by James Beckett,
How would you rate episode 23 of
Vinland Saga ?
How would you rate episode 24 of
Vinland Saga ?
Everything you need to know about the riveting, cathartic, and devastating final episodes of Vinland Saga can be summed up in the title of the season finale: “END OF PROLOGUE”. After all of Thorfinn's struggles; after all of the death, pain, and sorrow; after all of our protagonists have come so far and accomplished so much - everything we've seen up until this point was merely prelude to a larger story. So, when Askeladd prepares to make his final gambit against King Sweyn, we implicitly understand that whatever is going to come next is both an end and a beginning. Askeladd, Canute, and Thorfinn's lives as they know it are going to be over, and yet there is so much further left to go. For a story that I once feared was merely spinning its wheels in search of a direction, it has been one of my chief pleasures of the year to watch Vinland Saga wave such a deft and compelling tale.
The moment that King Sweyn announces his plans to invade Wales at the gifting ceremony he has planned for Canute and his men is when Askeladd's story enters its final stage. For the first time, we see our self-assured bastard of an antihero sweat; for the first time, he isn't quite sure how to proceed. Floki and Sweyn both catch Askeladd's hesitation, and Askeladd can't figure out a solution that won't lead to all-out war for the Welsh. When Sweyn lobs one final insult at Askeladd's lineage, we see the pang of rage that comes over his face, but what happens next is the furthest thing from a berserker rage. When Askeladd starts to insult Sweyn and threaten the king in his own court, Canute realizes it as a very calculated move. If Canute is to be the next king, he cannot be implicated in the death of his father, and so Askeladd only has one play left to make, and he dares not waste the opportunity he's given once he has a sword drawn and pointed at Sweyn's throat. He slices of Sweyn's head, but not before proudly announcing the true name that his mother gave him, which he has carried in his heart for all of the years he has merely been known as the one covered in ash. He is Lucius Artorius Castus, the rightful heir to the English throne, and the man who killed the King of the Danes.
As a culmination of Askeladd's entire story, this is an absolutely stunning moment, and it serves as the perfect culmination to not only Askeladd's entire character arc, but also Thorfinn current journey, which is chronicled in the seemingly unrelated conversation he has with Leif Erikson after getting tossed in a local prison cell. It might border on being too on the nose to have Leif sit down and basically spell out the theme of Thorfinn's journey, but it still works, mostly because the performances and direction sells the moment. When Leif offers Thorfinn a chance to escape his life as a misbegotten warrior for good and journey to the mythical Vinland with him, you might even think for a second that this is where the Prologue will be leaving us. Naturally, Thorfinn isn't quite ready to cast everything aside, and that leads him back to Askeladd, who is about to be cut down once and for all by Canute himself, who needs to display some kingly might in order to fully rally the people to his leadership.
To put it bluntly, Askeladd's death scene is probably the single best moment of the series. It would have been so easy to simply have Thorfinn angry that his revenge was stolen from him, but of course his relationship with Askeladd has always been more complicated than that. By this point, the man was a father figure to Thorfinn longer than Thors himself was, and I honestly started to cry at the sight of Thorfinn trying to save Askeladd, rather than kill him. He still wanted his revenge, true, but his rage and tears betray a kinship with Askeladd that was inevitable after so many years spent as begrudging partners on the battlefield. This is solidified when Askeladd's final words to Thorfinn (who he clearly recognizes as “Son of Thors”) is the kind of question Thorfinn's real father very well might wish to ask him in this moment: How will you live, now?
Thorfinn had never truly considered what his life would become when Askeladd was gone, and it has never been more painfully apparent than in the moment he looks up to contemplate Canute with the eyes not of an angry child, but a dead man. Canute was willing to simply let Thorfinn go live his life however he pleased, and with Leif waiting for him at the pier it is all the more tragic that Thorfinn continues to respond the only way he ever learned: With violence. In striking out at the newly crowned King Canute, Thorfinn is subdued, and his father's dagger falls from his hands, presumably for the last time. Again, having his whole life play out in scenes depicted in the dagger's blade as it falls is pretty heavy handed, but the swelling score and gorgeous animation can't be denied. This is where Thorfinn's years'-long journey ends, and where the next chapter of his life begins.
Thankfully, the final moments of the show lean in to the future that awaits the heroes we've met, as well as those who have yet to enter the scene. Visions of several men and women around the world fill the screen in Vinland Saga's final moments, which I can only hope is Studio Wit's way of calling its shot and declaring its intentions to animate future seasons of this incredible series. I may have had doubts once, but consider me a believer. I normally try not to catch up on the manga of series I cover that are currently in progress, but I don't know if I'll be able to resist the temptation to continue Thorfinn's saga in comic form. I've come to love these characters, this world, and the messages the story has to share about how one can truly come to live a better life in a world as harsh as 11th century Europe. Now that Vinland Saga has reached the end of its beginning, I absolutely cannot wait to see where it goes from here.
Episode 23: Rating:
Episode 24: Rating:
Odds and Ends
• If I had to give this whole season a numerical grade, it would get an easy 4.5/5. If you could cut some of the excess fat in that shaky middle section, then Vinland Saga would likely earn full marks across the board. This really was a series to behold.
• Once more, I cannot give enough props to Yūto Uemura's work as Thorfinn. The man continues to find new and novel ways to imbue Thorfinn's animalistic screaming with equal parts terror and pathos. Another well-deserved shout out goes to Naoya Uchida, an industry veteran whose charismatic performance helped escalate Askeladd to the top of the ranks of my favorite anime characters of the year.
• I love how, in a pair of episodes devoted to completely destroying the status quo and upending everyone's lives forever, Thorkell is basically just doing his usual Thorkell thing: Eating meat, and complaining about not getting to kill either Askeladd or King Sweyn. Never change, Thorkell. Never change.
Vinland Saga is currently streaming on Amazon.
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