by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 22 of
Vinland Saga ?
To describe Askeladd as this week's titular “Lone Wolf” would be, in any other anime, a painful and trite cliché, the kind of cheap characterizing short-cut that feels more at home in a goofy spoof of a grimdark action-adventure story, and not the real thing. Vinland Saga has proven it isn't just any other anime, however; the back quarter of this already excellent first season has been truly remarkable in its ability to take characters that could have been reduced to simple battle mange stereotypes and transform them into fascinating, flawed, and often horrific human beings.
There is no better an example of this than Askeladd, who takes the brutal beating he gives Thorfinn this week as an opportunity to literally lecture the entire crew about why Thorfinn will never beat him if he continues on the way he does, which also explains what makes the “Lone Wolf” moniker such a fitting one. We've gotten the gist of this before: How Askeladd's hatred of the Danish was born from the hateful relationship between his father and his slave mother, and how the myth of King Artorius was the one piece of Welsh culture that got Askeladd's mother through the hardest days of their lives. This is the first time we've seen his story play out with such fullness, though, and what is revealed only further cements this flawed and often unforgivably cruel man as one of the year's best characters.
I'm a sucker for thematic unity, and what I love about Askeladd's flashback more than anything is how it ties his motives into Canute's burgeoning worldview, along with what I suspect Thorfinn's arc will eventually become. Earlier, Canute railed against the apathetic and poisoned world God had abandoned, and his determination to build a paradise on Earth. In witnessing his mother's slow deterioration, Askeladd comes to the same realization about Artorius. If the legendary warrior did exist, and was resting in Avalon to recover from his battle wounds, there is no reason he would ever return to the world of man and abandon his paradise. So, just as Canute did, Askeladd learned from a young age that, in order to cast out the demons and villains of the world, human hands are the ones that must do the work.
There was never any question of whether Askeladd would be the one to kill his father. Denied even a proper name, it only made sense that the boy whose identity was fashioned after the ashes and dirt he found himself covered in day after day would one day take a blade to his old man's throat. Ironically, due to the customs of the Vikings he hated so much, trying to murder his father at the age of 13 only bought Askeladd a place in his father's throne. He trains, and grows close to his brothers, but there is no illusion that his mask of happiness is a permanent one. It only takes two years for Askeladd to slice his father's throat in his sleep, and it is this fact that Askeladd uses to taunt Thorfinn once the boy is beaten and bloodied into a pulp. For a decade, Thorfinn , has been taking Askeladd on head-to-head in these ill begotten duels, and his blind rage betrays him every time. Here, as he mourns Bjorn's death, Askeladd isn't even willing to feign interest in the child's game he's been roped into. He wins the duel with barely a thought, and scoffs at how he was able to do in two years what Thorfinn hasn't in ten, and all because he was willing to treat his father, and all of the other Vikings he's killed, like animals meant to be put down. Thorfinn, for all of his bluster, still holds on to some of the basic honor his father taught him. He had the chance to kill Askeladd in his sleep years ago, but he wouldn't take it. Now, all he can do is collapse into the snow, and weep for what he has lost, and what he will never be able to find.
Like all of Vinland Saga's best episodes, “Lone Wolf” uses mood, emotion, and the tapestry of cultural history to show how its protagonists lives are woven together by the fabric of violence, vengeance, and hope. The animation is good, and the action is satisfying and entertaining, but that is besides the point. More than anything, Vinland Saga is an achingly human story, one where even the most irredeemable of bastards has his pain and trauma rooted in the suffering of a young child whose sense of safety and self was robbed from him. Like everyone else in this story, Askeladd was born into a merciless world and told there was no use praying for a better future, because whatever gods or legends that might have once held sway over the Earth were long gone. Askeladd, like Canute, saw that void and sought to fill it with blood, and the wrath of the thousands dead who came before him. He is not a hero, but his words and deeds are rooted in a truth, or the hope for a truth, that most anyone might be able to understand: Somewhere out there, there exists a better world than this one, and there is work to be done in finding the pathway to it.
Odds and Ends
• Thorkell continues to excel in his role as the comic relief of the group. This week, he balks at the idea that he might be the weakest of the men who serve Prince Canute. His banter with Canute this week gives me the idea for an 80s-style sitcom spinoff of Vinland Saga that sees Thorkell and the Prince as a pair of mismatched roommates just trying to get by in the big city.
• Shout out to Yūto Uemura, who does more commendable work in giving Thorfinn a lot of life with what little there is to work with. The pained, ugly sobs that close out the episode were especially heart wrenching.
Vinland Saga is currently streaming on Amazon.
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