by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 6 of
Vinland Saga ?
From the moment the English woman and her daughter find a bloodied Thorfinn washed up along the creek that runs through their village, it's clear that nothing good is going to come from the encounter. The mother is a decent woman trying to live up to her Christian values, and taking in a wounded boy to nurse him back to health is definitely within the guidelines of “do unto others as you would have them do to you”. The daughter protests – Thorfinn is a Viking who had an arrow sticking out of his arm, and an English soldier nearly sniffs the boy out, but the mother carries on. For one thing, even if Thorfinn is a pirate, no boy comes into that life without suffering some kind of tragedy, so some sympathy is in order. Also, her own son John passed away not too long ago, so it's not hard to imagine that the woman would be happy to offer Thorfinn a home to call his own, one far removed from the bloodshed found on Askeladd's battlefields. Unfortunately, she isn't privy to the events of the first half of “The Journey Begins”, which amount to an extended montage showing Thorfinn becoming very comfortable with murder and bloodshed, working alongside Askeladd and the other brigands so that he may one day grow strong enough to kill the big man himself. Thorfinn's first kill goes much the same as we often see in these kinds of warrior origin stories. He's hesitant at first, and nearly can't bring himself to do it, but there's no time to hesitate on the battlefield, so he manages to stab the life out of a man in a brutal sequence. This excellent scene allowing Shizuka Ishigami to show off her knack for rage-shrieking one final time as Young Thorfinn, before the story skips ahead to the year 1008, where our growing hero has become quite the beast on the battlefield, so much so that Askeladd trusts him to scout out a new front for pillaging. Thus Thorfinn eventually finds himself getting the fleas combed out of his hair by a too-trusting English woman, and the audience's collective gut starts to sink lower once we understand what's coming next.
It doesn't even seem like Thorfinn understands what he's about to do. Yes, he tells the woman and her daughter to run before he races off to light a signal fire, bringing a wave of heartless murder upon the people who saved his life, but the real sucker punch for both Thorfinn and the audience is the look of utter fear and betrayal in the English mother's eyes, which forces Thorfinn to reckon with how far he's strayed from his father's values and the love of his mother and sister. Thorfinn isn't just a lost and scared boy being forced to fight alongside his father's killer just to survive; he's now complicit in the slaughter that Askeladd's men commit for the sake of profit and glory, which makes him a much more complex hero that's also much harder to root for.Unfortunately, the emotional impact of the episode is blunted by some sloppy editing and continuity issues that are noticeable enough to be distracting, not to mention how the animation has generally become less impressive. There are a couple of odd cuts that don't match together like they should (I'm specifically thinking of the transition from Thorfinn's fight with the dogs to him washing up in the English creek), and there's at least one instance of Thorfinn plunging a dagger straight into an enemy's face, only to draw back a completely spotless blade. They're little issues, but when they start to pop up one after the other, it creates an air of messiness that brings down the whole production.
Despite this episode's flaws, the final shot of “The Journey Begins” is powerful enough to raise the bar overall. Thorfinn, who has been alternating between bloody rage and crushing guilt, watches the English mother disappear into the panicked crowd as Askeladd's men cut the villagers down one by one. He nearly cracks apart, and then he takes a deep breath before his face settles into a frighteningly dull mask of resignation. Then he runs headlong into the carnage himself. Vinland Saga has excelled at showing that the act of killing itself isn't what defines a life on the battlefield. It's everything that comes before and after you cut your enemy down that will scar a soul the deepest.
Vinland Saga is currently streaming on Amazon.
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