“The Road Home”
Vinland Saga is no stranger to greatness, but this has surely been one of the greatest stretches in its anime history. There hasn’t been a lot of action this season (something Yukimura Makoto bemoans in self-deprecating fashion), and we certainly got a taste of some here. But mostly this was about bringing the Gardar-Arnheid tragedy to a conclusion. For him, anyway – its repercussions are certainly only starting for the survivors. Slavery isn’t just a tragedy, it’s a cycle of tragedy – and it’s not the only one Yukimura is bemoaning here.
In truth, this was one of those “speaks for itself” episodes, pretty much. In contrast to the week’s (and season’s) other best efforts, BokuYaba and Tengoku Daimakyou, I barely have any notes on my page. Yukimura has already laid out the underpinnings of this arc, what it means in the larger story. And there was really no suspense about how it would end, only about how it would get there. Once the theatrics in the A-part were out of the way (and they were pretty spectacular), it all amounted to a dream sequence – Gardar’s dying dream – set to Yamada Yutaka’s gorgeous piano score.
Snake vs. Thorfinn was one hell of an undercard, though, that’s for sure. Snake refers to himself as a “warrior of Miklagard” – the Viking name for Constantinople (it means “Great City”). Presumably that means he was a member of the Varandian guard (thus explaining the scimitar), the elite unit of the Byzantine imperial army comprised mostly of Norsemen. He also says he and his men “can’t show their faces” because of things they’ve done in the past – the details of which are left for another time, or left out period. For the moment it’s a matter of survival against Thorfinn, whom Snake recognizes is a formidable opponent even fighting unarmed.
Thorfinn made his choice – he fought because he had no alternative, though I don’t think he would have gone so far as killing Snake. Snake certainly would have killed him, and isn’t much interested in Arnheid’s please to spare Gardar’s life. Whatever crimes he committed in the past Snake certainly makes a lot of noise about honor now – as if it’s a life preserver he’s clinging to. He can’t subdue Thorfinn but he does shrewdly fight his way between Thorfinn and the cart. He then does what he’s promised to do, deliver a killing blow in the name of so-called honor (though it takes a while to do the job).
Snake was, in the end, nothing more than a scoundrel and an oppressor – he just happens to be an exceptionally smart, talented, and interesting one. And he would have died right here if Thorfinn and Arnheid hadn’t intervened on his behalf. I don’t know if Gardar would have survived had he suffered no additional injuries – it seemed as if his rage was all that was keeping him alive. But his fate was certainly sealed when he and Arnheid took off in Sverkel’s cart, with the old man’s blessing. Arnheid knew this, surely – that’s why she told him the lie she did about Hjalti, their son. Thorfinn tried to reason with her, but he wasn’t about to deny her this doomed course, if that was her choice.
“Honor and wealth”, indeed. Gardar’s visions reveal that he understood the nature of the mistakes he made – mistakes which couldn’t be undone. Maybe Thorfinn will get a second chance in life, but Gardar was never going to get out of this alive. The hardest of all is to break free of the traps the world sets for you – your upbringing, your customs, your lot in life. This culture in this time were all slaves, in a sense – if not literally, than to the mythology they created. It’s a harsh reminder of the sheer audacity of what Thorfinn dreams of doing, and the overwhelming odds stacked against him.
As for what happens next, the prospects certainly don’t appear to be good. Arnheid, Thorfinn, and Einar have all aided and abetted a runaway slave who killed free men. They took that on themselves knowingly, but that doesn’t temper the danger they’re in now. Normally their fate would be Ketil’s to decide, but I don’t know if Snake will be in the mood to wait that long. And when Ketil and his party do return, they’ll do so with the king’s army hot on their heels, which will presumably be their main concern. Does Ketil know that Arnheid is bearing his child – and would it make a difference if he did?