Great Pretender – 18 – The Pressure is the Reward

Makoto, Abby, and Cynthia are bound, fitted with weights, and taken out to sea to be executed. However, Oz begs Suzaku Akemi to spare his boy. Oz tells Makoto to kill Abby and Cynthia to prove his loyalty, and the two women tell him they’re neither friends nor family, and would kill him if they were in his shoes.

Makoto doesn’t believe that, and in any case can’t hurt either of them, so Oz shoots them instead, and they fall overboard and under the waves, apparently dead…but quite possibly not? What matters is Makoto thinks they’re dead, and when Akemi offers him Oz’s life, he takes it.

For several days Makoto neither talks nor eats, but turns a page when he’s able to grieve his losses in Akemi’s welcome arms. Two months pass, and she’s taken him under her wing like a surrogate son—replacing the one who walked away from the family business.

Because Makoto is a highly capable person who increases Akemi’s profits, she puts him in charge of the human auctions without hesitation and arranges for him to have a room at her house, deepening their relationship. Ishigami has never seen the boss like this, and fears she’s taking it too easy.

He makes sure Makoto understands that the pressure he’s feeling is both the reward and what keeps one on their toes enough to hang in there. He also warns him that while Akemi won the last round, Shanghai problem isn’t going to go away. Makoto comes home to find Oz outside his apartment. (If he faked his death, it stands to reason Cynthia and Abby are probably fine too, though that’s left up in the air for now).

From a slick office overlooking a futuristic, fluorescent Shanghai, Liu has his fortune told by a famous fortune teller—whom we later learn was paid by Laurent to give him a particular fortune that will accelerate his plans to “resolve” things with their Japanese parent. After the teller leaves, Laurent walks in asking for Liu.

As Liu tells Chen, how a book was translated made the difference in which received the Nobel Prize. It’s the same with international business negotiations. Flashback to when Laurent was a boy in Brussels, and intrinsically understood the value and the power of being a good interpreter…as well as the cost of not having adequate skills.

Laurent’s mother, who is severely dyslexic, gets swindled and ruined by a businessman, all because she couldn’t read what she was signing. While cooking dinner for her and Laurent while out of sorts, the pan slips out of her hands and we can speculate that she was killed by oil burns.

Flash forward several years to Paris when Laurent is a poker hustler and womanizer. The men who lost to him beat him unconscious, but when he wakes up in an alley, filthy and bloodied, he spots the very man who swindled his mother years ago—and whom he blames for her death.

Laurent buys a knife at the hardware store and follows the man, but when he chooses the time to stab him, a dark-complexioned, white-haired woman steps in front of him and the blade plunges into her instead. In seeking revenge for his mom, Laurent accidentally stabbed the wrong person.

Makoto is hearing about Laurent’s past from his suddenly-not-dead(again) Oz. I wouldn’t be surprised if the two were in cahoots, while Makoto is yet again an unwitting pawn in an even longer con, even as he and Akemi grow closer as surrogate mother and son.

Great Pretender – 17 – Coward of Oz

Edamame is moving up in the Scarlet Company thanks, in part, to the Chinese lessons his late mother insisted he take. Back then, he idolized his valiant attorney father Seiji, as did his mom, whose only complaint was that her husband worked too much. Both were completely unprepared for the news that he was helping the mafia traffic children.

While Makoto responded to his dad’s betrayal with rage and resentment —and eventually turning to a life of crime just like the ol’ Pops, only pettier. His mother collapsed from the shock, and was bedridden the rest of her days, but she never gave up hope in her Seiji.

The flashbacks to good times abruptly turning bad then worse for Makoto are efficient but particularly well-done. His mom warmth and forgiveness despite the harsh betrayal she endured—something it’s clear Makoto never understood.

“Sleepy Princess” Abby and her reluctant jailor Makoto is such a bizarre scenario, such is her keeping-it-real ethos, Abby doesn’t treat her jailor any differently than the guy with whom she jumped out of a building in Singapore. Their growth as something like friends is evident when she asks him if he’s alright working for such a despicable business, and isn’t just asking, but is genuinely concerned.

She should be! Suzaku Ikemi’s Scarlet Company is on the brink of war with their satellite organization in Shanghai, which due to China’s economic boom has grown more profitable than its parent and unilaterally declared independence. Their disdain for their Japanese bosses is expressed when their boss, Liu, sends his second-in-command—the boorish Chen—instead.

Chen is accompanied by his interpreter, whom Makoto recognizes is his damn dad, who now goes by the name “Oz”. So that’s where he slithered off to!

Suzaku isn’t impressed by Shanghai’s little power move and declares an ultimatum, claiming 80% of Shanghai’s profits, even she must know won’t be forthcoming without a degree of bloodshed. Still, her options are limited; with their Chinese cash cow’s leash becoming slacker by the day, she can’t appear weak, lest they regard her as a paper tiger.

Makoto, meanwhile, is furious with the news of his dad’s participation in this job, and suspects it was kept from him on purpose by Laurent, who is flirting with a couple local women when Makoto violently confronts him. That leads Laurent to ask: if the geezer truly “means nothing” to Makoto, why get so worked up about him?

In his next meeting with Abby in her cell (where she’s playing way too many video games), she raises the possibility Seiji did what he did “out of necessity”, got in too deep. She suggests he compare his “loser scumbag” critique of his dad to what he himself was, before he met her and Laurent. Perhaps Seiji has returned to his life because he wants to be forgiven.

Makoto tests that theory by visiting Seiji in his hotel room. Seiji reveals he was actually just outside the door of Mom’s hospital room, but was too ashamed to walk inside. If he walked inside, she might forgive him, and he wasn’t sure he deserved that. But seeing what a shell of a man his dad has become, Makoto decides to be like his mom, and give him that second chance to be in his life. After all, Seiji is still wearing his wedding band.

Early in the morning, Makoto executes a modified version of the prison break plan, this time threatening the kids with his dad’s handgun; a necessary tactic to get them to go with him. Cynthia arrives with a bus big enough to hold them all, and seems both amused and heartened to see not one but two Edamuras in her presence.

Everything seems to be going smoothly until they get off the main highway and are immediately sandwiched and forced to stop by two mafia cars. One of them carries Ishigami, who while so charming and friendly before suddenly exudes cruel menace. He laments that both he and Suzaku saw something in him, and are disappointed it “didn’t work out”—i.e. that now he’ll have to murder him for his treachery.

Speaking of treachery: Seiji is the one who ratted Makoto, Abby, and Cynthia out to Ishigami, identifying them as the same group of con artists who have been causing trouble in the underworld. When Makoto can’t contain his rage and rushes at his dad, Seiji puts a gun to his forehead, reminding him he’s not his dad anymore…he’s “Oz.”

It’s possible he’s playing a longer game that requires he betray his son so he could save him later. Or he could just be a bastard. We shall see. In the meantime, Makoto & Co. are in deep shit!

Great Pretender – 16 – Surly Princess in the Demon Castle

Makoto knowing he’s in on Laurent & Co.’s latest scheme doesn’t make coming to work at Scarlet every day any easier. He cooks tasty food for the captive children, who then leave it untouched—one of their only available acts of defiance. It wears on him, but Laurent tells him Cynthia is about to make her move.

The next day, she does just that, posing as a wealthy foreign “dealer” who speaks English—I’ll note some of the best English I’ve ever heard in an non-dubbed anime. I’m glad they didn’t skimp on that detail, as the language barrier makes Makoto’s role as Ishigami’s (and later Suzaku’s) interpreter crucial to the deal.

Cynthia and Kim take Ishigami and Makoto out to the UAE, where they situate themselves at a vantage point from which to watch their services in action. They use Clark and Abby to stage a desert kidnapping, with Abby posing as a royal princess.

As is typical of a GP episode, this scene wears its Hollywood action influence on its sleeve, and is quick and well-executed—like a Hollywood action movie, only animated. Makoto also notes how convincing Abby appears during the staged attack, considering she’s not one to panic when a gun is pointed in her face.

More importantly, the charade and “Princess Abigail” convince Ishigami, who brings Cynthia, Kim, and Abby before Suzaku Akemi herself for inspection. Suzaku treats Abby no differently from any other human trafficking victim: like a piece of meat to be stripped down and viewed from all sides. Makoto wisely averts his eyes to avoid Abby’s ire.

Suzaku indicates her interest without strongly expressing it, and initially low-balls Cynthia with an offer of 100,000,000 (Cynthia hopes that’s not yen, since that would amount to less than $1 million). When Cynthia forces the issue, Suzaku blows smoke in her face and cops a feel, stating that if Cynthia were a little younger she’d get a pretty good price.

Cynthia doesn’t react to the abuse, which is clearly Suzaku testing her mettle, because she revises her offer to a cool billion. While that’s over $9 million US, it still feels like small potatoes compared to Laurent and Cynthia’s previous con jobs.

The deal is struck, and Princess Abby gets Ishigami’s winddown room as her cell, complete with TV and video game console. Meanwhile, Makoto continues to switch out the kids’ untouched food, and urges them to eat for their own sakes. But their looks indicate they don’t care about their sakes.

Hanging his head the whole way back to his apartment, Makoto is shocked to find Laurent, Cynthia and Kim waiting to surprise him with celebratory drinks. Makoto rightfully suggests this is sloppy on their part (who knows if Suzaku is following any or all of them since they arrived?) and they leave.

The plan from there is to spring Abby after they get their money. To do so, Makoto needs the key to her room, which Ishigami all-too-easily offers up when he falls asleep after drinking too much beer. Makoto presses the key into a bar of soap, and Kudou makes a copy.

On the appointed night, everything goes smoothly except for Makoto’s not-so-sudden crisis of conscience. (I particularly liked Abby hesitating to escape because she was in the middle of a game—it really nailed her character’s nonchalance in a crisis) He’s not prepared to simply hurt Scarlet by taking their money then stealing Abby back; he wants to free all ten kids being held there too. But when he and Abby try to do so, the kids don’t budge. Just like they wouldn’t eat because they have nothing to eat for, they won’t escape because they think they have nowhere to go.

They might reconsider that once they’re sold off to people who will use them for unspeakable purposes, but the bottom line is these kids’ spirits have long since been broken. They were already abandoned by their families for cash, after all. They don’t care what happens to them, and care even less about helping Makoto realign his moral compass. When a kid asks where they’d go from there, Makoto doesn’t have an answer. As Rachel Menken said to Don Draper: “You haven’t thought this through.”

Due to a security guy Makoto initially relieved returning when he forgot his phone, Makoto is unable to free Abby, so the op will have to wait for another day. But it feels like even if they do free Abby and get the money, this isn’t the whole job. Or maybe it is, and the job that follows may lead us more into Laurent’s past—the apparent focus of this final arc.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Vinland Saga – 18 – Their Own Paradise

While the long-awaited rematch between Thorfinn and Thorkell is everything it should be, and doesn’t disappoint, it doesn’t take up the whole episode by any stretch, and it doesn’t impress because of the blows exchanged, but because of the words. It doesn’t take up the whole episode because more than half of the episode takes place at the site of the crashed sled Finn abandoned to rescue the man he means to kill himself. And that’s not a bad thing at all.

When we return to Prince Canute, he can hear Bjorn’s mushroom-enhanced savagery, doesn’t want to open his eyes, and strays into a dream. There, Ragnar says goodbye, but also asks forgiveness for his crime of raising him like a son, and not a jarl. Thors tried to raise Thorfinn as a son and not a warrior, and we see how that turned out. When he awakes, Canute laments to the priest that with Ragnar dead no one in the world loves him.

Then the priest procedes to explode Canute’s brain by telling him what Ragnar showed him wasn’t really love. True love, by the priest’s admittedly extreme standards, is the corpse of a dead raider, whose remains will never steal or kill, but will nourish the animals and the Earth. Ragnar’s love, and the love of any father for his son, is simply discrimination—assigning an artificial hierarchy to what should or shouldn’t be protected.

When Eve bit the apple, man attained knowledge in exchange for expulsion from paradise, but what they lost when they were expelled is something they’ll never know and never attain again. With that loss comes questions—what is love, what is death, what is the purpose of life—that will never be answered.

Mirroring this philosophical exchange between Canute and the priest—and in some ways reinforcing its points—is the duel between Thorfinn and Thorkell, in which the hulking giant is able to best throw his opponent off balance not with the swing of an axe, but with a question that came to him while thinking about Thors, the one man stronger than him: what does it mean to be a true warrior?

Thorfinn can’t help but remember his father’s words: the ultimate warrior need not even hold a sword. It was an ideal he tried and failed to attain, and rather than paving a path for his son to follow, only inspired rage and a thirst for revenge. Thorfinn ultimately dodges the question like he dodges Thorkell’s strikes. Failing to dodge even one of those strikes could prove fatally punishing to his body but contemplating his question means having to reckon with the fact that all these years have been pointless.

Ultimately, what makes the moving back-and-forth between the fight and the talk work so well is that it puts the needlessness and pointlessness of Thorfinn’s actions into perspective. He needs to hear some of the things being said between Canute and the Priest. However the fight turns out—and getting thrown a hundred feet in the air and coming down hard isn’t going to help his cause—Thorfinn will still be hopelessly lost.

With Bjorn growing more and more mindlessly violent and running out of enemies to slay, Canute comes to a revelation: stop fighting needless battles when the Paradise of old will never be attained. Instead, he aims to create a new paradise on Earth, something that he as a member of a royal family can actually do. When Bjorn sidles up to him, Canute manages to disarm him with a look he’s never sported before…the look of someone from whom the fog has finally lifted.

Canute tells Bjorn and the last man standing to stop fighting. He’s going to chase down the horses, and orders the priest—named Williband—to tend to Bjorn’s wounds, and for the other man to help him. This is no time to fight or die. He asks the two to become his vassals, and he will do what, on Earth, he believes only a king can: give meaning to their battles, their lives, and their deaths.

Assuming Thorfinn survives his fight with Thorkell, will Canute be able to give him those things—and will Thorfinn be able to accept them? He has only six more episodes to work with.

Vinland Saga – 17 – Not Everyone’s Afraid to Die

The normally cautious Askeladd lashes out at his mutineers, throwing them off balance and allowing Bjorn to escape on the sled with Thorfinn, Prince Canute, and the Priest. But as he contemplates what could be the last moments of his life, he remembers a moment from his childhood when his dying mother told him about King Arthur, who is not only still alive and recovering in the mythical land of Avalon, but will return someday. When he does, she told Askeladd to serve him.

Mutineers manage to catch up to the sled, and realize that there’s no bargaining with Bjorn; if they want the Prince, they’ll have to kill him. Thus, they take the less sporting route by killing his horses, sending the sled and its occupants flying. Finn kills one of the pursuers and mounts his horse, abandoning the prince because killing Askeladd is more important. If Askeladd should die by someone else’s hands, I doubt Finn would ever forgive himself.

Askeladd fights of many of his men, who fall back and shoot him with several arrows, none of which immediately threaten his life (though infection could set in if his wounds aren’t tended soon). Then his life is saved…by Thorkell of all people, who has arrived, and orders his men to kill everyone but Askeladd. The mutineers reluctantly pick up their weapons and die as something resembling warriors, but Thorkell pushes Torgrim too far, and Torgrim simply…goes bye-bye.

That’s when Thorfinn rides in, plowing through mutineers and English alike with his horse and charging towards Thorkell, who without hesitation charges up and uppercuts the goddamn horse like it was nothing. I’ve harped in the past about some of the more supernatural feats of Thorkell and others, but in this case the silliness is a good complement to the seriousness of the situation. Finn tells Thorkell that he’ll kill him if he doesn’t give him Askeladd, and Thorkell is all to eager to let Finn try. Here’s hoping for Finn’s sake this isn’t like London.

Vinland Saga – 16 – End of His Rope

Askeladd’s luck ran out the moment Anne was found by Thorkell’s men. The weight of his army steadily bearing down on Askeladd’s comparatively paltry band fills this episode with increasing tension. While there are warriors like Bjorn and Thorfinn who will never betray him, those two aren’t nearly enough to counter the precipitous drop in morale, and thus loyalty, among the majority of his men.

When I think of how much fun Askeladd and his men once had earlier in the series when his luck was riding high, it only puts his current predicament into greater focus. By episode’s end he can count on one hand the number of men he can truly count on, with fingers to spare. When an English captain simply won’t talk no matter how many fingers Askeladd snips off, it’s almost the final nail in the coffin for him; a sign that he’s lost his power.

When your men are all either worshipers of older gods or of no god at all, they put their trust in a leader with luck and strength, and Askeladd’s is almost totally out. His side plan to force Prince Canute to toughen up pretty much takes a back seat to the far more pressing matters of how long it will be before Askeladd’s men turn against him, and when Thorkell will finally catch up to them.

Thorkell’s name invokes far more fear than Askeladd’s at this point, which means Askeladd’s time is almost out. However, it’s not yet certain whether his longer-term plan to “reform” Canute will fail. All we see is that after he leaves Ragnar behind without any kind of funeral and slaps Canute across the face, Canute starts adopting a far more Thorfinnian visage.

Askeladd is nothing if not perceptive, and has no illusions about how things will go down once the men who are done with him gather enough allies within their ranks to pull something off. That’s why when Thorkell finally appears on that horizon—the glinting from the tips of his mens’ spears portending dread, while his own thrown spear impales three men and beheads a fourth—Askeladd has the best possible defensive position he can have.

Bjorn is at the reins of the lead sled with Thorfinn, Canute, the priest, and two horses when the rest of the men surround Askeladd, calling for an end to his leadership. It is without doubt the most precarious position he’s ever been in, but one should never underestimate Thorfinn’s desire to have at least one more duel with Askeladd—which means keeping him alive…maybe.

BokuBen 2 – 04 – Lost in Translation

The minute Rizu enters a salon for the first time, the bored owner is suddenly inspired to give her a full makeover for the price of a cut and blow dry (much to her assistant’s dismay). The resulting Rizu almost looks like a different person, aside from the fact she’s the same size and speaks with the same voice.

Still, in the BokuBen universe, the makeover is extreme enough that Nariyuki doesn’t recognize her, but instead believes a very gorgeous girl is hitting on him, something he should be used to by now but in this case isn’t. He even texts Rizu, but doesn’t notice when her phone buzzes.

The misunderstanding could have been cleared up sooner had Rizu done what she often does and refer to Nariyuki by name, but at no point during the study session does she ever do so, which seems a bit convenient to the comedy, but fine.

When this pretty girl starts following Nariyuki home, then comes right out and asks if he wants to go to her place, he decides to take her up on her offer…so he can talk to her father about how fast she is! Only then does he learn that she is actually Rizu…but can still scarcely believe it.

In part two, Rizu and Fumino interrupt what looks like a behind-the-school confession session between Uruka and Nariyuki, as they’re just standing there staring at each other. But in fact, the two have agreed to help her practice casual conversation by speaking in nothing but English for the whole day.

What follows is one of the best uses of the language barrier I’ve seen in an episode of anime in some time; certainly the first I can remember which explores the ways two people for whom English is not quite a true second language can get tripped up. The two make English sound just as challenging as it must be for those who didn’t grow up speaking it.

Obviously, that includes Nariyuki complimenting Uruka’s “language skills” but Uruka thinking he said “lingerie” and becoming suitably mortified. Or how Uruka initially thinks “give up” is Japanese when it’s actually a English loan phrase. Or when two Americans ask Uruka for directions; a true test of her skills!

She manages to steer them in the right direction using her English, but then they ask if she wants to attend a barbecue with them, and she gets all flustered. That’s when Nariyuki emerges from the convenience store and they ask him what his relationship with her is.

He tries to say she’s his “precious study partner” but ends up sounding like “precious steady”, which both the Americans and Uruka construe as a steady girlfriend. Uruka is so beet-red embarrassed/happy that she has to flee from Nariyuki at once (but she stretches first, like the athlete she is!), while he’s left wondering what he said to make her react so strongly.

Then there’s the downright bizarre, self-effacing post-credits sequence where the puppy who was hanging out with Uruka tells its mother about all the errors the humans made in their English—while speaking in much better English. Great stuff!

Vinland Saga – 15 – Every Father Loves His Child

In the aftermath of Askeladd’s cruel slaughter of the villagers, Prince Canute, Ragnar, and the priest pray to God the Father before the mass grave. When the drunken priest voices his doubt of that father’s love, Canute erupts in outrage, saying all fathers love their children.

But if the priest’s faith was shaken by the massacre, it should be buoyed somewhat by the fact a survivor—Anne, from last week’s masterpiece—managed to get away without anyone noticing. She makes it to Gloucester, where as luck would have it, Thorkell’s army is encamped. Eager both to see Canute and fight Thorfinn again, he immediately prepares to head Askeladd’s way.

The foundation for Canute’s outburst at the priest was no doubt laid by his first outburst, which was in response to Thorfinn’s disrespect. In other words, the kid is finally growing a bit of a spine, at least insomuch he’s less weary of speaking his mind. In the same way, Finn’s “domestication” continues thanks to being around Canute, who secretly cooks as a hobby despite his father’s deep disapproval with his son “acting like a slave.”

Ultimately, Canute will probably have to rely on his frenemy Thorfinn after the events of the episode’s final act, in which Ragnar is killed and Askeladd assumes Canute’s guardianship.

Askeladd believes it’s for his own good, and considering how much Ragnar had coddled Canute to that point, it’s hard to argue that point. Still, Askeladd makes this move unaware of a truth Ragnar ironically would only tell him with his dying breath: King Sweyn always intended for Canute to die in battle so his other son Harald would assume the throne.

Despite how badly his father has treated him, Canute still believes his earthly father loves him, but that’s not the case; he was fine with discarding him. Thankfully, the father upstairs may still love Canute, because Canute still has Thorfinn by his side.

Vinland Saga – 10 – Dawn in the Age of Twilight

Vinland Saga has become an exercise in guarded patience, centered around the question of how long Thorfinn going to pursue revenge, and when he’s going to wake up and live his own damn life. Maybe that’s what he thinks he’s doing, and his father, both in life and in his dreams, is just wrong that there’s a better path than the one he’s on.

Maybe Thorfinn is simply caught in the inertia of the events surrounding him, and would simply rather put effort in what he sees as a sure thing—one day cutting Askeladd’s throat—than the uncertainty of returning to a life of peace with his mother and sister. After all, Thors tried to live that life, and failed when his past caught up to him.

Whether consciously or not, Thorfinn is drawing nearer to ending up just like his old man: strong and distinguished, but in too deep to ever get out. But he’s still young, and as many lives as he’s taken, it probably doesn’t come close to the number his father took. There is still plenty of time to turn his life around into something worthwhile.

His dreams start as an idyllic life that never was with his family in the endless, rolling, fertile hills that look a lot like England (or possibly Vinland). They end with the skies darkening, his village attacked, and his father run through with arrows. Will Thorfinn ever take that dream to mean stop wasting your life chasing revenge and return to his family?

Maybe, maybe not. As Vinland Saga reaches its midpoint, I’ve found Thorfinn’s quest for revenge misguided and increasingly not that interesting. I’d like to know whether it’s going to reach a point where he either finally manages to kill Askeladd and moves on to something else, or walks away from that quest entirely.

But the cloud of uncertainty persists without any regard for my wishes, and in the meantime, the Danish war with England seems to be winding down. Askeladd’s men have been mopping up lesser villages as the main army has headed north to rest. Canute has failed to do anything with his 4,000 men in London, preferring to pray to Jesus in his tent.

Askeladd’s men are so restless, the smallest insults between them become pointless fights to the death. Having awakened from his beautiful, terrible dream before dawn, Thorfinn stays above the encampment, among Roman ruins, where Askeladd finds him.


It’s there where Askeladd attempts small talk but is rebuked by Thorfinn, asserting “they’re not friends” and that he hasn’t given up his goal of slitting his throat. Askeladd likes Thorfinn’s look, but still isn’t scared. He knows time isn’t on his side, and that his would-be killer will continue to grow stronger as he grows older and weaker.

But by that same token, if the Christians are to be believed, Judgment Day and the end of everyone and everything on earth, could be upon them in as few as twenty years (an event Thorfinn likens to Ragnarok). Considering the Romans were a far more advanced society than the Saxons who defeated them (not to mention the Vikings on the cusp of defeating the Saxons), it certainly seems like humans have had their time in the sun, and now live in an age of twilight.

And yet, the sun still rises just as it always has, bathing the land in light and possibility. With the dawn comes a rider from London, who reports that Canutes forces were routed by the English led by Thorkell, who’d grown impatient waiting on the bridge and is marching his men north to meet the main Danish army.

The war is not over as long as Thorkell is with the English, while Askeladd sees the potential for great riches if he and his men rescue Prince Canute. Not wanting to share the glory or spoils of such a victory, he kills the messenger, and will make do with what he has. He fires his men up, and Thorfinn seems poised to continue following him.

If the end is coming for all, Askeladd will be satisfied with “going out with a bang.” But as we know, the world wouldn’t end in twenty years, meaning final blazes of glory are woefully premature, especially for someone like Thorfinn, who still has a mother and sister to protect, and a family and home of his own to build. With so many dawns he has yet to watch rise above the horizon, it would be a shame to descend into night now.

Vinland Saga – 09 – London Bridge is NOT Falling Down

Turns out that huge warrior leading the defence of London from its famous bridge is not even an Englishman, but a Norse giant named Thorkell. King Sweyn’s armies will make little progress until he’s out of the picture, so Askeladd sends Thorfinn to work out some of his frustration. Thorfinn makes him promise for yet another duel in exchange for Thorkell’s head.

Floki and the Jomsvikings beseech Thorkell to abandon his contract with the English and re-join the Danish army, and he’ll be paid double. But like Askeladd’s right hand man Bjorn, it’s not about themoney. Unlike Bjorn, who likes easy wins, Thorkell doesn’t want to fight the English; they’re too weak. He’d much rather fight the tougher Vikings.

As the Vikings continue their siege of the Thames, Thorkell makes any ship or soldier who comes too close regret it, sending a hail of arrows from his archers, or just heaving a massive boulder or tree trunk into the Viking ships, sinking them. He’s a bit superhuman, but heck, so are a lot of Vikings, chief(tan) among them the late Thors and his giant oar.

When Thorfinn leaps onto the bridge to face Thorkell, it’s immediately apparent the latter has a huge advantage in size and strength, and isn’t that much slower. One wonders if it would have been better for Askeladd to send Bjorn instead—preferably on his berserker mushrooms. Then again, I’m sure Askeladd values Bjorn far more than Thorfinn.

Thorfinn hangs in there about as long as you’d expect, considering the moment Thorkell gets a grip on any one of his arms or legs, it’s basically game over. Thorkell blocks Thorfinn’s dagger with his hand, then slams him back and forth against the bridge like a ragdoll.

To Thorkell’s surprise and delight, Thorfinn hasn’t lost any of his will to fight, and when Kell’s guard is down Finn claims two of the fingers from his stabbed hand before plunging into the Thames. Thorkell lets him go, hoping for another fun fight in the future.

It is clear King Sweyn bit off more than he could chew, and isn’t going to get the quick victory he wanted, so he redirects the bulk of his armies to Wessex in the west, where they’ll hopefully have more luck. He leaves the continued siege of London, and just 4,000 men, to his son Prince Canute, despite protests from Ragnar, whom the king blames for making the lad “faint of heart.”

Whether Canute succeeds in London will probably determine whether he succeeds to the throne, but as we haven’t heard a word from him, who knows how that’ll go. Perhaps at some point he’ll get some lines and we can see what kind of person and warrior he is beyond what others say about him.

As for Thorfinn, he’s washed down the river westward and meets back up with Askeladd’s crew, now headed to Wessex. After popping his dislocated shoulder back in, he joins the march, remembering the words of the “madman” Thorkell talking about how fun fighting is. But it’s not fun for Thorfinn. It never was, and probably never will be.

Vinland Saga – 08 – Bound by Past and Pride

Thankfully there are no goofy-looking generals or ships overladen with treasure falling down waterfalls without damage this week, as Askeladd’s crew returns home to the Jutland peninsula and settle down for the winter. When they arrive, there are boys eager to join the crew to replace those who died in battle, and girls eager to give Askeladd a warm welcome—and get some pretty jewelry in return.

These lands are owned by the feudal Lord Gorm, who micromanages every quarter-piece of silver it will cost for Askeladd and his men to live, eat, and drink on those lands. Askeladd is rolling in dough, so that’s not a problem. He also meets Gorm’s slave Hordaland, named after her homeland in Norway. Gorm blames her noble upbringing for her ineptness as a servant, but Askeladd thinks he’s just not using her the right way.

Oh yeah, there’s also that tiny little matter of the duel between Askeladd and Thorfinn; the time has finally come. Now that he’s older and harder, a couple women actually take notice of Thorfinn’s mild cuteness, though he once again needs a good barber…and probably a bath too.

Like last time, Askeladd treats the start of the duel rather casually, but Thorfinn immediately demonstrates that if he lets his guard down too much. He’s killed many people and gotten a lot of training and battle experience since their last duel, and it’s on full display in his less erratic, more deliberate and thoughtful fighting style.

However, in those same years Finn has gotten older and better, Askeladd is still as good as he’s ever been at using not just whoever but whatever he has to win, and he also happens to know exactly how to push Thorfinn’s buttons.

He pretends not to remember Thors’ name or whether he actually killed him, with a condescending and disrespectful tone that causes Finn to quickly lose his temper and make an ill-advised charge that Askeladd is all too ready for.

Since no one said anything about a fight to the death, and surely Askeladd has no interest in taking the life of one of his best scouts, he simply knocks him out after neutralizing him with a stunning move. Thorfinn may have become a better warrior, but he’s still no match for his captain.

That night at a huge feast, one of those eager boys sidles up to Askeladd seeking a job, and asks his possibly future captain why he risks keeping someone like Thorfinn around when he could easily kill him in his sleep? Askeladd is categorical: Finn would never do that. He is a warrior, like his father, and would never accept victory devoid of honor.

Askeladd can sleep soundly because Finn is held back by the twin binds of past and pride. He also can’t help but laugh as he watches Lord Gorm, a slave to money, beating Hordaland, not just a literal slave but a slave to her past and pride, being a former noble who had no say in her present situation.

As Thorfinn sulks aboard his father’s ship, Thors comes to him in a vision, and upon placing his hand on his son’s head, Finn turns back into a boy and bursts into tears. Thors knows nothing he can say can stop his son from seeking revenge, but reminds him again that no one has any enemies, and the most honorable warrior has no need for a sword.

When Hordaland surprises Thorfinn with some dinner, we finally get to hear how she feels about her situation, rather than just assume from how she acts around Lord Gorm. She believes, rightly so, that she and Finn aren’t that different: both are where they are because they have nowhere else to be. In her case, she believes even if she ran away and kept running, she’d just end up someplace just like Gorm’s lands.

As the snow starts to pick up, Finn tells her about Vinland, and in doing so attempts to give her some hope that it does matter whether or not you run and/or fight (Horda would never kill, and probably doesn’t want to start, but she can still run if she chooses to). True to Thors’ words of wisdom, both Finn and Horda have no real enemies—only their own self-imposed binds.

In the August of the next year (1013), King Sweyn’s armies mount a huge invasion of England, burning, pillaging, and raping their way all the way to London…where their momentum is suddenly halted by a stout defense, including someone who looks like Askeladd’s wilder English brother. Sweyn also gives his son Prince Canute a chance at valor, who along with his other son Harald, are candidates for succeeding him.

While it’s exciting to see an early London come into the picture and other big-world developments, what made this episode was the duel (and how it was won) and its more intimate moments: those between Askeladd and Gorm, Askeladd and the wannabe fighter, and between Thorfinn and Hordaland. Vinland Saga has some shiny toys to toss around, but those smaller human interactions pack a far meatier emotional punch.

Vinland Saga – 07 – Getting a Head in France

The Danish King Sweyn orders his armies’ English advances halted to give them time to rest for the winter. That means Askeladd’s crew’s contract work with the army ceases, which means they have to do as the birds do: migrate south in search of food.

It turns out there are already various factions within France fighting one another, including a siege on the Loire river in which a numerically superior Frankish force is unable to take a fort held by only a handful of their enemies. Askeladd sends in Thorfinn, older but still a kid, to make a deal with the besieging army.

Their general—who has a distorted cartoony design that resembles a fat toad, and with a weird voice to match—reluctantly agrees to ally with Askeladd’s men for the siege. The general’s out-of-place appearance is another sign that while Vinland Saga can be very realistic when it wants to be, it’s still depicting a highly stylized version of history and reality.

A more overt sign is when Askeladd’s men join the Frankish general’s armies in the siege the next morning, they come lugging their three boats on their shoulders and running at full speed; at least 25mph (the current record for human speed is Usain Bolt’s 27.8mph; he was not carrying a viking ship).

So yeah, even if the Vikings did carry their ships around on occasions when it was necessary to take land shortcuts, they certainly didn’t carry them that quickly, and I imagine when they were done carrying them they didn’t have enough energy remaining to not just fight a battle, but absolutely dominate in it.


Of course, challenging realism in this show is a slippery slope, so I’ll stop there, as it’s more plausible that after however many years Thorfinn has trained and killed for Askeladd, he’s become a finely-honed, ninja-like killing machine. There’s a long line of soldiers between him and their commander, but he cuts through them all like butter. Unfortunately, when he beheads the commander, the head falls into the lake, and the whole reason he went up there was to claim their leader’s head.

The Frankish general/prince was planning to betray Askeladd when it made the most sense to do so, but Askeladd betrays him first, pillaging the village of all treasure and leaving the worthless empty fort, and the victory, for the general.

Presenting the head of the commander, Thorfinn formally challenges Askeladd to the duel he’s owed once more, and Askeladd formally accepts…but only after they’ve escaped to safety. That means rowing their three big viking ships—likely overladen by treasure and other spoils—down a steep waterfall. Not only do the ships make it down without a scratch, but not a single gold coin spills out.

Despite all the action in this episode, it still felt rather static, in that Thorfinn and Askeladd’s unresolved conflict hung over everything, and the fact it was once again delayed despite Finn meeting the requirements feels like another artifical delay, for which their French excursion felt like so much window dressing. The comic-relief buffonish toad man and questionable physics further undermined the outing.

Vinland Saga – 06 – Engulfed by the Quarrels of Men

On November 13, 1002, King Æthelred II of orders all Danish immigrants in England killed. The Danish respond by sending troops across the sea, and the Vikings—Danish pirates—serve as the “army’s army.” Askeladd’s crew are right in the middle of this.

When English archers ambush their camp, Thorfinn gets a crash course in mass death, killing, and living with it, taking his first life and letting out a cry of vicious despair that carries through the forest, while Askeladd observes in quiet approval.

The battles with the English continue, and Thorfinn continues to kill and gets better at it, with his enemies continually underestimating him due to his size and youth. Askeladd starts using him as a scout, and he manages to kill two foes who come at him, gaining a second dagger with which he dual-wields henceforth.

While on another scouting mission he takes an arrow to the shoulder and washes up on a branch in a river in East Anglia. A kindly, God-fearing mother and her daughter take him in, clean him up, and feed him. The daughter worries (rightfully) that he’s a Dane, their enemy; but her mom doesn’t think any women or children should be bothered with the quarrels of men.

The mother even combs the fleas and lice from Thorfinn’s unruly hair, with the same comb she used to use on her son, who died of a cold two years ago. An English soldier arrives looking for a pint-sized scout, but the mother covers for Finn.

That night, while the daughter continues to argue with her mother about harboring him, Finn abruptly takes his leave, saying just one word to them in English: Run. He then sets a cottage on the beach aflame; the signal to Askeladd to make his landing.

The mother doesn’t run as Finn urged her; she comes to the beach and sees for herself the boy she nursed back to health and harbored: a rabid killing machine. When Finn spots her among the crowd, tears streaming down her cheeks, guilt momentarily washes across his face, as he remembers his own mother and older sister.

Then the mother is simply gobbled up by the charging viking horde, Finn takes a deep breath, and the guilt is replaced by cold detachment as he too gets lost in the crush, joining his fellow fighters in the latest retaliatory raid on a relatively well-off English village. The comb the mother used on him is trod upon and broken, and perhaps with it any possible chance of Thorfinn turning back from his current, blood-soaked path.