by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 19 of
Vinland Saga ?
“United Front” is perfectly titled, because not only does it have the entire principle cast of Vinland Saga united for the first time, it is also the show at its absolute best, tying together its separate character arcs and thematic investigations with masterful confidence. Almost every complaint or question I've had about Vinland Saga's pacing, or the way it has handled its respective characters paths through the story, is addressed in this nineteenth chapter in such a way that every preceding episode is stronger for it. It's the kind of effortless looking cascade of payoffs and climaxes that ought not to work, given how thin Vinland Saga has stretched its attention in recent episodes, but it sticks the landing, all the same. I still don't know if it is the show's single best episode – I'd argue that Episode 14 still holds that spot for the quality of its production and its laser focus – but “United Front” is easily the best Vinland Saga has been as a whole work since it began.
The most obvious benefactor of this episode's plot work is Thorkell, who is finally granted the privilege of being a character with relationships and motivations that stretch beyond simply wanting to fight and getting in the way of our other heroes' goals. He's no Hamlet, mind you, and the core of who he is remains unchanged – he likes fighting, and he wants to demonstrate his prowess in heroic battle – but now that need of his is contextualized in his relationships with other people, which is necessary for any character in any story to feel complete and meaningful. As he hinted during the duel last week, he is familiar both with Thors and Helga, Thorfinn's parents, but his connection to Thorfinn runs even deeper than we might have guessed. He was at the battle Hjörungavágr, which is an at least semi-historical event of the Norse canon that we saw in the opening of Vinland Saga's first episode, and he openly wept when Thors' body was lost to the ocean – not just because he respected the man, but also because he'd been hoping to be the one to finally defeat Thors himself. Not only that, but Thorkell is the brother to the Jomsviking leader, whose daughter Helga would go on to marry Thors. This means that Thorkell is Thorfinn's great-uncle, a revelation that is funny just because it hasn't affected Thorkell's willingness to turn his nephew's bones into powder whenever the opportunity presents itself.
This humorous show of emotion is all well and good, but the real meat of Thorkell's characterization comes when Thors returns to the Jomsvikings in secret to steal away his family, and Thorkell catches them heading out the door. His obvious joy at seeing his comrade return, the depression he admits to feeling in the wake of Thors' faked death – these are all great details that enhance Thorkell's dimensionality without changing his basic nature, which is all I'd ever wanted from him in the first place. What really makes this scene work, though, is the final note it ends on. Not Thors knocking the brute out cold with a single punch (though that is pretty cool), but the question that lingers in Thorkell's mind for years afterward. It's the same question Thorfinn has been wrestling with in the years since his father passed, the moral code that Thors attempted to pass on before succumbing to the cycle of killing he worked his whole life to prevent. What does it mean to be a real warrior? Thors claims he knows the answer when he leaves the Jomsvikings for good, and Thorkell says his greatest regret is that he didn't follow the man that night and discover what he meant, though it remains to be seen if Thorkell could ever understand the life of peace that Thors sought in the frozen north.
If there's any weakness to this episode, it would be that Thorfinn's arc remain frustratingly open, and feeling like it has hardly progressed in the dozen or so episodes since he was last identifiable as Vinland Saga's central figure. That he himself is frustrated with this lack of growth and understanding almost works well enough to handwave the many hours of the story he has spent brooding in the background, but as has been the case for many weeks now, Thorfinn's purpose is still mostly one of repetition. The only progression to be found here is that he finally gets a win in. Sure, he needs Askeladd to both serve as his mentor and his cheating mechanism, since the light glinting off Askeladd's sword is what ultimately wins the day, but a win is a wind, and the single kick to Thorkell's head that Thorfinn delivers is enough to send the giant crashing down for good, and for Thorfinn to gouge an eye out for good measure. It speaks to Thorkell's presentation here that his obsession with honor and battlefield heroics isn't just stage dressing anymore; when the other soldiers try to kill Thorfinn for his insolence, Thorkell refuses. A deal is a deal, and Thorkfinn one, leaving Thorkell to wallow in his embarrassment (and also a bunch of liquor).
Enter Prince Canute, the monarch-in-the-making whose newfound sense of purpose gives all of Vinland Saga a renewed vitality in the episode's final moments. He has a plan, you see, and it doesn't involve being used as a bargaining chip by anybody. The plan wouldn't work anyways, Canute reveals, because his father does not love him, and he knows that getting sent out onto the frontlines of the war was just King Sweyn's attempt to get rid of his son without having to dirty his own hands with filicide. Canute's response? To unite the two bands of soldiers that have been fighting over him so that they now fight for him, and to take the kingdom for himself by force. It's a bold plan, and a brilliant development for the story to take, as it ties all of our hero's internal and external conflicts together under the banner of a singe mission – except for Thorfinn, who is mostly just there so he can kill Askeladd. Canute wants to wrestle his destiny back from his father's scheming paws, and Thorkell wants a cause to fight for that is worthy of his own ambitions. He tells Canute with no uncertainty that he and his men will go along with this plan, but if Canute show's even an ounce of softness, he's a dead man.
And then there is Askeladd, who gets the least and best laugh of the whole crew. Seeing Canute command these men, not unlike the legendary Artorius, is the culmination of every gambit Askeladd has played up to this point. He's so overcome with the righteousness of the moment that he gladly reveals his role in Ragnar's death, and offers a blade to Canute, in case the almost-king would like to execute him then and there. Canute very obviously wants to, and I'm not convinced the option isn't still on the table, but Canute is smart enough to know he will need a warrior like Askeladd on his side to have any chance at killing his father. This is what makes Askeladd's triumphant, almost insane fits of laughter the perfect capstone for where we are in the story. Everything Askeladd, Canute, Thorkell, and even Thorfinn has been though up to now has been leading to this. Thorfinn might have survived his duel, and Thorkell might have found a more satisfying path to walk, but, as Canute begins to demonstrate the hardened resolved that had been lying dormant within him all this time, Askeladd is has every right to laugh. He's won, and whatever comes next will be a new dawn for the era, borne from his own making, that will rise over dead and the living alike.
Odds and Ends
• The David vs. Goliath vibes of Thorfinn and Thorkell's duel feel even more apropos, given the astute conversations Vinland Saga has been having with early Christian theology. I half expected Thorkell's weakness to literally be a spot on his head that Thorfinn would need to hit with a stone, or the butt of Thorfinn's blade, but that might have been too obvious.
• This script is so lousy with payoffs that Torgrim's amnesia, and his brother's subsequent despair at being a complete stranger to his partner on the battlefield, hits a lot harder than I ever would have expected it to. Not bad, Vinland Saga. Not bad at all.
Vinland Saga is currently streaming on Amazon.
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