While there have been a few “boring!” catcalls about “Farmland Saga” from anime-onlys, the general response has been overwhelmingly positive. And for good reason, as this is some of the best character writing out there and a fascinating exploration of the stain on human history that is slavery. Still, I can’t deny that Vinland Saga gains another dimension whenever Askeladd is on the screen. In effect, the entire first season was his story – an extended prologue to set up the main event and its protagonist, Thorfinn. An incredibly patient display from Yukimura-sensei, I might add.
A lot of the credit for that, no doubt, falls on the shoulders of Uchida Naoya as well as those of Yukimura. He’s always been great and very under-appreciated (his Nobunaga is one of the seiyuu standouts of Hunter X Hunter 2011). But in Askeladd he really has a career-defining role – for me, one of the standout performances of the past decade in anime. The dude’s gonna be 70 in a couple of months but my goodness, he brings so much world-weary energy and raw power to the role of Askeladd. It’s a great part on the page that any actor would love to play, but it will forever be Uchida’s voice that stands out when I think about it.
Much of this episode is spent inside the world of Thorfinn’s dreams – and they’re not all nightmares. In fact we start out in what very much seems to be Vinland (which hasn’t gotten a mention in ages), with a cute lamb and gorgeous green hills. And Thors, one of the two great men who formed a bookend on Thorfinn’s childhood. He’s full of regret at not having stuck around to teach his son what he needed to know – because even as a figment of Thorfinn’s imagination Thors can see what a wreck the boy has become. He reminds Thorfinn of one very important thing he did manage to tell him – “No one has any enemies. There’s no one that it’s OK to hurt.”
There was a time, to be sure, that even the battle otaku Thorfinn would have wanted to try and live up to those words. But it all went so wrong starting with that ambush of Thors’ ship, and all led to what may have been Thorfinn’s low ebb, if what we’re seeing here really happened. Perhaps this is another nightmare, or perhaps the act of killing that small boy in cold blood was what finally pushed Thorfinn over the edge (somewhat literally). When Thors died, in effect the stewardship of his son ironically passed to the man who killed him. And Askeladd undeniably led the boy on a much darker path.
It’s just so splendidly complicated between Askeladd and Thorfinn. What I think is undeniable is that Askeladd knew nobility when he saw it, and he never saw a nobler man than Thors. He felt a responsibility after what happened – as he damn well should have. In his own way he tried to shepherd Thors’ son through the worst of his rage-driven adolescence, and I have no doubt that before long it was out of more than a sense of duty. As for Thorfinn, Askleladd completely dominated his life. He lived pursuing the dream of avenging his father, and eventually got to the point when Askleladd’s presence became the anchor of his existence.
These are dreams, so one can go off in whatever direction one likes in terms of symbolism. But as Askeladd described this place, the “purest form of war“, I think it speaks to the true nature of being a warrior. It’s not Valhalla, it’s not even Hell – but perhaps a sort of Hell on Earth. To kill and be killed forever, with no victory and no defeat – that’s Askeladd’s (and Yukimura’s) assessment of what the true value of being a warrior is when the totting up is all done. Thorfinn can let go and descend into that world until he dies, or he can climb (as his surrogate father urges him to do). But there’s one more salient point here – he can’t leave behind the ones he killed. He has to take them with him for the rest of his journey, no matter how horrifying they are.
Atonement isn’t wiping the slate clean and forgetting the evils one has done. It’s making amends, and earning the right to be reborn into a new person who can start fresh. Thorfinn striking that retainer may have been immensely satisfying for Einar, but for Thorfinn it brought back everything he’d been trying so hard to forget. But ironically, that’s a necessary step for him to take. He can never free himself of his past by forgetting it, only by accepting it. His reaction to what happened is to take an oath never to hurt another person again – which wouldn’t undo any of his sins, but is surely the best response to them. Einar doesn’t truly understand but he does understand the pain Thorfinn has been living with, and what it means to be a true friend.
Of course, none of this would much matter if Ketil were to have both slaves put to death for what they did. I confess I didn’t expect the aftermath of that fight to go in this direction, spending almost the entire episode on the karmic aftershocks for Thorfinn. And I didn’t expect the practical result either – Ketil letting Einar and Thorfinn off the hook. That’s thanks to Pater, who finds the evidence linking the retainers to the crime which started it all. Pater is indeed “a strong man”, as Ketil says – he’s taking a great personal risk interceding in the way he has, but there’s no one in a better position to understand the true meaning of what happened. It’s an uncharacteristically upbeat turn for Vinland Saga – perhaps marking the point where it truly starts being a story of redemption.
How much symbolism can you fit into a single episode of anime? It dances around both old Norse and Christian mythoi and creates from them its own dream (or NDE) logic that frees Thorfinn from his past more effectively than any ritual or baptism could do. But “atonement” is, in its origins as a word, quite literally “at-one-ment”, so he has to be at one with those he killed, pulling them with him in order to move upwards and onwards.
Absolutely stunning episode.
This episode made me cry a little, and anything in story telling that makes me cry is automatically peak story telling for me.
With Thorfinn now sworn to make amends, that’s all the more reason I want King Canute to be nowhere near him at all. Thorfinn has had enough, and he deserves a break. I can’t imagine that break will happen if Canute somehow enters his life again.
Thorfinn: “What is this place? Valhalla?“
Nah dawg, this looks and feels more like Hel(l) to me. (Or an ancient version of Khorne’s realm for all you Warhammer Fantasy aficionados.)
Also, those Hel scenes come pretty close to Miura-sensei‘s horrifying visuals. (Rest his soul.)
This episode (Thorfinn’s figurative climb out of Hel[l] in particular) is so damn cathartic. While seeing Thorfinn throw those fists ahead of Einar last episode was satisfying on a primal level, having Pater find evidence of the retainers’ wrongdoing was the cherry on top. (No Karma Houdini for them retainers, LMAO.) Same goes for Einar standing his ground despite being outnumbered (and having Thorfinn knocked unconscious first). But will the retainers’ harassment of Thorfinn and Einar stop? That remains to be seen.
And finally, Sverkel might be a cantankerous old coot, but he’s certainly a much-needed (and detoxifying) mentor figure to Thorfinn.