Why the violence in Primal works

In 2019, god-emperor Genndy Tartakovsky descended from his throne atop Mount Olympus to bless us with Primal. Feeling generous once more, he deemed us mere mortals worthy of a second season in 2022. His latest animated offering, Primal is an action-adventure series set in an age of cavemen and dinosaurs. The heroes are Spear, a prehistoric hunter, and Fang, a Tyrannosaurus. After personal tragedies bring them together, they travel the land and face dangers of all kinds. 

Let's get down to brass tacks: Primal is one violent show. In any given episode, blood will be spilled in a manner most vicious. Death thrives where mercy is absent.  Children are eaten alive in the first episode alone, so that should tell you how savage Primal can get. In fact, you shouldn't get too attached to any character who isn't Spear or Fang. They most likely won't live past the episode they're featured in. If they can elude dying the first time around, they won't be as lucky next time.

Yet in spite of its sheer brutality, none of the violence ever feels gratuitous, a huge point in the show's favor. 

Tartakovsky is a master of exercising restraint. In many of his creations, nothing is ever done or said in overabundance. You need not look further than his masterpiece, Samurai Jack, for examples of this. Long stretches of silence are dispersed across various episodes. Sometimes the quiet is absolute. Other times, the only sounds you'll hear are diegetic ones, such as the steady dripping of water or the heavy crunching of footsteps across snow. No one says anything unless needed, least of all the reticent Jack.

I mention this because this quality of his is what prevents the carnage of Primal from becoming excessive and tiresome. For most of the series, acts of violence are shown in quick succession and rarely lingered on. This makes them feel less like spectacles for gawking and more like natural occurrences. You never get the sense that the show is aiming for shock value, or that it's going out of its way to nauseate you. Such moderation is uncommon in English-language shows geared towards adults. Too often will you see violence used to justify an M rating, as if any mature themes weren't enough. That and swearing, the two most common tools that make a cartoon for grown-ups. 

The world of Primal is an unforgiving one. For the most part, the main cast is responding to whoever or whatever is assaulting them. If excessive force is necessary, then so be it. Spear, Fang, and soon enough the modern human, Mira, are simply doing their best to survive.

That doesn't mean Primal won't indulge in some good ol' ultra-violence, though. The few instances of extreme bloodshed (like Ceratopsians being bisected right in the middle) serve to highlight how bizarre something is. You can best see this in Plague of Madness, the seventh episode of the first season. It's infamous (in a good way) among fans for how similar it is to a horror movie. In it, a  flesh-eating virus mutates an Argentinosaurus into a zombie that kills off its entire herd. Ribs are cracked, jugulars are torn, heads are crushed, and bodies are impaled. An entire family is gone, just like that. When the Argentinosaurus happens upon Spear and Fang, all they can do is run. 

And why wouldn't they? The creature's massive size aside, its transformation is a sight to behold. Its decaying green skin is falling apart. The eyes are an abnormal pinwheel of yellow and orange. Trails of mucus dribble down from its orifices. Altogether, they make the Argentinosaurus even more terrifying when it sets its sights on our heroes.

But as mentioned, the violence never feels gratuitous. The show will throw something out there to counterbalance the glut of blood. In Plague of Madness, any revulsion and dread you experience give way to pity by the end. The Argentinosaurus' rampage ceases only when it gets trapped in a pool of lava. Spear and Fang look on as its body disintegrates, howling and thrashing in agony the entire time. It's by this point that you remember that the Argentinosaurus wasn't acting of its own accord. Whatever the virus was had changed it into a mindless zombie. A zombie that regained its rationality mere seconds before death. The expression on Spear's face reflects our own.

If you're going to watch one violent cartoon in your lifetime, please let it be Primal. The bloodshed rarely enters superfluous territory. When it does, something tempers it to keep the gore somewhat reasonable. This kind of measured writing can only come from a genius like Genndy Tartakovsky. For those not in the know, this man created Samurai Jack and Dexter's Laboratory. That should clue you in on the quality of Primal

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