by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 10 of
Vinland Saga ?
There's an apocalyptic aura hanging over Vinland Saga this week in the aptly titled “Ragnarok”, with omens abounding on both fronts of the escalating Saxon-Danish conflict. Near Marlborough, Prince Canute is confined to his tent in solemn prayer while Thorkell brings hell down upon the Saxon soldiers. Meanwhile, Askeladd's troops are off on their own, bringing their special brand of destruction to the villagers who were unfortunate enough to be within blade's reach when the coffers started to run dry. Thorfinn, lying asleep in a barn with a freshly felled corpse not twenty feet away, dreams of a better world where sunlight bathes the endless fields of flowers that lead him back to his childhood home. He rides on his father's shoulders, taking in the fresh warm air, and smiles. It's only a matter of time before this dream world ends too, but it's nice to see Thorfinn happy again in this moment.
It's never stated outright, but it's easy to see that Thorfinn has begun to dream of Vinland, which was always more of an idea than a place, even in Leif Erikson's stories. It's a land of peace and plenty that represents everything the frigid and bloody world of the Vikings is not. With the arrival of Prince Canute and the introduction of Thorkell pushing the war to the forefront of the narrative, this melancholy dream sequence is a welcome reminder of the beating heart that keeps Vinland Saga going, this story of a young boy who got thrust into a world of murder and revenge, and how he might yet find his way back home to his family and a better life. It's standard but effective; young Thorfinn obliviously sings of his happiness, but we know it's only a fantasy, and Thors has to stop and remind his wayward son of what he's giving up with every passing day he spends focused on revenge. I don't know if it's more effective than the similar scene of Thorfinn having a vision of his father that we got a couple of weeks back, but the vivid background art and haunting score give this episode's first act a distinctive flavor of its own.
Thorfinn inevitably wakes to find himself still wrapped up in the daily struggles of being a Viking mercenary. Askeladd's men are tired, and they lash out at each other with venomous words and challenges to duel, even as they're still picking trinkets off the bodies of everyone they've killed. Thorfinn seeks some peace in the ruins on the hill above the village, which is where Askeladd meets him and tries to palaver with the boy about the needs of worn-out and violent men, though Thorfinn scoffs at the idea of Askeladd trying to bond with him. Sooner or later, Thorfinn declares, he will slit Askeladd's throat in the night and finally be done with this whole mess.
This is where Askeladd switches gears and tries to impart a history lesson, pointing out that the ruins they're sitting in once belonged to a great and advanced empire that has since been lost to time. Thorfinn doesn't have much interest in history lessons, but Askeladd's words are powerful, speaking to the crux of the conflict that faces most every warrior in this show. According to the Christians, Askeladd says, the Last Judgement is set to come within the next two decades; Thorfinn recognizes this as his people's own version of the end-times, Ragnarok. Askeladd has no qualms about Thorfinn killing him someday – it's simply the nature of this apocalyptic life the Vikings choose to live. The world is always ending for someone one way or the other, and even the strongest warrior must succumb to the decay of time. Yet here amongst the dead and the death-dealers, the sun still rises.
It's a beautifully written and haunting sequence that illustrates the bittersweet dichotomy of plain survival versus truly living that Vinland Saga has been wrestling with ever since Thors took his family to bury an anonymous slave in the hills outside their home. “Dawn in the age of twilight,” Askeladd muses, and in this moment the man's cruel mentorship to the boy whose life he ruined makes a kind of tragic sense. Every day, Askeladd weaves his life into the fabric of a world that is always dying, and Thorfinn has to decide how dedicated he really is to the path he has chosen.
In the meantime, there are always more battles to fight, so Askeladd demonstrates the flip side of his apocalyptic revelry. When an agent of Canute arrives to bring bad tidings and a plea for assistance against Thorkell's destruction, Askeladd swiftly decapitates the messenger and calls his men to arms. Yes, Canute's men are standing at the brink of oblivion, but there are always deals to be made where death flows the thickest. It could be that Askeladd and his company rescue Canute from Thorkell (even if Askeladd himself admits that he doesn't have a clue how he'll actually kill the guy), but who's to say who will pay more for the Prince of the Danes when the dust has finally cleared? Maybe it will be the Danes themselves, but perhaps it will be the Saxons. Either way, the men are off to war, and Thorfinn will likely have to reckon with his life choices much sooner than he thought. He barely survived his last encounter with Thorkell; who knows what mad destruction the butcher will bring now that he's really gotten himself warmed up?
Vinland Saga is currently streaming on Amazon.
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