by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 20 of
Vinland Saga ?
When a baffled Gunnar tells Canute that he's changed late into this week's episode, he may as well be talking about the show itself, too. Like his newly transformed prince, Vinland Saga has retained all of its exterior parts, but internal mechanisms have been rearranged and reinvigorated, and the result has been impressive to say the least. It's amazing what a bit of narrative focus and a jumpstart on character development can do to a series, because Vinland Saga is as consistently entertaining and intriguing as its ever been, lately, and I am one hundred percent here for it.
What continues to impress me is how well this ostensibly action-driven series does when it comes to building suspense and dread out of nothing more than a group of men standing around and talking to each other. Last week provided an exemplary emotional and thematic climax for the story just by having Thorkell, Canute, and Askeladd parley about their respective goals, and how they would all benefit from uniting under Canute's now regicidal banner. This week, Canute dispenses with any pretense of filial loyalty early on, and most of the episode is devoted to a single, nail-biting sequence: Canute, joined by Askeladd and Thorfinn as his bodyguards, has come home to his father at last. It's a classic thriller setup, establishing the stakes from the get go and letting the conflict play out from there. King Sweyn, as sallow and sullen as he seems slumped over in his throne, is no fool. He knows that Canute hasn't escaped his death sentence just to have a happy family reunion; thankfully, Askeladd and Thorfinn are capable enough bodyguards to notice that there are a dozen armed guards ready to bleed them dry should Sweyn so much as sniff in their direction.
Our boys are ready for a fight, but the new-and-improved Canute is aware that this is a battle where “the first to draw a blade loses”, and the confident direction of this entire episode shows that the crew at Wit understand that such clashes can be even more intense than the kind that involve buckets of viscera being spilled about a snowy battlefield. We've long known that Sweyn is a manipulative and cold monarch purely on the dispassionate way he sent his own son to die just to shift the tide of politics in his favor. Now, though, we have a face and a voice to match the ruthless actions, and there's something about the sickly, banal effect of Sweyn's demeanor that makes him all the more formidable. As Askeladd notes later on, killing the king will be difficult, but not because he is an imposing physical presence. Sweyn seems exhausted to the point of disintegration, as if the crown on his head is the only thing holding his body together anymore. As Sweyn monologues to the son he knows has come to kill him, the crown itself is an artifact of pure, totalitarian will. Sweyn's power is the power of the crown, one that can command thousands to their deaths in an instant, if desired. Canute is haughty enough to point out the irony of a monarch declaring himself powerless to a bit of gold that he wears on his head, but he's not so naive to believe that Sweyn won't make use of his sovereignty. The three usurpers that stand before him live only because he wills it, and he comes very close to cutting our heroes down for good.
I can't stress enough how much this episode lives and dies by this one scene alone, and it's a testament to the renewed sense of energy that Vinland Saga's production team has injected into the show that it works so fantastically. The moody color palette and smart direction makes it easy to ignore whatever artistic blemishes there might be; the biggest thing I noticed was that King Sweyn's face seemed to veer off-model every now and again. I especially loved the shot-reverse-shot of Sweyn and Canute's faces, as seen through the crooked frame of the crown, which is yet another example of how the show has been quite adept at using CGI to enhance its quieter scenes as well as its flashier ones. Thorfinn is stuck in the background for most of this sequence, but Askeladd racks up even more points as a useful devotee to the future King Canute by using his quick thinking to remind Sweyn of how bad it might look for him to out-and-out murder the man who is not only his son, but the war hero who reclaimed Thorkell and his men back to the Danish army.
In between conspiring his father's murder and barely surviving a one-on-one meeting with the man, Canute gets another lengthy monologue this week, and it's just as much of a powerhouse as is last couple, outlining his newfound philosophy and clarifying the religious revelation he had in the wake of Ragnar's death. It's all perfectly summed up in the vengeful, hateful gaze he casts upon the crucifix: “I will never forgive you”, he swears, not just to his earthly father, but his heavenly one as well. His dream is one we've seen before in many an anime, but it rings more true given the particular attention Vinland Saga has paid to its characters' spiritual crises. Canute's aim is not to honor God by making a Paradise on Earth, but to spite Him, and to be able to say to his maker's face when all is said and done that He was never needed, after all. It's such a powerful moment for a character whose had nothing but powerful moments lately, so much so that Canute has swiftly risen to the top of my list of favorite characters in the whole show.
”Crown” also does well in reminding me of why Askeladd is another personal favorite, in spite and because of his paradoxical nature. Here is the man who slaughtered an innocent village in cold blood and murdered Ragnar without a second thought, yet when Atli comes to him with the news that he is departing the company for good, Askeladd conceded. With Bjorn dying and all of his other men gone, the only original “crewmember” Askeladd can claim is Thorfinn - the boy who is, as it so happens, training himself in the art of Askeladd murdering just a couple dozen feet away - but Atli and his now completely broken brother Torgrim are free to go. Askeladd doesn't just give his blessing, but also a valuable gold circlet, though only on Atli's promise that he will never pick up the sword again. He isn't cut out for it, Askeladd says, and if Atli ever returns to the warrior's life, even as an ally, Askeladd will kill him without a second thought.
That you absolutely believe Askaeladd when he says this is proof positive of Vinland Saga's greatest strength. Wonky pacing and questionable narrative focus aside, this show has some of the most nuanced and engaging antiheroes in anime right now, men whose vices and virtues are so inextricably linked that there is no way to definitively write any of them off as irredeemable. Canute is a noble man who is willing to commit terrible crimes for the greater good, and Askeladd is a crusty killer who does have the capacity to be gracious and empathetic, buried deep down underneath all of that weather-beaten flesh. Thorfinn is also a killer, but his chance at the honest life his father made for him was robbed long ago, and one can hardly blame him - or any of the other characters - for doing what needs to be done to not only survive, but to live with oneself in a world that has neither the care nor the patience to offer you anything less that a cruel and prolonged death, should you make one false move. It's not the kind of life one can easily make without becoming hardened, callous, and indifferent to the suffering of others. Vinland Saga makes you wonder whether redemption, peace, and honest love can exist in a world built on others' suffering. I don't know if Vinland Saga's anime will have the time to even come close to providing an answer, but it is a noble pursuit to even ask the question.
Odds and Ends
• Yes, I will admit it: I am officially a member of Team Thorkell. The big oaf has finally justified his place in the story, and I'm very happy to have been proven wrong about him.
• The single best joke of the episode - and maybe the entire show so far - is the reveal that the young, clean-shaven man that can outdrink even Thorkell is, in fact, Willibald. Everyone at camp it astounded to learn he is only 23, and I just about fell out of my chair myself.
• Gunnar is obviously a bit of a worm, but I appreciate that he share's Ragnar's weirdly pointed skull shape. I don't know if this means the two are related, or just that Canute is destined to have at least one Conehead as a cronie for all time.
Vinland Saga is currently streaming on Amazon.
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