「カラッポな男」 (Karappo na Otoko)
“An Empty Man”
As thematically dense as this series is, there are obviously a lot of different strands to the story’s fabric. But one thing Yukimura Makoto is definitely exploring here is the impact slavery has on everyone involved with it. This stands as especially relevant given that anime (almost entirely driven by light novels) is in a phase of romanticizing slavery in a frankly pretty gross and disgusting way. This is something historians have known for a very long time – slavery is a toxin. It poisons and warps everyone and everything it touches. The slaves, those who trade them, and those who profit by the trade (and turn a blind eye to it).
Added to that, Thorfinn being broken complicates matters even further. His nightmares are such a regular occurrence that Einar has taken to stoically riding them out until Thorfinn wakes up. He’s even remembering bits and pieces of them – like falling down a cliff, with hands from below reaching to pull him down into Hell. There have been hints that Thorfinn has gaps in his memory; that’s more or less confirmed now. He does remember Askeladd, and the fundamentals of their complicated relationship. But there’s something else important he knows he’s forgetting, “like a fish bone stuck in his throat”.
Basically, there are two runaway trains (apologies for the anachronous metaphor) headed straight for each other – and Thorfinn is the collision point. His past is a relentless beast, consuming a little part of him every night until he’s finally about to confront it. And the miasma of his slave life is ever a presence and a threat. As is so often the case it manifests here in the form of the retainers, resentful of the fact that the slaves’ wheat field is thriving under Einar’s care. The downside of Ketil being such a pushover is that men like the retainers have little fear of repercussions for going against his wishes (which is unfortunate for the slaves he’s relatively kind to).
The sickness pervades everything. Ketil may be kinder than some – nay, most – men in his position. But it doesn’t matter really, because men like Fox and Badger and the retainers expand their atrocities to fill in the gaps Ketil leaves. And Ketil turns Arnheid into a sex slave (let’s not kid ourselves) because he can. And surely in his own mind it’s something very different – not “love” perhaps, but something consensual. It’s anything but – Arnheid has no choice, and she knows it. The poison spreads everywhere and contaminates everything.
In this fetid swamp, men like Pater and Sverkel stand apart as individuals who at least try to rise above the waters. Sverkel tries in his own way to nudge Thorfinn forward – to fill the emptiness he feels inside him with new skills and ideas. The problem is that until Thorfinn decides that he’s worth the trouble – that being reborn is an even possible for him, and that he deserves to be even if it is – he’s locked inside his own prison. Einar believes in Thorfinn, but Thorfinn doesn’t believe in himself.
The retainers trashing Einar and Thorfinn’s wheat field was inevitable – I’ve pretty much been waiting for it since the first episode. It was only a question of what the circumstances would be, and how the two of them would react. It’s an act of unspeakable cruelty and pettiness – but that’s exactly the point. When you view someone else as not human, there are no boundaries of cruelty or pettiness you’re unwilling to cross. In the moment, it’s Einar who snaps – Thorfinn is infuriatingly calm. Einar is an idealist, unfortunately for him – he has a strong sense of justice in a life where justice doesn’t even enter into the equation. Thorfinn won’t even allow himself the privilege of outrage, given what he’s done in his own past.
Certainly Thorfinn’s advice to take the matter to Pater was logical. And in truth it would probably have been best if Einar had taken Pater’s advice and let him sort out the matter. But the retainers goading the slaves into a confrontation was their endgame all along, because they know how it will turn out. Thorfinn finally snaps – seeing what Einar is about to do no doubt pushes him over the edge – and he hasn’t forgotten how to be a warrior, clearly. A resurgence of violence triggers all the ghosts of his past – this is the moment where those two trains collide at last.
This is an incredibly grim scenario for Thorfinn and Einar, and another nightmarish situation for Ketil. This can only go one way, and justice has nothing to say in the matter. Pater and Sverkel might – especially the latter, who seems unlikely to care about the propriety of the situation. But he’s not the master of the farm now, Ketil is – and he’s the one who has to face the consequences if a slave is allowed to punch a free man and live to see another sunrise. Where this foul institution is concerned, atrocities are the norm.