by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 14 of
Vinland Saga ?
Anne is a poor girl living with her family in a poor and snow-bound English Village. She does her best to be a good Christian, as her parents have taught her, but she has a secret: Hiding in the hollow of a barren tree is a beautiful ring that she stole from the market. Sometimes, Anne will sneak off and try the ring on, marveling at its beauty, and wondering if God is passing judgement on her for her crime. At the dinner table, her family prays, and the youngest ask what it's all for. Father patiently explains that God's final apocalyptic judgement is coming soon, and all of the true believers will go to heaven, while the evil men of the world will be damned to hell.
“I know!” exclaims one of Anne's brothers. “The Danes are the evil men!”
“They're really evil,” agrees Anne's father. “I'm sure God knew that people like them would come around.”
Thanks to an earlier check-in with Askeladd's men, we know the Danes are indeed on the move, and are in need of supplies to make it through the winter. While the Priest muses on the words that Thors shared with Askeladd's troops all those years ago – “A true warrior does not need a sword” – Askeladd is all too eager to get to doing what his men do best. “Attacking and plundering villages is a tradition for us Norsemen,” he states matter-of-factly. Through the haze of night and snow, we can just make out the houses of an English village below him. Somewhere down there is Anne's family, enjoying their dinner, while Anne hides out in the cold dark, fearing for her immortal soul, even as she admires the ill-gotten treasure gilding her finger.
“The Light of Dawn” is a whirlwind of apocalyptic violence and almost unbearable tension, and easily the single best episode Vinland Saga has produced yet; it's so good, in fact, that I wonder how the show might top it. The animation and artwork is top-tier, making up for the lack of flashy action sequences by making nearly every scene in the episode feel lived in, frigid cold, and dripping with portentous tidings. Yutaka Yamada delivers some of his most haunting compositions yet, here, which perfectly complement the oppressive background art and colors at work. My favorite detail is how we can see how worn and cracked red Anne's hands are, evidence of her family's hard and unglamorous life, so it's easy to understand why something like a pretty ring would be worth risking one's soul for, at least for Anne. These are a people that toil in the harshest of conditions for the most meager of earnings, and all they really have to hold out for is the promise of something greater in their next life. That isn't always enough, though, especially for a girl on the cusp of adulthood, who yearns for something beyond simple faith and labor, even as she earnestly fears the encroaching judgement of the lord.
In a stomach-churning bit of irony, that yearning is what saves Anne in the end, when Askeladd comes calling for the villager's provisions. Hiding by her tree with her ring on her finger, she watches as Askeladd, Bjorn, and the rest break down her people's doors and demand everything from them. She watches as people beg and plead for their lives, as the Priest makes a vain attempt at warning his fellow Christians of their impending doom, and as Askeladd's cold calculus drives him to a terrible decision. The Danes will be taking all of the food, meaning everyone here will starve nonetheless, and it isn't like they can trust any survivors to keep mum about the Dane's movements. So, Askeladd slaughters every single one of them. Canute looks on in bitter silence. Anne, who manages to wander to safety, is possessed by a shock that borders on elation. Everything she had ever feared has come to pass, and in the unbearably silent and lonely aftermath, she looks as if she might be seeing God Himself, at last.
Really, the episode feels nothing like anything that's come before, which is fitting, because we're seeing a tragedy born out from a different perspective. It's a standalone fable you can imagine other Englishmen telling their children for years to come, of the time the Danes appeared out of nowhere and snuffed the life out of an entire community in a single instant. As Vinland Saga's audience, we've had the benefit of seeing how the complex push-and-pull of the Vikings' culture, beliefs, and circumstances have shaped these Danes into the ruthless warriors they are, but to Anne, Askeladd isn't just a hard-bitten Viking who makes terrible choices so that his men can survive. To Anne, our so-called protagonists represent an evil so simple and pure that it could be ripped straight from the pages of the Bible: Askeladd is the devil incarnate, and one night, he and his men burst out of the cold and the darkness to do the devil's work.
Odds and Ends
• Seriously, Yutaka Yamada's work as Vinland Saga's composer deserves a lot of credit for the show being as successful as it is. I'm eager to hear more of his stuff this season in Babylon.
• The CG tableau of Thors that we glimpse when the Priest is reckoning with the Viking's story of their battle with him is cool and very well-executed; I'd like to see more of that kind of imagery in future episodes.
• In another nifty stylistic trick that we haven't seen Vinland Saga pull before, we get a bit of on-screen text that pops up throughout the episode, acting as a kind of epigraph/spiritual mood-setter. The first one reads: “Why do you continue to forget us? Why have you abandoned us for so long?” Another says: “But thou hast utterly rejected us; thou art very wroth against us.”
• I gave this episode the highest score available, but that doesn't mean it's perfect. Specifically, I thought the comedy bits between the Priest and the two Viking brothers in the first act were unnecessary and didn't fit the mood of the rest of the episode.
Vinland Saga is currently streaming on Amazon.
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