giant bat takes them to its lair or becoming an actual monster to protect the other. As crazy as it sounds, it’s a natural progression from their initially uneasy partnership, where fights were common and food was often the source of quarrels. They kept each other alive through starvation, so they’ll be damned if they let something else kill their friend.
As the predators have gotten more outlandish and the weather more extreme (blinding blizzards, lightning storms, and snake-filled floods), the caveman and dinosaur have adapted out of necessity. But everywhere they turn, a sign appears that this unnatural union is simply evolution at work. A straggler left behind by his herd of mammoths gives tragic solitude a critical eye. It highlights the efficiency with which violence can be enacted when creatures work together, but still allows for a poignant plotline about mourning. The remaining mammoths, survivors like Primal’s protagonists, carry on the only way they can: together.
Jack ends his series alone, but he’s heartened by the world’s beauty. Clone Wars draws to an end with Anakin, echoing a familiar Jack plot, teaming with a tragic race of oppressed aliens to help them save themselves. Primal’s first season ends with its heroes faced with their antithesis: a community that kills its own kind for sport. This bloodsport leads to its participant’s actual transformation into a monster—a line in the sand between survival and sadism. The caveman crosses the line, all personified rage and grief, to protect his friend. It’s an intense psychological sacrifice made more visceral by the gore left in its wake. But, the ending is unclear: does the dinosaur live? Could be, but the point is that the caveman was willing to go to the edge of madness to protect her. Primal ends as much of Tartakovsky’s work ends: with the idea that self-preservation is only natural, but fighting for another is what makes that hard-fought life worth living.
Jacob Oller is a film and TV critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Hollywood Reporter, Vanity Fair, Interview Magazine, Playboy, SYFY WIRE, Forbes, them, and other publications. He lives in Chicago with his two cats and a never-ending to-do list of things to watch. He likes them (the cats and the list) most of the time. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.