The premise of Genndy Tartakovsky’s Primal, a five-part animated series that aired nightly this past week, sounds like something that might have been cooked up by middle school boys during a slumber party: “Dude, wouldn’t it be awesome if a caveman teamed up with a T-Rex?” And yet, it is probably the most interesting cartoon you’ve seen in years, a thing of rare artistry and patience. Similarly, though you might not guess it after consulting his IMDb page and seeing that he has three Hotel Transylvania movies under his belt, Tartakovsky is one of the finest visual storytellers working in the medium today. I have already written at length about my admiration for the sheer craftsmanship of his Samurai Jack, and Primal is a similarly impressive display of minimalist virtuosity.
In a time when most cartoons are frenetic, talky, and look like video games, it is a genuine relief to find something that prizes stillness, silence, and looks like a series of honest-to-God drawings. Primal’s one-word title aptly conveys the simplicity of the show, as well as its thematic interests. Like an action-adventure riff on Fantasia’s Rite of Spring or 2001: A Space Odyssey’s Dawn of Man, it understands that prehistory is told through images rather than words. The focus is on the most basic material of life, the most visceral experiences – hunting, eating, surviving. The storytelling proceeds along elemental lines, shifting between day and night, heat and cold, life and death, peace and conflict.
Within one minute of screentime (the five episodes run twenty minutes each and, taken together, function elegantly as a feature-length film), Tartakovsky sets his stage. The first image is a peaceful one. Fish drift lazily down a serene river while the ambient noise of the jungle fills the space; if this were live-action, one might think one was watching the work of Terrence Malick. Abruptly, a spear shoots down from above and impales one of the fish. The others scatter; blood trickles into the current. A nameless caveman, our hero, collects the fish and crouches on a rock, spear in hand, waiting for more. He waits; we wait with him. Suddenly, an enormous crocodile bursts from the water, jaws agape, and Tartakovsky cuts to his title card.
Primal is comprised entirely of variations on this theme. The natural world is beautiful, but it is also terrible. Tranquility is disrupted, returned to, disrupted again, returned to again. The series is replete with moments of gruesome brutality, and yet Tartakovsky consistently returns to a register of Zen-like serenity. There is no dialogue in Primal, but words borrowed from The Thin Red Line could express its central questions: “What’s this war in the heart of nature? Why does nature vie with itself? The land contend with the sea? Is there an avenging power in nature? Not one power, but two?” Here is a series that values quietude, stillness, restraint, yet is routinely punctuated by gory horrors.
This dialectic of brutality and compassion is embodied in the relationship between Primal’s odd couple of heroes: the aforementioned caveman and the Tyrannosaurus Rex with which he bonds. Tartakovsky resists the temptation to stack the deck in favor of his protagonists by making them cutesy, endearing, overly anthropomorphic (although there are moments of sly physical humor), and yet one gradually becomes invested in them as they slowly become invested in one another. The story is set in motion when both characters lose their families and unite through their shared grief. They find each other when they reach the ends of themselves. Each recognizes the other’s suffering, and it is this common suffering that forms the foundation of their bond.
The centerpiece of the series is the third episode, in which the caveman and Tyrannosaurus kill a wounded woolly mammoth and find themselves pursued by its vengeful herd. The initial killing is one of the series’ ugliest sequences; Tartakovsky lingers on the mammoth’s panicked eyes as our heroes bite and bludgeon it to death. Yet there is a strange, surprising grace in the aftermath. The caveman looks into the creature’s eye and sees his own reflection there. The entire episode proves to be a gloss on lex talionis, “An eye for an eye,” which is not merely a principle of retribution; rather, it collapses the metaphysical distance between perpetrator and victim. By suffering what he has inflicted, the perpetrator is united to the victim. When the caveman looks into the eye of the mammoth, he is reminded of the son he has lost. When he takes life, he is reminded of what death has taken from him. Each of the other episodes ends in a bloodbath, but this third episode ends in peaceful resolution when the avenging mammoth looks at the caveman and the image of the man reflected in the eye of the mammoth is revisited. A tusk taken from the body of the dead is returned to a burial ground so mourning can take place. As in the Iliad, grief is a shared respite from war.
The final episode paints the contrast between nature’s beauty and ugliness in its starkest terms. The first half is Edenic. The caveman and the Tyrannosaurus happen upon an idyllic pool bathed in heavenly sunlight and surrounded by waterfalls. They frolic; at last, they rest. If good exists in the world of Primal, surely this is it. And yet, it does not last. If the first half of the episode was Edenic, the second half is infernal. The two are beset by ape-men who take them to a gladiatorial arena, where apes kill one another for sport. However brutal the violence has been until now, it has never been for its own sake. If evil exists in this universe, this is it. Ultimately, the series returns to the question: what is the fundamental truth of nature? Is the cosmos a place of harmonious play and rest, or is it an orgy of blood and viscera?
Primal simply ends. It is abrupt, dissatisfying, but appropriately so, for such is the end of what C.S. Lewis calls the “merely natural” loves. “All Earth was but one thought,” reads the quotation from Lord Byron’s Darkness, used in the advertisements for the series, “And that was death.” As St. Paul tells us, “to be carnally minded is death,” for all natural things end in the grave. And yet, Primal makes us feel how wrong that is. We wait for an eye to see us, to recognize and know us, but the series ends on an image of the most crushing loneliness – an eye, closed, that may never open again. If this world of mere nature is all there is, it is an unremittingly tragic world. What Primal gives voice to is nothing other than the groaning and travailing of the whole creation that waits, in earnest expectation, “for the manifestation of the sons of God.”