Vinland Saga 21 – Reunion

How do you even write anything about an episode that leaves you speechless? And the crazy thing is, that’s probably going to be the norm from now on; that’s how strong this last portion of the story is. This episode had so many different things going on and somehow managed to weave them all together seamlessly and even highlight the thematic connection binding them. And what’s more, it looked absolutely gorgeous all the way through.

The first of the three major events taking place here was the assassination attempt on Canute, which, as we eventually learned, was entirely staged by Askeladd in order to put king Sweyn in check. Yet another clever scheme by the quintessential magnificent bastard, and the fake out of making us momentarily think Askeladd was betraying Canute was well done. But as fascinating as these scenes of political intrigue were, they were still inevitably overshadowed by the sheer emotional punch packed in the other two plot threads, which, as I’ve hinted at, were actually thematically linked in a brilliant way.

The reunion in the episode title is, of course, between Leif and Thorfinn, who finally encounters someone from his old life to give him some perspective on his current one. Or at least, that’s what Leif tries to do, but as he soon finds out, Thorfinn is too far gone to listen to him. The only way the cheerful child Leif remembers found to cope with his father’s traumatic death was to allow himself to be possessed and consumed by anger and a desperate thirst for revenge. Not even words of his homeland and mother, who would naturally be overjoyed with his return, can hope to reach Thorfinn in his present state. As a result, Leif’s tears of joy upon finding the boy soon turn to tears of anguish upon realizing what he has become. It’s a mighty powerful and absolutely heart-wrenching scene, but it was not the only one in this episode.

On paper, though, the third and last story told in this episode had no business being nearly as heart-wrenching. After all, it’s the story of Askeladd and Bjorn, two ruthless killers who have spent their lives shedding the blood of fellow warriors and innocent civilians alike. And yet, one cannot help but feel profoundly moved by it, for it shows how even these fearsome warriors are, in the end, desperate for some form of connection amidst a stark world that has fooled men into believing fulfillment as a human being is to be found in a life of violence and murder.

It starts with a subtle scene full of subtext where Askeladd visits the fatally wounded and visibly hurting Bjorn, who reminds us of his roguish charm with the funny and memorable line (using the manga translation, which I always vastly prefer): “What happens on the battlefield stays on the battlefield. I don’t nurse grudges. I’m not Thorfinn.” But despite their attempts at being casual and humorous, there’s an obvious unspoken tension in the room, which Bjorn finally voices when he asks Askeladd about his wounds, with the latter reassuring him that they won’t stop him from swinging his sword. It’s just about the most indirect way of foreshadowing what’s to come, and that’s what makes it so powerful. The scene concludes with a striking shot of a candle in the dark, whose flickering flame is almost extinguished, much like Bjorn’s life.

To understand the emotions at play in their next and last encounter, it helps to think back to the scene from episode 13 where Bjorn talks to Torgrim about his relationship with Askeladd. Torgrim is surprised to hear Bjorn didn’t know Askeladd was able to speak Welsh, with Bjorn telling him that what he doesn’t know about Askeladd outweighs what he knows. He then says in a very sulking manner: “He’s a stand-offish prick. Over a decade together, and he won’t tell me a thing.” Torgrim then goes on to say he doesn’t mind not knowing much about Askeladd as long as he remains a capable leader who guides them to great riches and success. But Bjorn is clearly not satisfied with that — he longs for something more.

For over a decade, Bjorn was a brave and fearless warrior who followed Askeladd to any hellish battlefield, and yet, in all that time, he never once had the courage to be upfront about what he really yearned for deep down. He longed for a true friendship with Askeladd, but the latter keeps everyone at arm’s length, and never once opened himself up to his right-hand man about what really goes on in his heart. And Bjorn was never able to bridge that gap between them while he lived. They’re vikings, after all, fierce warriors who would probably find such a conversation too awkward and embarrassing to engage in. But when your life is fading before your eyes, that all becomes irrelevant. And that is what makes this scene so tragic — over ten years together, but Bjorn could only tell Askeladd how he felt in his dying moments, when there was nothing left to hold on to.

By the standards of the era, Bjorn was a brave and accomplished warrior surely headed for glory in Valhalla, but in truth, he was just a lonely man who, at the end of it all, simply and desperately wanted to hear that the person he had spent his life beside considered him a true friend. Askeladd seems initially reluctant to give him an answer, but when faced with his desperate and dying plea, he finally reveals with a pained face that Bjorn was indeed his friend — the only one he ever had. It’s an incredibly powerful and poignant scene, made all the more so by the fantastic direction and voice acting, with Yasumoto Hiroki’s performance as the dying and desperate Bjorn being particularly and intensely moving (when he asked “Aren’t you lonely?” you could truly feel the utter loneliness in his voice).

Of course, there’s a question that will inevitably pop up in the mind of some viewers, and that is whether Askeladd was voicing his true feelings or was merely telling a merciful lie to comfort a dying man who had always been loyal to him. I do believe this is meant to be ambiguous to a certain degree (at least for now), but I think the best evidence of Askeladd’s sincerity is the impact that mercy killing Bjorn seems to have had on his mood, which Thorfinn himself seems to be able to sense. In his previous duel with the boy in episode 8, Askeladd was in a fairly humorous mood, and he was being rather nonchalant about this one too before Bjorn showed up, but now that his only friend in this world is gone, his demeanor and voice have become heavy and grave, and the atmosphere has changed completely, with Thorfinn’s troubled and hesitant expression at the end appearing to reflect his awareness of that.

As the two prepare to engage in what promises to be a very different duel than usual, we the audience are now far better equipped to realize the similarities between the two. After all, don’t Bjorn’s words to Askeladd, “Isn’t it lonely? Rejecting everything like that?” apply just as well to Thorfinn, as we saw earlier in his reunion with Leif? Both Askeladd and Thorfinn have pushed everyone and everything away in their relentless search of their desperate aims. Neither has any love for the vikings and their way of life, but both have conformed to it, thus causing many the same kind of suffering that they themselves endured as children. Both are profoundly tragic and emotionally isolated figures, hence the (Japanese) title for the next episode, which will feature their duel: “Lone Wolves”. And I can only hope it’ll look every bit as gorgeous as this one, because it has the potential to be just as powerful and moving.

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