by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 15 of
Vinland Saga ?
Given how spectacular last week's episode was from stem to stern, it was difficult to imagine a version of “After Yule” that didn't feel just a bit underwhelming as a follow-up. In the early goings, it feels like this fourteenth chapter might even be a total dud, focusing on banal plotting and more slow-paced plot development in lieu of the moody character work that the show reminded us it could do so well in “The Light of Dawn”. A lot of this episode's first act is devoted to catching up with Thorkell, and I'll be honest: I don't really give a damn about Thorkell. Looking at him purely as comedic relief and a formidable obstacle, he's fine, but so far, he has existed as a one-dimensional cartoon in a world filled with grim and well-considered nuance, and he sticks out like a sore thumb. His entire personal philosophy can be summed up in a line he delivers to one of his comrades, when he hears news of the politicking that threatens to end the war: “I wish war could go on forever.” That's it. That's the guy in a nutshell. He likes war. When “After Yule” felt like it might end up being a total Thorkell-fest, I was ready to write this episode off entirely, but things pick up significantly when we return to Askeladd's crew, who are still camping in the village that they attacked last week.
We only see her for a second, but Anne arrived at Thorkell's base and informed them of the Askeladd's whereabouts, which has the whole company on edge, ready to move out even sooner than we thought. The plot development in these scenes are solid – we sense that the rematch between Askeladd, Thorfinn, and Thorkell is just on the horizon – but it's the character development that steals the show. For awhile now, Vinland Saga has been presenting a more nuanced and empathetic understanding of Christianity than I've come to expect in anime production, and here we see the core value of the religion collide with the characters' internal struggles. The scene where Ragnar, Canute, and the Priest hold a vigil for the fallen villagers is one of my all time favorites that the series has done, now, because it does such an excellent job of laying out who our heroes are, and what is at stake for them. While Canute and Ragnar are devout, the Priest is beginning to waver in his faith, which causes Canute to lash out in his first truly emotive outburst. Thorfinn couldn't care less about these men and their gods, but you can sense his moment of connection when Canute softly assures his men (and himself) that all fathers inherently love their sons. He's speaking of the Christian God, but it isn't hard to tell that he's also trying to keep his faith in his human father, King Sweyn, alive.
That fatherly connection is possibly the last vestige of hope and innocence that Thorfinn has left, so it feels right to have him sharing a friendlier meal made by the Prince himself, who reveals that the hobby of cooking is yet another aspect of his personality that must be kept from Sweyn, who is disgusted at the thought of seeing his son stoop so low as to prepare food. Tellingly, Ragnar is the one who supports Canute's cooking, and it's clearer in these scenes than ever how Ragnar isn't just the loyal servant of the Prince; he's a more loving and understanding father figure than Canute ever knew in the King. Canute and Thorfinn have barely been present in the story for a while now – Canute's existence has served the plot more than anything, and I'd wager that you could count the number of lines Thorfinn has had in the past month on one hand. “After Yule” brings both young men's struggles back to the forefront, and having them feel so human is what makes the episode's finale sting that much more.
It isn't surprising that Askeladd would cut Ragnar down just to push Canute further into the hardened version of “manhood” that Askeladd feels the Prince is lacking. Regardless of his motivations, its been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that Askeladd will kill absolutely anyone if it means getting what he wants, and he wants Canute to be crueler, colder, and more capable of inspiring the land of violence and bloodshed he is set to inherit. Even Ragnar doesn't seem all that surprised when he learns of Askeladd's treachery; he only asks to impart one final piece of knowledge to the man who is hellbent on taking his job, and this is where that earlier conversation about the love Father's expend for their sons comes into sharp relief. The nobles are split on who should become the new King, it seems, and King Sweyn didn't need too much convincing to decide that Canute's brother, Harald, was more suited for the job.
In one of the most quietly devastating sequences we've gotten yet – and that's saying something – a dying Ragnar laments that the King sent the lesser of the brothers out to war, not so he could rise to the occasion and earn his father's respect, but so he could die without inconveniencing anyone. It's difficult to say exactly where the war is headed now that Askeladd's taken up the task of bringing Canute into his own as a king and leader, but I care more about that journey now than I ever would have expected just a week ago. If you'd told me I'd be crying over the death of the cone-headed guy that's always following Canute around, I might have laughed, but if nothing else, “After Yule” proves that even when the bar is set high, Vinland Saga can still surprise us with the depth of its emotional storytelling.
Odds and Ends
• The animation takes a hefty dip this week compared to “The Light of Dawn”, but plenty of attention is being paid to how cracked and grimy everyone's hands are. Somebody needs to get these men a bar of soap and a jar of Vaseline.
• The whole “A character is horribly injured/killed, but their loved one thinks that they've skipped out on a special homecooked meal” bit is such an oddly specific cliché, but I feel like it happens all the time in anime. The earliest example I can think of is Evangelion; are their major ones from before 97' that I'm forgetting?
• Thorkell is told that will the King will be “the Bretwalda at the next Witenagemot in Wessex”, which is like the kind of tongue-twister line that would either make a translator's job supremely easy, or a living hell.
Vinland Saga is currently streaming on Amazon.
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