by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 4 of
Vinland Saga ?
After Vinland Saga spent three episodes ratcheting up its narrative with careful world-building and character development (followed by a three-week hiatus), it makes sense that the show's fourth episode would at last fully indulge in Thors' ass-kicking skills, giving us a solid twenty minutes of him busting faces, breaking bones, and proving why he's known as the Troll of Jom, even after a decade and a half of self-imposed Icelandic exile. Given that all of this action takes place between a single man and his foes on the deck of a small Viking ship, the resulting scale is more compact that what Wit Studio fans might be used to, but it's no less thrilling to behold.
Thors' battle also does what all great fight scenes do, revealing more about the characters in conflict with every blow and parry. For Askeladds' men, that pretty much boils down to them being powerless to stop the onslaught of Thors' blows, but it also shows how Thors is still committed to seeking a non-lethal approach whenever possible. Later, we learn that not one of Askeladd's men was killed in the day's fighting, which is perfectly in line with Thors' climactic declaration that “A true warrior doesn't need a sword.” It's a powerful summation of everything Thors has strived to become in his post-soldier life and all of the lessons he wishes to impart to his young son.
It's also the key difference between Thors and Askeladd's approach to battle, which we see in the extended duel between the two that functions as the episode's main set piece. Thors, by his own admission, is willing to go easy on Askeladd, since Thors' skills so clearly outmatch the mercenary's, but all of that changes when Askeladd opens the bout with a slick sneak-attack, attempting to use a crashing mast to outmaneuver his oversized opponent. Naturally, it doesn't work, and Thors' no-holds-barred counterattack transforms the battle into something much more interesting than a simple contest of strength and agility. Vinland Saga understands that a battle of wits is often more compelling than a straightforward clash of blades; Thors beats Askeladd by taking advantage of the man's arrogance. When Thors' blade snaps under the pressure of repeated blows, Askeladd thinks it's the perfect opportunity to swing wide and take out Thors with a single slice, but Thors sees that coming from a mile away. A single hit to the arm is enough for Thors to swipe Askeladd's blade and win the duel.
Thors wears his sense of honor and humanity on his sleeve, but it unfortunately isn't enough to protect the man from the volley of arrows Askeladd's archers rain down after the berserker takes Thorfinn hostage. Given the nature of the story and all of the foreshadowing we've been getting about Floki's betrayal and Thors' doomed return to the battlefield, Thors' death isn't surprising, but it's still tragic. The man stood by his principles until the very end, and his willingness to let Askeladd live proved to be his undoing – sure, if he'd just cut off Askeladd's head, it's likely that he and the other villagers would have just been killed anyway, but Thors' death is nonetheless framed as a tragedy. If Thors had been willing to meet Askeladd on his own terms and just kill the man, Thorfinn might still have a father.
There's a moment where Thorfinn seems to see the power and strength of his late father's approach to honor, but as he gets dragged toward his uncertain future by Askeladd and his men, there's a bloodthirsty fury in the boy's eyes that suggest he's learned exactly the wrong lesson from Thors' death. Shizuka Ishigami sells every ounce of rage and sorrow in Thorfinn's voice as he vows to avenge his father and kill every last one of Askeladd's men. Askeladd is willing to let Thorfinn live for a while though, because obviously this small and terrified boy doesn't have a chance at taking on a crew of full-grown killers. Seeing as Thorfinn is the true main character of a story that's only just begun, I think the kid is going to have plenty of time to hone his revenging skills.
Vinland Saga is currently streaming on Amazon.
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