Hearing ‘shougi’ come out of a viking’s mouth makes for extremely questionable viewing. Sure, I know that they probably meant some Viking board game equivalent. But it was quite jarring nevertheless. That said, it’s pretty much the only minor complaint I can come up with, considering how well the rest of the episode played out.
As creatures of reason, it is only natural that humans attempt to seek out meaning in our own existence. For Askeladd, such meaning would be the emancipation of his Welsh brethren. For Thorfinn, it would be to exact revenge on the very man who orchestrated his father’s death. As it happens, Thorkell has constantly fretted for two decades over a riddle he cannot solve – what does it mean to be a true warrior? A question ostensibly posed to him by the only individual he ever recognised as being superior to himself, Thors. And one that absolutely matters to him. Though it may seem like he is a creature of instinct that lives and breathes the heat of battle, he proves to be no exception in the search for meaning in life. Since he never followed Thors and with the Troll eventually dying in the decade they spent apart, Thorkell finds himself plagued with the spectre of retrospective hindsight – realising that if he had followed his friend perhaps he might have discovered the answer. And now, he might even be consigned to a lifetime where he can never discover this truth for himself, with Thors now being in a place where he cannot reach. The irony of this situation is that there are people in his presence who hold the key to it all. And it is highly poetic that this key comes into play as a solution, after lingering in the background of the series for so long.
Thorfinn has pretty much perfectly memorised the moment of his father’s demise, only he chooses to reject such a philosophy because it would prevent him from achieving revenge. As for Askeladd, he too will cling onto his sword even at the doors of death, when mutinied and hacked down by his band of mercenaries. It takes a special kind of strength or a particular cunning to let go of your only weapons during a life and death situation. And funnily enough, thanks to advice from Askeladd, it is by discarding his blades and feigning weakness that Thorfinn is able to surprise Thorkell and overcome him. It can be said by accepting Thors’ philosophy, Thorfinn comes to embody the true warrior in the moment, seizing victory from the jaws of defeat.
Yet it wouldn’t be correct to describe Thorfinn as Thors successor in his present state. He is filled with insatiable anger, carrying none of the serene grace his father emanated. Askeladd too lacks the characteristic empathy and regality that defines Thors. But as Thorkell observes in this episode, it is Canute who possesses the same kind of demeanor in his eyes, belying an inner fire and conviction to realise his ideals into reality. Though he exhibits a moment of intense anger when Askeladd reveals that he was behind Ragnar’s death, he chooses not to execute the knave, letting go of revenge in a way that Thorfinn could never hope to achieve. Of course, some folks might find Canute’s sudden shift in temperament to be jarring. It undeniably is.
Regardless, I still find this transition to be highly enjoyable, because the contextual epiphany is profound enough for me to suspend the majority of my disbelief. And the animators have also been working overtime, with the results showing. Those who follow these posts know that I’ve had a nasty habit of moaning and complaining about Wit’s inability to replicate the facial expressions that Yukimura masterfully crafts. However in this episode, Thors’ enlightened serenity, Thorkell’s primal rage and Canute’s kingly disposition were wonderfully animated and truly captured the essence of their characters. With the young prince winning over the berserker’s respect and allegiance, having revealed the truth behind his own dire circumstances, it remains to be seen whether this makeshift team can challenge King Sweyn and force him off the throne. Can it be done? Before Ragnar’s death, not a chance. Now? Maybe the odds aren’t amazing, but they’re definitely looking a lot better.
Finally, he might be a charming bastard with one hell of an evil villainous laugh at the premonition of his keikaku coming together. But I have to emphasise that Askeladd is most certainly NOT a surrogate father figure to Thorfinn. It is a flawed romanticisation in my opinion that is utterly twisted if you take a step back and consider it. Yes, he’s a complex character with his own reasons that helped out this young boy in his time of need and was a vital reason why he was able to survive and mount that comeback. However, his charming aspects and personal reasons do not exempt him from moral scrutiny.
And Askeladd himself admitted his life was on the line if Thorfinn lost – very clearly revealing that his motives come from a place of self-preservation. It would be akin to calling Jimmy Saville a hero to children for making their wishes come true. Did he have a charming public persona? Did he make them come true? Yes. But there was always an ulterior motive and he’d always massively screwed them over in such a contemptible way that it would be ridiculous to say that a pedophile like him would be a hero or a father figure to his victims. Just as it would be ridiculous to say that Askeladd is a surrogate father figure to Thorfinn or Canute – with the man killing off their fathers and viciously manipulating these boys for his own goals. Anyway, end of rant. That’s about everything I wanted to discuss. As always, thanks for reading my post and I’ll throw it over to Guardian Enzo for his insightful take on the episode!
Guardian Enzo’s Take
There’s a thematic consistency to Vinland Saga that I truly admire – among the many things about the series that I do. Even when it fluctuates stylistically (and pretty widely, too) there’s an undercurrent of thoughtfulness that never goes away. And of course the sheer entertainment value it delivers every week is off the charts too. This interconnectedness is definitely one of the series’ strengths – nothing feels as if it ever happens in isolation. It’s a big story with a lot of characters (though not unwieldy), but it’s always easy to see how everything fits together.
In that context, I think this was a very important episode because Thorkell is a very important character. And he’s been the outlier among the central cast so far, to an extent – a relatively simple man by all appearances, driven by simple motivations. And indeed, compared to the impossibly deep and introspective nature of last week’s episode, this one was rather straightforward – yet it still managed to redefine Thorkell’s character and integrate him into the narrative far more than he was before. It’s only fitting that should happen in more straightforward fashion than it did with the others – he’s still Thorkell after all.
For a long time, the story Thorkell told Thorfinn while he graciously let the boy gather his senses (and the bones in his broken arm) seemed rather unsurprising. Perhaps it was a bit unexpected that the giant would have cried at Thors’ “death”, but that suits him, really. The real story begins when Thors and Helga show up at his old house at the Jomsviking compound, six months after Thors disappeared beneath the waves. Thorkell has seemingly been sleeping on Thors’ roof – a kind of Viking Hachiko – even though he thought Thors to be dead, and he initially mistakes Thors and Helga (with baby Ylva in tow) for thieves.
Honestly, I felt sorry for Thorkell here, because he has no context to try and rationalize what’s happening. He loves Thors as a brother (though technically he’s a nephew in-law, as it turns out), and what Thors is telling him simply doesn’t grok. The difference in their strength is obvious, even here, as Thors defeats his old comrade despite being unarmed. Thorkell seeing something inexplicable in Thors’ eyes was the key moment in his life in many respects – he didn’t understand what he was missing, but probably for the first time he understood that he was missing something. And for the rest of his days he regrets not following Thors to find out what.
Let’s be clear about one thing – Thorfinn didn’t “win” their duel, even if Thorkell is proud and honorable enough not to quibble. He relied on Askeladd’s help (which had to grate pretty hard), both for the cheat code and the blinding trick. And clawing the big man’s eye out was probably uncalled for (Thorfinn seems to be downsizing Thorkell piece by piece). And truly, he couldn’t have reciprocated and told his opponent what he remembered about Thors’ time in Iceland? Still – Thorkell betrays no anger at any of this, only at himself for allowing himself to be tricked and at his men for interfering to save his life.
The wild card here is, of course, Canute. His unexpected arrival has an explosive effect, and he manages to stun everyone into inaction. What he tells Thorkell about his father and the reason he’s here is self-evidently true once it’s out in the open – Thorkell can sense that for himself. Thorkell certainly isn’t vindictive – if Canute has no value to him as a bargaining chip he would normally be of little interest at all. But the big man sees the same look in Canute’s eyes that he saw in Thors’, and in those eyes a chance to perhaps grasp what he thought he’d lost when Thors cold-cocked him and walked out of his life forever.
I like the fact that what finally brings Thorkell over to the same side as Thorfinn is that he, too, has an unfulfilled yearning for something. Askeladd finds all this hilarious, of course. And his decision to tell Canute that it was he that killed Ragnar is one that’s certainly subject to interpretation. I see it as a calculated gamble, more or less – and that’s pretty much how Askeladd rolls anyway. By telling the boy the truth he can, perversely, regain his trust – and even if Canute has progressed far faster and more decisively than Askeladd expected he’s still of great potential use to him and his political goals. All the more so, in fact.
There’s certainly the sense that this is a watershed moment – all the major players on the same side at last, with a common enemy (for now). To say it’s an odd menagerie is an understatement – Askeladd allied with the two boys whose father/mentor he killed, Thorkell with the boy who claimed two of his fingers and his left eye, Canute with the man who seeks to use him and the man who sought to barter him. Even Torgrim and his brother are here, and Bjorn of course – who must now suspect the truth about his captain. Askeladd’s smile when Thorkell tells him to forgive the killing of most of his men is a chilling reminder of just what he is, and he’s the sort of ally who you never want to turn your back on – but he’s really in the same boat himself now. This new alliance is unorthodox to say the least, but it promises to be anything but dull.