Vinland Saga 20 – Crown

Man, even when I’ve already read the manga (don’t worry, these reviews are spoiler-free), sometimes I forget just how great this story is. I was expecting a breather episode this week, after that string of stellar episodes covering the conflict in the snow, and yet this one was every bit as thrilling as those despite having none of the bombastic action (unless we count Thorfinn’s bitter duel with that poor bucket!) and climatic events. It really is a sign of a superb show and story when even the build-up episodes are this compelling and satisfying to watch.

Floki’s utter astonishment upon seeing Canute not only alive but also accompanied by both Thorkell and Askeladd was the perfect way to start things off and build excitement for this final phase of this story arc. I also couldn’t help but notice the anime added a neat little detail: Thorfinn passing by Floki, the real mastermind behind his father’s death, each clearly oblivious to the significance the other had in Thors’ life and death, respectively. Blink and you’ll miss it, but it’s a nice little detail, and when you’re already familiar with the source material, these kinds of judicious anime original additions really spring to the forefront and make an adaptation that much more enjoyable.

Speaking of the anime adding and changing things, this week marked the beginning of the promised adjustments to the story in this final section of the anime adaptation. I won’t go into details so as to avoid spoilers, but I can sort of see why they’re already reordering things a bit. To be frank, the tweaking doesn’t seem strictly necessary to me (and it might actually cause a few minor continuity issues), but depending on the execution, it might possibly work out for the best, and either way, as long as the scenes that are being postponed for later are done well when they do come (which I’m fairly confident will be the case), I’m good.

The long-awaited confrontation between king Sweyn and his son Canute — accompanied by Askeladd and Thorfinn — finally took place, and it was positively enthralling. As thrilling as any of the climactic battle scenes we’ve had in the previous episodes — full of intrigue and insights into the characters and their innermost feelings, and its use of disquieting music, ominous footsteps and chilling silences to create a phenomenally tense atmosphere was masterful. And speaking of sounds, I have to say, King Sweyn is coming alive in a different way in the anime thanks to the superb casting of Sugou Takayuki, who is absolutely killing it in the role, managing to sound weathered and weary yet regal and menacing at the same time.

The king’s presence has been looming in the distant shadows for the better part of the show, but he’s clearly coming to the forefront as a major antagonist now, and he wastes no time making his intentions known to Canute, who might have pushed his luck a little too much there if not for Askeladd’s shrewd intervention. The latter is no stranger to using his cunning and silver tongue to get out of a tight spot, but Sweyn proves to be a match for him, with Askeladd just barely managing to contain his seething anger when the king quickly assesses and bluntly states that he is not merely a bastard son, but was essentially born from the womb of a raped slave. Watching the face Askeladd makes upon hearing those words, I’m reminded of his own words back in episode 8: “Everyone is a slave to something.” Back then, we all wondered what Askeladd himself was a slave to, and here we got a very clear hint as to what makes the man tick.

But of course, being a man on a mission, he manages not to respond to Sweyn’s provocation, being painfully aware of the fact that, as Canute put it, that was the type of confrontation where the first one to draw his sword would lose. And Sweyn might indeed feel he came out the loser of that exchange, as in the end he was forced to reconsider his plans to essentially exile or kill Canute, for now at least. As he leaves, the king comments to himself he must be wary of Askeladd, who likewise acknowledges him as a very difficult foe, and it should be fascinating to witness the battle of wits the two are likely to engage in from here on.

Finally, to cap off the episode, we got yet another reminder that Askeladd may be many things, but he’s certainly not black and white. We’ve seen him do some horrible things, yet his charitable gesture towards Atli still feels perfectly in line with his character. By all accounts he was always a great leader to his followers (regardless of how he felt about them on the inside), and as his admiration for Thors and now Canute shows, Askeladd respects men unwilling or unsuited to be true vikings, so it follows that he would wish for Atli to be true to his nature and put down the sword and live an honest life instead. A surprisingly wholesome and bittersweet ending to the episode, with the bitter part coming largely through the news of Bjorn’s seemingly imminent death, seeing as he was the only man fighting out of loyalty for another in a conflict where everyone was out looking for themselves. As a result of this and Atli and Torgrim’s parting, Askeladd cut a lonesome figure at the end, with only Thorfinn, the boy that wants to kill him, remaining as his follower. A good time for a fresh start indeed.

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