by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 12 of
Vinland Saga ?
The line between “slow-burn” and just plain “boring” is a fine one in storytelling, requiring a mastery of tone, pacing, and narrative escalation that is very easy to take for granted as a viewer. Take Vinland Saga for instance: If Thorfinn's quest for revenge and a new life were to resolve itself in the span of only a few episodes, it would likely feel cheap and unearned. Then again, it probably wouldn't do to have Thorfinn's big moment come after twenty-four episodes of glacially paced buildup; by then, even the most patient audience members will be wondering just where in the hell Vinland Saga is going, especially when its first chapters were so forceful in their momentum and payoff.
In “Land of the Far Bank”, we see Vinland Saga continuing to move along at a ponderous gait, and I can see how some might see the show tipping precariously towards the “boring” half of the aforementioned divide. After all, the plot of the episode is yet another strikingly simple one: Askeladd and Co. are running from Thorkell, and seek help from a Welsh army to get across the river into Wales. General Gratianus of Mogannwg Kingdom obliges them out of his own peoples' self interest, and so the Danes do sail, and then they walk. And walk some more. After a whole lot of ground has been trod, Thorkell's forces catch up with them once again, and the stage of another battle is set. That's about it.
Yet despite the relative lack of plot or action, there's a lot of story here, and I find myself as enamored as ever with the world Vinland Saga lets us live in for a few minutes each week. Something I've noticed is how the anime has lately felt like The Askeladd Show; Thorfinn and his whole character arc has been relegated to the extreme background for the time being, and the leader of our rascally band of Danes has been getting the lion's share of both the screen time and the narrative attention lately. A key detail in the fabric of this episode is his strained connection with the Welshman who come to our Viking's aid – he announces himself as “Askeladd, Son of Lydia” to Gratianus' crew, and the Welsh liaison catches a hint of a Welsh accent in Askeladd's Norse dialect. There's clearly more to the man's makeup than simply living as an avatar of Viking machismo, and more of these wrinkles are popping up every week.
Or take his complicated relationship with Prince Canute, which Askeladd has tried to play off as being based on mere glory and profiteering, but his conversations with Bjorn betray a certain thoughtfulness behind Askeladd's ostensibly self-serving actions. When Bjorn tries to figure out just what exactly Askeladd has been up to, Askeladd admits that when he first sized up the Prince's value as a future monarch, based purely on his face alone, his immediate thought was “That's not the face of a king.” That said, he also acknowledges that Canute's “future still awaits”, and the very thought of the man putting stock in anyone's future already seems a far cry from the warrior contemplating the “dawn in an era of twilight” from just a few weeks ago. Whether Askeladd has taken up some more noble and more abstract cause, or if he's just following his gut on the way to a payday, it's difficult to say. That we're even asking these questions at all, though, is a sure sign that Vinland Saga is doing something right.
Speaking of Canute, it is difficult to blame any of Askeladd's men for being a little incredulous of the young Prince. He barely speaks, trusting Ragnar to do all of the talking when figures like Gratianus try to engage in diplomatic negotiations. When Thorfinn offers him his trademark scowl as a greeting, Canute literally cowers behind Ragnar. For most of the episode, Canute fades into the background, and its difficult to get any kind of read on the guy. It's another element of Vinland Saga's particularly measured pacing that this character, a monumental historical figure that got introduced over a month ago, remains a complete and utter enigma.
I'm not bristling at the way the story is moving just yet, I can see how it would strain the patience of those who came to Vinland Saga looking either for epic fights or more development in the journey of Thorfinn himself. The little slices of story we get in episodes like this one suit me just fine. I like seeing Bjorn and Askeladd maneuver hold palaver around a fire and discuss the future of their men and their country; I enjoy the conversations Askeladd's men have with each other, and the drunken priest they've been badgering for weeks now. I enjoy the way the camera lingers on the beautiful background illustrations, and how the show is willing to let little silences percolate in the spaces between the words shared by soldiers. Besides, with Thorkell always showing up to cause trouble, as he does this week once again, it isn't like a good fight is ever too far away.
Rating: 3.5Odds and Ends
• I love that Askeladd has a guy whose only name is “The Ear”, who is blind and listens through the earth for the approach of enemy soldiers.
• Some more great banter between the soldiers and the priest this week. The priest is asked to explain what he is searching for in life, if not gold, or weapons, or beautiful women, and he responds: “Love”. Says one soldier: “What's that? I've never heard of it.” Says another: “I know what it is. It's like a spell that the Christians are always chanting.”
• One of the soldiers is legitimately interested in the priest's message. I wonder if this, or Canute's preexisting conversion to Christianity, will have much payoff in the future.
• I really wouldn't be surprised if this was the only face Thorfinn can make anymore.
• Thorfinn: “You're going to reward me for this, right?” Askeladd: “All right, allright. When we get to Gainsborough, I'll duel you.”
• Leif Erikson is back! He's looking a little greyer now, too, and he's apparently still hot on the trail for Thorfinn. The random slave he catches sight off at the end of the episode looked so much like pre-broken Thorfinn that I initially thought it must be some relative of his or something.
Vinland Saga is currently streaming on Amazon.
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