To Genndy Tartakovsky, “adult” animation implies patience. It’s not a term that simply functions as a free pass to throw splashy excess on the screen, a route to bypass the censors by reveling in material that wouldn’t pass muster in live action. Tartakovsky doesn’t slave over his stoic, animated heroes just to use them as an outlet to provoke a reaction. Audiences may associate adult animation with boundary pushing vulgarity, gross out humor and cheap gags, especially in the streaming era, but Tartakovsky doesn’t care—he’s busy telling elemental human stories in this format. Primal stories.
It should have been little surprise to viewers that the 2019 debut of Tartakovsky’s Primal on Adult Swim was enthusiastically hailed as a triumph by critics, despite its thoroughly pulpy “cavemen and dinosaurs” premise. The creator of Dexter’s Lab, Samurai Jack and Star Wars: Clone Wars has for decades been known for his ability to bring soul and depth to properties that don’t necessarily sound like natural conduits for empathetic storytelling, and Primal delivers more of the zen, philosophical questing of Jack in particular, simultaneously suffused with the dread and horror of Conan the Barbarian’s Hyborian Age. A caveman, turns out, might be the ideal hero for the likes of Tartakovsky, who has always seemingly been fascinated in an economy of storytelling that favors mood over expository dialog. Not once in the first season of the series did audiences ever have to wonder what this primitive man (Spear) or his Tyrannosaur companion (Fang) were thinking—despite a total lack of spoken dialog between the two, their body language and expressions ably tell the tale of two souls wracked by grief and loss, forging a bond as they wander in search of a new beginning.
Primal’s second season, debuting Friday on Adult Swim, goes straight for the heart in its depiction of what that new beginning might look like if only this pair was able to achieve it, but the tragedy at the heart of their story—not to mention the unresolved cliffhanger at the end of season one—let us know from the start that it’s not to be. This isn’t the time for setting aside the burdens of the past. There are still battles to be fought, and a great evil to be overcome. Heroes like Spear and Fang can never be allowed the privilege of being idle for long; it is their curse that destiny will always rob them of a chance for peace until the very end of their roads.
When Season 1 of Primal ended in the fall of 2020, it came to a close with a seismic shift in our understanding of Spear’s world. Through most of the season, the duo had simply been journeying in the classical “wandering ronin” fashion, with some episodes structured around their quest for survival against fantastical beasts or aggressors, and others essentially depicting the pair as unwitting do-gooders, helping oppressed communities by taking down insidious threats. But when it ended, Spear and Fang encountered a new influence whose presence hinted at the wider world beyond their jungles and grasslands: a woman named Mira, who seemed to hail from a more technologically advanced culture. A slave on the run, branded with a mysterious Scorpion tattoo, Mira was capable of speech and possessed more advanced knowledge of medicine and woodcraft, and it seemed that her presence might bring more warmth and stability to what was essentially a burgeoning family unit. However, this promise is shattered when Mira is abducted in the night, seemingly taken by soldiers of the more advanced society from which she had fled. Spear is left with no choice: If he wants to see Mira once again, he must undertake a journey across the sea, into the mysterious beyond, with Fang by his side.
This is where Primal Season 2 finds us, and it’s a structure that seems to imply a rather more focused narrative in this series than the one it has had to date. The first season of the show rarely displayed much need for continuity from episode to episode, being content with its daily struggle for survival, but this time around the quest for Mira—and the acknowledged “big bad” of the horned warlord whose empire abducted her—can never truly be far from the forefront. One-off storylines are still possible in this format, but they’ll always be occurring in the shadow of a mountain of skulls on the horizon, with a grim villain beckoning our heroes forward to attempt the impossible. Or in other words, Primal now has itself a central quest, and all other concerns must be subservient to it on some level.
With that said, Season 2 also has myriad opportunities to depict settings and battles that no previous episode has even hinted at, beginning with Spear and Fang’s journey across the ocean. This first episode, “Sea of Despair,” is vintage Tartakovsky, a slow and meditative journey of two ill-equipped companions as they begin a truly quixotic voyage into the unknown. Like early Primal episodes, the battle for self-preservation looms large here, as the duo battles both the threat of starvation, the elements, and fantastical beasts from the deep. But leave it to Tartakovsky to get as much mileage, if not more, out of the quiet and contemplative moments of the journey—the awe and trepidation of the duo as they’re confronted by a beautiful and terrifying vista of ocean they can’t begin to understand. Each new encounter only reinforces how much they don’t know about their incredible world.
Second episode “Shadow of Fate,” on the other hand, pulls the heartstrings with its tragic moment of consideration for how Spear and Fang might be able to live if they didn’t have the necessity of this quest set before them. Both the man and the dinosaur, separated by their ocean crossing, encounter potential allies among their own kind, and both feel the temptation of community and complacency. This is a big moment for Spear in particular, who previously had a wife and children, but is never depicted as having truly been welcomed into a community before. We’re given a glimpse of the fulfilling life he could perhaps live, if not for the honor-bound imperative of The Quest—the peace that his soul could achieve if he was able to lay down his arms and give up the path of vengeance.
Of course, this being a spiritual extension of the sword and sorcery genre, the audience is certain that something terrible will no doubt happen in order to break up such a moment of tranquility and hope for the future. And the audience is right, of course—the moment is shattered in devastating fashion, in a mode that will no doubt test the foundation of the relationship between Spear and Fang for the rest of the season. And that relationship will no doubt need to be at its strongest, if they want to survive the perils that lay ahead.
Thanks to the mature approach of Tartakovsky, there remains nothing else quite like Primal on TV today, and I can only imagine that the second season of the series will garner quite a bit of acclaim, just as the first did. If the first two episodes available to press are any indication, it has retained all the ferocious zeal and devastating pathos of the first season, while setting the stage for a descent into a new den of prehistoric nightmares. Our blood runs hot with anticipation for the weekly episodes to come.
Primal Season 2 premieres Thursday, July 21st on Adult Swim, and will stream on HBO Max the following day.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film writing.
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