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Genndy Tartakovsky’s ‘Primal’ Screams So You Will Listen

Genndy Tartakovsky’s ‘Primal’ is not just a bloody bout of prehistoric action. It’s a devastating examination of grief and rage.
Genndy Tartakovsky's Primal
Cartoon Network Studios
By  · Published on October 10th, 2020

Welcome to Saturday Morning Cartoons, our weekly column where we continue the animated boob tube ritual of yesteryear. Our lives may no longer be scheduled around small screen programming, but that doesn’t mean we should forget the necessary sanctuary of Saturday ‘toons. In this entry, we wade into the agony violently expressed within Genndy Tartakovsky’s Primal.

Live life to its fullest. You never know if today will be your last. These are ideas bandied about whenever a tragedy strikes, and a life is taken suddenly. The shock from afar reminds us to take stock in those that surround us today.

We try not to wallow on the sorrow the affected party must be experiencing. It’s awful. It’s unimaginable. The loss of a loved one poisons the heart of the one left behind, and if unattended, a greater darkness can grow.

The safe response is to fill their fridge with baked goods and pat their shoulder as you wish them well on your way out their door. “They’ll get through this,” you tell yourself. “It takes time.”

Genndy Tartakovsky’s Primal, an impossible story of a caveman and his Tyrannosaurus partner, is dedicated to the notion that all we have is each other. Time is meaningless if we’re left to dangle by others who could act and elect not to do so. Spear and Fang share the bond of heartbreak, and their relationship fairies them across an ocean of despair.

Both of them brutally lost their families to a universe apathetic toward their desires. With their spouses and children consumed into the bellies of red-horned beasts, the two hunters march to a destination they will never meet. They move because to stop would be to remember.

Spear and Fang trick each other into surviving another day when a friendly fishing rivalry transforms into companionship. 

Primal looks, sounds, and feels unlike any other series out there. While the character designs and the general 2D animation style is reminiscent of other Tartakovsky creations (Samurai Jack, Star Wars: The Clone Wars), Primal behaves like the rage of loss personified. The action erupts in blood and gore, and when the dialogue is not untranslatable, it’s exclusively screaming.

To call the show “Hard R” is to undersell the experience. Each of Primal’s twenty-minute episodes operates with the subtlety of a chainsaw guided by a blood-thirsty Jackson Pollock. These bouts with demonic bats, gluttonous spiders, and drug-fuelled ape-men deliver on the promise never accomplished by the contents within the trashiest of ’80s VHS boxes. 

However, since Primal’s savagery is propelled by the unbearable pain of two childless parents, it never qualifies as wantonly perverse or gratuitous. If anything, the violence of Primal feels simplistically understandable.

The relatability of Spear and Fang’s situation is further solidified as a result of their impenetrable language barrier. We cannot translate Spear’s guttural grunts or screams, or Fang’s cacophonous roars, but we get the gist. There is no Rosetta Stone for their language, but their agony, frustration, exhaustion, and excitement play on their face at a Kindergarten’s reading level.

To put it bluntly, Genndy Tartakovsky’s Primal is cinema in its purest form. Stripped of discernable dialogue, the audience is forced to engage deeper on a visual level. Spear and Fang are Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton performing their physicality as loud as possible to penetrate the silence experienced on the other side of the screen. Forced to connect in this fashion, the emotions cut more profoundly with transference occurring swiftly between character and consumer.

The first half of the first season of Primal aired last year (a result of Adult Swim not wanting to wait for production to finish before unleashing this bloody beast upon the world), and the final five episodes kicked off last Sunday with “Scent of Prey.” When we last saw our heroes, Fang appeared on the brink of death, having suffered a mortal wound at the hands of the ape-men. Spear, still dazed from partaking in the simian death cult’s Incredible Hulk elixir, knelt at his friend’s side and considered solitude and despair once more.

The cliffhanger left its audience aching. The series proved cruel, dragging its heroes from emotional oblivion to an action-packed buddy-cop dynamic, only to leave them beaten, drained, and raw. Their fate felt senseless, but also in line with their family’s conclusion. The universe cared not for the kiddies, so why should it care for these rage-fueled brutes?

“Scent of Prey” picks up seconds after the last episode. In the moment Spear accepts his friend’s death, Fang gasps for life. There is a chance.

Spear gets to work tending to Fang’s wounds, clogging his gashes with mud, hand-feeding the big dinosaur what little water he can find. When vultures and other eaters of the dead begin to circle, Spear concocts a makeshift stretcher to carry Fang far from danger. When we’re talking Primal, though, danger always follows.

Tartakovsky knows when to slow Primal down, and many of the season’s best no holds barred cage matches occur after long stretches designed to define character or environment. “Scent of Prey” is no different.

The first half of the episode methodically tracks the progression of Fang’s health as Spear defends his nearly lifeless body from the hungry folk of the woods. Spear gives everything of himself while defending his friend. His muscles are stretched to their limits hauling the gargantuan T-Rex. His flesh is torn by the spikey green beetles that would make Fang’s meat their home. His patience is tested by the relentless herd of hyenas that stalk Spear’s every step.

Every action is one born out of love. Fang gave Spear his life back. He owes the dino all he has.

As “Scent of Prey” nears its end, Fang awakens in a cave. The entrance is barricaded with rocks. On the other side, he can hear Spear fighting an armada of hyenas. The caveman is prepared to trade his existence for that of the Tyrannosaurus. Fang will have none of that.

The dinosaur explodes from the rocks and dives teeth first into the hyenas. Spear is gobsmacked. His ol’ pal is back, and he’s turning dogs into dog food.

Spear explodes into a victorious roar, and the audience is on their feet as well. Watching the two friends mutilate their way to safety is about as exhilarating a release of emotion as one can have watching television.

These two titans have already gone through the wringer. What more can Tartakovsky throw at them? A zombie plague? Tune in next week.

Genndy Tartakovsky’s Primal conveys grief by topping one extreme after another. Loss is not Jake Gyllenhaal sledgehammering his house. It’s a caveman converting two spikey-backed beetles into brass knuckles and wailing down upon the screams of red-eyed hyenas.

After watching the first half of Primal’s first season, you’ll never again offer a pat on the shoulder or a warm pumpkin pie to a grieving friend. You’ll either keep your distance, or you’ll get down in the muck with them.

All we have is each other. Alone we’re nothing. We all need a T-Rex by our side.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)