by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 17 of
Vinland Saga ?
It's been a long time since we've gotten an action heavy episode of Vinland Saga – the last truly spectacle driven chapters of the story were a half dozen episodes back or more – so if “Servant” succeeds at anything, it's scratching that itch for battlefield brutality in a pretty satisfying way. Askeladd's men are on the brink of mutiny, and after reminiscing about his childhood days of comforting his Welsh mother while they lived in captivity, Askeladd decides to cut loose on his traitorous compatriots once and for all. For all of the ten years they've been travelling together, Askeladd says, he's truly hated the Danes, and he then immediately proceeds to lop off a handful of Danish skulls with a single stroke of his blade.
What follows is the most classically thrilling sequence Vinland Saga has delivered in ages: Askeladd fighting off a score of men in one corner of the story, while Bjorn, Thorfinn, and Canute flee for their lives in another. All of this material is quite good, even when the animation and artwork is a little inconsistent, because the crew at Studio Wit excel at using momentum to make even the smallest beats of action and reaction sing. A small cut like Thorfinn preparing his throwing daggers is a sight to behold, and a moment like one of Bjorn's horses getting axed right in the head is appropriately visceral. Even the moments that border precariously on being Too Damn Much™ work more often than not because their kinetic energy is powerful enough to stop my eyes in their sockets, mid-roll.
When Askeladd slices a man in vertically in half, I believe it, simply because we get to see the blade tear through the poor bastard, instead of just getting an overly stylized still shot. Likewise, the attention to detail when Thorkell arrives and uppercuts a horse right out of the air should be too stupid to function, but there's a sheen to the sequence that is impressive in spite of itself. I still feel like Vinland Saga would be better off it could resist from indulging in over-the-top fantasy action quite so often, because it makes it awfully hard to be invested when the show plays the rest of the violence relatively straight. How are we ever supposed to take men like Askeladd and Thorkell's place amongst the rest of the show's cast seriously when they're basically superhumans dressed up in Nordic garb? The episode's music and direction really try to sell us on the idea that Torgrim and the other traitors might actually kill Askeladd before the credits roll, but c'mon, the due can cut through steel helmets like they're made of butter. Are even a few dozen average punks with some arrows meant to be a legitimate threat?
Despite the action's constant attempts to dehumanize the cast, Askeladd at least remains a wonderfully compelling character, both in spite of and because of his reprehensible nature. In the episode's opening, Askeladd's mother speaks of the legendary Avalon, a beautiful land of plenty beyond the sea, where the savior King Arthur is recovering from his wounds, whereupon he will return to Wales and deliver the people from the tyranny of their oppressors. The parallel's to Erik's long-ago tales of Vinland are obvious, and they highlight the parallel journeys that Askeladd and Thorfinn have been on. Both men are terrible killers who have still in some way internalized this notion of a better world that lies just beyond the reach of their cold homelands, and Askeladd's obsession with Canute seems to speak to that as well. If the legendary king of yore will not arrive of his own accord, then perhaps Askeladd can force the tidings of prophecy himself. This episode suffers from the usual pacing issues, dragging out conflicts and staving off climaxes while characters fight and talk and fight some more, but I'd argue Vinland Saga ends up a net positive when it can tell such compelling stories in the middle of all the ruckus.
Alas, there's always that pesky Thorkell, whose vested interest in all of this begins and ends with getting to have the best war he possibly can. When Torgrim and the traitors offer their services to Thorkell, Thorkell simply decides to slaughter them all, knowing full well that he can take on Askeladd and procure the prince without having to rely on the labor of spineless men. Thorfinn is still around though, and at long last it looks like he will be taking center stage in his own show again, because he'll be damned if anyone is going to kill Askeladd but him? In order for our lad to finally get his revenge on the man who murdered his father, Thorfinn will need to use every ounce of rage and skill he's got to fell the giant that stands before him. Hopefully, we'll only need to wait one more episode to find out, unless of course Vinland Saga decides to spend another three months sticking Thorfinn in the background again.
Odds and Ends
• There were so many instances this week of Canute's flying about like a ragdoll with face being obscured by his hair that I was convinced Torgrim's boys would lift up his head and find a melon in a blonde wig, maybe with a goofy smiley face drawn on it or something. If only.
• I find it both terribly anticlimactic and more than a little hilarious that Torgrim was literally scared stupid just thinking about fighting Thorkell. The little comedy routine of Thorkell being taken aback by Torgrim's lameness is one of the funnier bits he's gotten all series.
• Bjorn is just adorably loyal to Askeladd, which can only mean he has an especially bad death in store, right?
• Apparently, Vinland Saga is delayed until the 17th on account of a sporting event. Looks like we'll have to wait just a little longer to for this cliffhanger to get resolved. See you all then!
Vinland Saga is currently streaming on Amazon.
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