Vinland Saga 19 – United Front

After taking a backseat to Canute, Willibald and Bjorn’s side of things last week, the fight between Thorfinn and Thorkell returned to the center stage this week, only in this second (well, technically third) round the kid had Askeladd as a manager, which ended up making all the difference. It was strangely sad and moving seeing Thorfinn resist Askeladd’s attempts to treat his wounds and help him. Theirs is a complicated relationship to say the least, with Askeladd being the closest thing to a father figure Thorfinn has had for the past decade, and it was a decidedly powerful and exciting moment when Thorfinn finally managed to put his anger aside for a moment and work together with Askeladd so they could both live to fight (each other) another day.

Of course, Thorkell did a great job in rekindling Thorfinn’s anger once he told him to his face what we the audience have been thinking this whole time: the kid didn’t learn a single thing from his father. That is the focal tragedy of Vinland Saga, Thorfinn’s inability to learn from the lessons his father taught him and that the bitterness of firsthand experience is the only teacher that might ever get to him (as is often the case with people). Even Thorkell seems more aware of the emptiness of their way of life, as we learn when the giant reflects on his regrets regarding his last meeting with Thors.

In this flashback, we are once again reminded of one of the key questions in this saga: what makes a true warrior? The way of life Thors chose after abandoning the Jomsvikings makes it clear that it has nothing to do with glory in battle, where all that can be found is pain and meaninglessness. And it seems that, on some level, even the warmongering Thorkell realizes that something is lacking in what is considered to be the ideal way of life for a viking. And although it’s something so mysterious that he can’t even put his finger on it, he can’t help but pursue it. In his own way, Thorkell is on a search for meaning, which he clearly hasn’t found on the battlefield in spite of how much fun it seems to bring him. And as he is now, he seems very far from having the same kind of realization Thors did, but at least he’s aware of that and trying to get closer to him in some way. Meanwhile, Thors’ own son isn’t even considering such thoughts, and is still single-mindedly obsessed with revenge. Clearly time has stopped for Thorfinn, and it seems like it won’t start flowing again until he finally settles things with Askeladd in one way or another.

Thorkell was definitely the star of this episode, measuring up with both Thorfinn (and losing only thanks to Askeladd’s shrewd and sneaky support) and the transformed Canute, although the latter was a battle of wills. And clearly, Thorkell was impressed by Canute’s, even seeing in his eyes a gleam similar to the kind Thors’ had. I don’t think this is meant to suggest that Canute has reached the same level of “enlightenment” as Thors and is the same as him now, but there are obviously similarities between the two: both came to vividly realize the meaninglessness and emptiness of war, and decided to do something about it. But that something seems to be actually quite different — Thors sought a life of peace away from the battlefield, but Canute seems resigned to the idea that there is no running away from certain battles, the most obvious one being the one against his own father for the throne of Denmark (and the conquered England), and he somehow manages to get all the men fighting each other in this episode to join him on this quest. An impressive feat, to be sure, and it definitely makes for an exciting end to the episode to see all our main characters on the same side, marching towards a common foe this time.

Naturally, no one was more delighted by this outcome than Askeladd, whose burst of laughter at the end of it all was positively glorious (Uchida Naoya killed it). Sadly I felt the anime didn’t really do justice to the following exchange between him and Canute, since the latter’s expression was far more menacing in the manga (plus they didn’t even show Thorfinn’s reaction to Askeladd offering up his life like that). Nevertheless it’s a fascinating moment to see Askeladd, a man usually so full of deceit, deciding to come clean about having killed Ragnar, when that could have easily cost him his life and the chance to serve the potential king he’s worked so much for. I personally see it as a sign that his pledge to Canute means a great deal to him and is decidedly different from his usual entirely self-serving schemes, and that he truly means to be loyal to the young prince (and hopefully future king) and not just manipulate him.

It seems it’s always been a dream of Askeladd to serve a truly worthy king (and one that might help protect his homeland of Wales), and he was hoping Canute would become that man, hence him gambling everything on him. And now that the young prince has grown strong enough to win over even Thorkell, there must be no doubt in Askeladd’s mind that he’s finally found the man he should serve, and him confessing his past sins may have been his way of showing the extent of his conviction and sincerity in his pledge to Canute. And clearly the young prince realizes how much of an asset Askeladd’s wits could prove to be, and manages to contain his obvious anger towards him (which Ono Kensho definitely helped sell), asking him to atone for Ragnar’s death by doing his share of the lifting. A fascinating development, and I can’t wait for the last few episodes, since they will contain some of my favorite moments in the whole story.

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