by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 8 of
Vinland Saga ?
It wasn't hard to predict that Thorfinn's duel against Askeladd would end in a less than decisive manner. Thorfinn may have grown into his own as a killer on the battlefield, but Askeladd has the experience, wit, and ruthlessness that comes with experience, which makes it easy to take advantage of an inexperienced fighter's emotions. After the crew lands back in Askeladd's home turf to celebrate their newfound riches and take a much-needed break from campaigning, Thorfinn is eager to settle the score. He's quick enough to even get a leg up on Askeladd once or twice, but all it takes is a little goading from Askeladd's to send Thorfinn spiraling into a rage. The young man might be more skilled than he was as a child, but as soon as he hears Askeladd feign ignorance over his father's name, it's over for Thorfinn, and Askeladd pins him with detached ease.
It's not a complaint to say that this moment, which some might predict to be the climax of Thorfinn's development over the past eight episodes, ends in a deliberate anticlimax. For one thing, we're reaching the point of the story where the original manga had just barely gotten started, so it makes sense that Askeladd wouldn't be taken down just yet. More to the point though, for all of his steel-eyed fury, Thorfinn is still just a boy. Nowhere is that clearer than in the episode's best scene, where Thorfinn is greeted by a vision (or perhaps just a dream) of his departed father. Thors smiles helplessly, knowing that he could never convince his son to drop the quest for revenge with just a lecture, but he still takes the time to remind the boy of the lesson he tried to impart to him before he died: he doesn't have any real enemies. The boundaries of war and the fires of revenge are created things, chains of our own making that we use to willingly imprison ourselves so that we may find peace in the ordering of a chaotic world. Thorfinn is still young, so despite his mistakes, he has time to forge a different path in life.
But it isn't so easy for others, and what I appreciated most is how “Beyond the Edge of the Sea” was willing to indulge in more subtle character focus after last week's silly spectacle. Askeladd may be a primo jackass, but he's more nuanced that he lets on, which is most apparent in his quietly strained relationship with his uncle Gorm. Gorm is an insecure miser, a “slave to money” in Askeladd's own words, who needs to beat his own slaves in order to feel powerful. When a young man casts his eyes down on the pathetic existence of Gorm's slave, Hordaland, Askeladd is quick to remind that everyone is a slave to something, be it wealth, power, or hatred.So when Thorfinn brushes off the similarities that Hordaland sees between them, we understand that she isn't far off the mark. Thorfinn tries to frame his self-imposed exile aboard the ship as “eating wherever he likes”, but his tragic encounter with the British family in the village he helped raze already showed him a path to a better, more honest life that he discarded. He may have rationalized refusing that path as a point of pride, but to be a slave to one's own pride is no better way to live than being a slave bound to serve the old man who counts out the coins Askeladd uses to feed his men. It's all a vicious cycle of debt, suffering, indignation, and dehumanization, and I can't tell you how refreshing it is for an anime to go so far in explicitly framing slavery as an inarguably toxic and evil thing, without any of the fetishistic caveats that have been popping up in other recent fantasy series.
In the end, this is a transitional episode, which mostly exists to remind us of the story's core themes and where Thorfinn has gone in his personal journey, plus a little table setting at the end that teases a grander conflict between the Vikings and the British on the horizon. It's a well-directed and well-written transitional episode, which can make all the difference for stories like these whose epic lengths require a deft hand to avoid relying on disposable filler to fill in the gaps between major beats. Thorfinn might feel stuck at the moment, but with the Vikings en route to tear down London, the tide is apt to change quickly.
Besides, Thorfinn still retains of his father's humanity and optimism, and his conversation with Hordaland reminds us that there is an option beyond merely fighting to survive or resigning oneself to a life of slavery. Vinland is out there, a verdant land of plenty that isn't beholden to this incessant strife between nations. Thorfinn's currently too preoccupied with revenge to think about starting life in a new world, but it's only a matter of time. The show isn't called Vinland Saga for nothing, after all.
Vinland Saga is currently streaming on Amazon.
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