by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 18 of
Vinland Saga ?
Where Vinland Saga truly shines, even when it's pacing and production values falter, is the strength of its thematic core. All series long, this story has been obsessively examining the cost of war on the souls of those who fight it, and the price that the young men at the heart of Vinland Saga must pay to either extricate themselves from the cycle of violence, or be subsumed by it completely. Unfortunately, a victim of the show's wide reaching ambitions continues to be Thorfinn, who is once again given little to do outside of scream, fight, and get his ass kicked by Thorkell. He does, however, serve as an appropriate thematic foil for the real narrative focus of the episode: Prince Canute.
The Prince's development has been strange, insofar that it has been a very long time coming in spite of the Prince himself getting virtually no screen time until a couple of episodes ago. For a long while – I would argue too long – Canute was a plot device with a pretty face, a pawn in a royal game that Askeladd could wield in his own personal endeavors. Even when Ragnar's death revealed more interiority both for himself and for the young prince, the effect was to highlight the boy's lack of experience and depth as a person. What Canute seemed like was what he had always been: A scared boy in prince's clothing who had neither the desire nor the inner resolve to fulfill his role as a leader of men. So lacking in kingly constitution was he that his own father decided that, rather than risk him accidentally inheriting the throne, it would be easier to simply have him killed. Canute's tragedy has always been that he was born to the wrong family, in the wrong time, and his meager attempt to earn some clout as a warrior on the battlefield only ended in killing the one person Canute ever loved, and the only one who ever loved him in return.
This is where we pick up with Canute, as Thorfinn gets on with his fight against Thorkell. The fight is cool, and really well produced, but it is very obviously playing second fiddle to Canute's plot, which has him dreaming one last meeting with his beloved father figure. This is a scene that, on paper, should be corny as hell, but it works for three key reasons:
1: It's thematically resonant. Here we have another broken boy who is dreaming one last dream of their dead father, and reckoning with the future that was meant for them, and is now lost. In both cases, Thors and Ragnar wanted their respective boys to live a peaceful life, free from the meaningless slaughter of war. Thorfinn's loss of innocence was a mix of bad choices, bad timing, and bad luck. Ragnar, on the other hand, was always giving Canute a life lived on borrowed time – his attempt to raise a prince as a normal boy was admirable and well intentioned, but this is not a world wherein someone like Canute could have ever lived a normal life, and all the killing being done just to decide his fate is proof of that.
2: It provides a much needed emotional core to ground and counter all of the heightened action in the episode. When men are drop kicking other men thirty feet into the air while a crazed berserker turns people's skulls into mincemeat just a few hundred feet away, it's okay to go a little broad and melodramatic with a ghostly reunion between a boy and his dead father figure.
3: Kensho Ono absolutely owns this entire episode with his performance as Canute. For being stuck with virtually nothing to do these past half dozen episodes, Ono brings a pitch perfect mix of anguish, despair, and hardened resolve to Canute's scenes this week; it's one of the best work by a voice actor I've encountered all year.
What happens after Canute finally has to let go of Ragnar is equally compelling stuff, too, because it sees Vinland Saga digging into the morals and philosophy of early Christianity in a manner I've simply never seen done in an anime. The drunken priest, whose name is Willibald as it turns out, engages Canute in what can only be described as a spiritual autopsy; in the same breath he both examines his longstanding search for what “love” truly is while also confidently declaring that what Ragnar felt for Canute was not love. It's a bold and dangerous declaration, and for a moment I thought Canute's first act as a transformed man was going to be killing the priest right then and there. Instead, though, the two engage in a meticulous breakdown of humankind's failure to truly love anything outside of its own limited conception of itself, and of how all of the pain and suffering and death that plagues this land is as much a work of human love as is, say, the care and devotion that Ragnar gave to Canute.
Cards on the table: I'm about as far from religious as a person can get, so it is difficult for me to truly empathize with the revelation that Canute has when he dips his hands into the bitter snow, and realizes that all-encompassing cold is, in fact, love; that the sky, the earth, and all of the creations attributed to the Christian God are as perfect and untainted a monument to love as anything could be. I have had people give me similar explanations when they try to describe the overwhelming awe that encompasses a religious worldview like that, and while I can't tell you that I understand it, exactly, I can absolutely appreciate that Vinland Saga is taking the most honest, incisive, and contemplative look at this kind of religious philosophy that I've ever seen in an anime.
More to the point, it absolutely makes sense how Canute, pushed beyond his breaking point and consumed by grief and fear, would not only be emboldened, but transformed by the love he sees in Creation, and the lack of it he sees in the hears of all humankind. The episode ends with Willibald witnessing a “miracle” at the hands of Canute, and the would-be king doesn't spin gold out of the air, turn water into wine, or begin to glow like some kind of living deity. He simply embraces the insane Bjorn with genuine love, and he actually manages to bring the berserker back from the brink. Sure, Bjorn is immediately (and perhaps fatally) wounded, but the fact remains: Canute has found himself. Vinland Saga has no shortage of ridiculously powerful warriors that regularly commit superhuman feats of strength, but Canute's resolute turn towards the battlefield, and his ultimate claim to the throne that will someday be his, is easily the most stirring and heart-pounding moment this show has delivered so far. “I shall give meaning to your battles,” he declares. “To your life and death. That's what the duty of a king is.”
Odds and Ends
• Another day, another week of Thorfinn accomplishing virtually nothing, and getting tossed about like the world's most rage filled hackey sack because of it. Vinland Saga is so inconsistent with the kinds of injuries that should or shouldn't kill people that I can't even be bothered to complain that he's going to survive a fall that should absolutely result in his terrible death. Maybe all of those jagged branches and the snow cushioned his fall.
• If I'm being totally honest, while the art was mostly excellent this week, I couldn't help but find some of the more detailed facial expressions given to Canute to be more silly than inspiring. I'm pretty sure that this face was meant to communicate Canute's newfound sense of righteous fury, but all I could think about was how much he looked like Grumpy Cat.
• I've seen a lot of love for Thorkell going around, and I wish I could say that I get it, but I honestly think that Vinland Saga's whole story would be much improved if Thorkell were anything more than a walking story obstacle with a gym membership. Maybe he'll become incredibly well written further down the line; an absolutely invaluable member of the cast for his contribution to the plot and the themes of the story. Today is not that day.
Vinland Saga is currently streaming on Amazon.
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