by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 11 of
Vinland Saga ?
The plot for “A Gamble”, like all of Vinland Saga's battle-focused episodes, is blood simple. After a hearty and amusing debate over whether Odin or Jesus would win in a fight, Thorkell's troops encounter Ragnar's men, who demand the return of Prince Canute. Thorkell actually complies, because he doesn't want the enemy to have any excuse for avoiding a fight, and then he proceeds to slaughter a whole mess of hapless soldiers. Eventually, Askeladd and company arrive, start a fire, and send Thorfinn into the blaze to steal Canute away for them. Thorfinn succeeds, Thorkell acts like Thorkell some more, and we finally get to see Canute's face. Roll credits.
In a story that's relatively devoid of heavy emotional or thematic material to chew on, Vinland Saga is practically begging to be judged on how badass and bloody it can be within the span of twenty-two minutes. In that regard, does this eleventh episode deliver the good stuff? Mostly, yes. It's not the most visually striking of episodes, but it makes a couple of bloody beats count where it can. Thorkell does indeed mess some fools up this week, so if you like the sight of human limbs being turned into comical props, then “A Gamble” will probably be right up your alley. Likewise, if you get a kick out of Askeladd being a conniving bastard, and Thorfinn being a grim mute dealer of death, this episode will also probably be just your cup of tea – provided that you prefer your tea flavored with the blood of brutalized 11th century soldiers.
As for me, I walked away from “A Gamble” feeling mostly satisfied, even if it fell short in some crucial areas. For one, I thought it was cheap for the story to hinge on Thorkell pulling the cliché villain tactic of just giving Thorfinn the Prince because the story demands that things keep moving along. It isn't necessarily out of character for the brute – Thorkell has made it abundantly clear that he values a good fight more than anything else on the planet – but it doesn't make for the most satisfying drama. His knowledge of Thorfinn's connection to Thors and Helga also didn't play as strongly as I think it could have. If this were the manga, and Thors' whole existence was still relegated to Thorfinn's dreams, this thread might have been more compelling, but as it stands, it isn't surprising to learn that two similarly powerful Viking warriors knew each other at one point, and Thorfinn shouldn't be too shocked either.
Also, the episode's visuals occasionally failed to do the intensity of the situation justice, Thorkell's destruction of the enemy notwithstanding. The use of CG effects for the flames and smoke looked a little too artificial to be truly threatening, especially since it only seemed to bother anyone when they were directly tossed into a giant mound of fire. The show didn't even get much mileage out of Thorfinn arriving on the battlefield via fiery horse, which is a textbook example of a spooky visual that would be easy to exploit for maximum cool points. This is probably why I enjoyed the theological debate at the top of the episode more than anything else – that's the stuff I find the most entertaining and interesting about Vinland Saga so far, and it can't be undercut by inconsistent production values in the same way battle scenes can be.
We end not on a triumphant battle cry or an ambiguous cliffhanger that teases portentous omens, but a joke. Canute takes off his helmet, and he looks more feminine than Askeladd expected. Now, based on my brief Wikipedia surfing, it seems that Canute's less-than-imposing features were a defining trait of the man in his youth, but it's still a clunky gag to end on, especially since it isn't like Canute's features are particularly hidden by his fancy helmet. One look at him should tell you that he's probably the most beautiful man on the battlefield. Besides, Vinland Saga seems to be operating on Dynasty Warriors rules, which means that the further toward either end of the Beauty/Brute spectrum you fall on, the deadlier you are. Canute may look like he's come fresh from shooting a shampoo commercial, but that probably just means he can shoot lightning from his sword and do triple fireball backflips or something.
Odds and Ends
• “Cheddar had great cheese!”
• Soldier A, explaining his love of the local women: “They've got modesty ! Maybe it's because they're Christian?” Soldier B, crossing himself piously: “Christianity is nice.”
• The soldiers' opinions of Jesus, summed up: “Thor could knock him out in an instant!”
• Thorkell gets up to a lot of bloody mischief this week, but I had to pause and reflect on the poor guy who got his face turned into pudding by one throw of Thorkell's spear.
Vinland Saga is currently streaming on Amazon.
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