Vinland Saga Episode 21

 

I am so glad that Vinland Saga didn’t draw out the titular reunion between Thorfinn and Leif Erikson. I can easily imagine a version of this episode that had Leif just missing Thorfinn as he passed by in pursuit of Canute’s would-be assailant, only for their meeting to be the final shot right before the end credits, or something like that. Though there were quibbles to be had about the story’s pacing in the weeks leading up to Canute’s climactic conversation, Vinland Saga has been firing on all cylinders and moving with speed and purpose as of late, and Leif’s reintroduction into the story is a prime example of that. Canute and Co. are in York to receive their “reward” from Sweyn, where Leif also happens to be, still searching for the long lost son of his old ally. A hitman takes a shot at Canute with a crossbow, but only hits a slave-turned-body double, and as he flees the scene he is stopped (and killed) by Thorfinn. Leif runs into him right then and there, and he embraces the young man in a fit of tears and grief.

That’s all there is to it, and the simplicity works in the show’s favour. This is doubly true on account of how little Thorfinn has had to do for so long now; a simple and powerful moment of almost-catharsis like this awkward meeting with an old friend is exactly the kind of emotional beat we need to pull us back into Thorfinn’s story. What’s most interesting is how our hero handles the situation. Leif is understandably focused on getting the boy home, but all Thorfinn cares to hear about is Vinland – he even curtly brushes Leif off when the man rightly points out that it’s strange for Thorfinn to be concerned about a place he’s never seen or been to, instead of, say, his sister and his mother, the latter of whom has grown sick in his absence. It says a lot by how consumed Thorfinn has become by both his desire for revenge and his fledgeling hopes for some possibility of escape, and it communicates mire more than his theatrical screaming ever could.

Thorfinn’s revenge may be a simple goal, and not one that has allowed for a lot of range of growth and expression for the character, but it takes centre stage for the whole of the episode, which gives Thorfinn a much-needed sense of place within Askeladd’s scheming and conspiring. While Askeladd plans the use of a female slave as Canute’s body double or uses the oblivious Gunnar as an unwitting double agent with which to control the flow of information to King Sweyn, Thorfinn seethes in the background, reminding us that, while he may have been fighting alongside Askeladd, Canute, and Thorkell thus far, he is an ally to nobody. Askeladd proves himself to be a more than capable agent of political chaos this week, and Thorfinn could not possibly care less. It doesn’t matter whose agenda it foils or favours – Thorfinn isn’t going to stop until Askeladd is dead at his own hand.

So we get a duel, except not one between Thorfinn and Askeladd. That will have to come later. In a brilliant and surprisingly moving ploy, the duel of this episode actually sees Askeladd drawing a blade against Bjorn, who is dying and knows it. A barely functional shell of the warrior he once was, Bjorn has no pretensions of survival; he apologizes to Thorfinn for delaying his duel even further but promises it won’t belong. The sequence is calm, eerily quiet, and perfectly directed, and it succeeds by leaning into what isn’t said just as much as what is.

Earlier in the episode, Bjorn laughs when Askeladd tells him that Atli apologizes for attacking him in battle because as far as he is concerned, the only person who holds a grudge for what happens on the battlefield is Thorfinn. It is a childish thing, unbecoming of a warrior. So, when Bjorn makes his choice to die by Askeladd’s blade, there are a number of reasons one can read into the decision, which range from tragic to terribly sweet. For one, it’s clear that Bjorn is doomed, so it makes sense that he would want to die as a true warrior, in battle, and that he trusts Askeladd to do what needs to be done. There’s also the confusion and hurt that came with Askeladd’s betrayal of his men, though what is fascinating is that Bjorn, true to his word, doesn’t seem to hold it against Askeladd. Rather, when Askeladd misses Bjorn’s vitals and is forced to hold him as he slowly dies, Bjorn insists that he only ever wanted to be Askeladd’s friend. The hatred Askeladd feels for the Danish must be like a stain on all of his memories of his beloved commander, this knowledge that Askeladd only ever saw Bjorn as one of the enemies he has sworn to destroy from within.

When he finally goes, Askeladd insists that Bjorn really was his friend and his only one at that. Is he telling the truth? Did this bring Bjorn some peace in his last moments alive? There are no easy answers, but Vinland Saga excels at swimming these murky emotional waters and forcing its audience to contend with whatever it finds underneath the brine and the muck. When Askeladd moves on and accepts Thorfinn’s challenge for what may be the final time, it’s clear that this is different from the other times that Thorfinn has tried and failed to avenge his father. Both men are tired and shrouded in a fog of death that just can’t unstick itself from their lives. I could be wrong, but I suspect that, whatever happens, next week, it’s going to be for keeps. The cycle is going to end, one way or the other.

 

Odds and Ends

• Leif doesn’t make much progress with Thorfinn this week, but he vows to stay in York until Thorfinn finally makes the choice to come home. He’s a good man, that Leif, and I’m eager to see more of what life back in the homeland has been like in Thorfinn’s absence.

• Thorkell’s gleeful grin during Thorfinn and Askeladd’s duel is just too amusing – it’s amazing how much more onboard I am with his whole character now that his place in the show’s themes and narrative have been established.

• Vinland Saga has been making a dubious habit of getting me teary-eyed on a regular basis, and the moment the waterworks started this week was when Askeladd got freaked out by missing Bjorn’s vitals in the duel, and the way he stumbled to attend to the friend he was trying to help. It’s a perfect encapsulation of the social code, personal conflicts, and hardened cultural mores that Vinland captures so well.

 

James is a writer with many thoughts and feelings about anime and other pop-culture, which can also be found on Twitterhis blog, and his podcast.

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