Vinland Saga – 24 (Fin) – The Prelude Hath Ended

I tell you, gentle reader, I was not ready for the epic-ness this episode dished out, nor the way it completely exploded my idea of where I thought this show might be headed in a rhetorical second season. But I don’t watch shows to have my feeble theories proven right; I watch to be entertained and surprised, which I very much was. Though in hindsight, it was folly not to expect absolutely anything from Askeladd.

Last week we saw Askeladd dreading the corner into which he’d been pushed. On one hand, he must make nice with King Sweyn in order to keep the longer-term plans for Canute’s ascent viable. On the other, Sweyn seems to have deduced Askeladd’s Kryptonite to be Wales, and aims to mercilessly exploit that weakness.

Sweyn entertains Askeladd’s boldness after he attempts to dissuade the king with logic: Wales just isn’t worth it. But in exchange for his lenience, he draws in close to Askeladd and gives him a choice: Canute or Wales. He can only save one. Sweyn twists the knife by telling Askeladd the only good export from Wales is slaves.

Out at the port, Thorfinn boards Leif’s ship—the very same ship he dreamed of boarding as a boy so he could join Erikson on his adventures hither and thither. Finally he’s been given permission to embark, but Thorfinn’s attention is captured by a seabird preening then taking flight into the bright blue sky.

It almost looks like a metaphor for Thorfinn’s present state of freedom and potential for more, but it turns out to be an omen. The bird isn’t his freedom, but the lodestar to which he’s hitched his wagon these past eleven years, about to take off without him. Thorfinn suddenly vanishes from the ship, to Leif’s unyielding dismay.

Let it be said that Askeladd is, as Thorkell puts it, “good with words.” It’s why he had his own loyal army for so long, and why he’s able to openly question the king’s judgment.  But he’s always had deep thoughts to match behind those words, as well as decisive action to back them up. But had thought long and hard for a scenario in which Sweyn would make him choose between his homeland and his chosen heir to the throne?

Hard, perhaps; long, hard to say. “Plan B” happens in a hurry, because Askeladd would never get as good a chance as he had in that moment. So he draws his sword and beheads Sweyn with one swipe before the guards can come near. If he and Sweyn were playing chess, this is Ashy flipping the board and letting the pieces clatter on the ground in chaos. He also reveals his true birth name, Lucius Artorius Castus, offering it as proof he is the rightful King of England.

Askeladd, to most in the hall, appears to have gone quite mad, and the extremity of his rambling continues as he carves through the guards, who it is notable to mention follow orders from Prince Canute. Askeladd isn’t really mad at all; he simply surveyed the board and knew he wouldn’t win without sacrifice. When Canute tells Thorkell of Askeladd’s “act”, Thorkell makes it clear that it must be Canute who executes his father’s murderer.

Canute manages to do so, plunging his sword into Askeladd’s heart, impressing the old man with the precision of his first killing strike. Thorfinn is too late to stop it. The plans surrounding who will rule the Danes and England proved too large and important to pay any bother to his personal vendetta, something that had gone on so long it had soured into a pathetic futility; a source of pathos, not fear.

When a stunned Thorfinn suddenly lashes out at Canute, cutting his perfect cheek, the new king’s loyal subjects line up to kill his would-be assassin. But Canute interrupts their attempts to win favor with the new boss; Thorfinn still isn’t that important. Canute immediately cancels any incursions into Wales, and as everyone assembled bends the knee, he orders his armies to prepare for English revolts in the wake of his father’s death.

The conquered must be made to understand that the new king has no intention of giving up what has been taken. Thorfinn could potentially have a part in that, thanks only to Canute’s surpassing charity, which saved his life. It would be too easy to say Canute did a disservice to Thorfinn, even if the kid’s life has never looked bleaker.

There he sits, beside the fresh corpse of his surrogate father and nemesis, unable and even possibly incapable of even considering how he’ll live the next five minutes, let alone the remaining years of his life. Before he dies, Askeladd begged Thorfinn not to let himself get stuck in “such a boring place” as he currently inhabits.

As he’s carried away, Thors’ dagger falls out of his son’s hand, the past twenty-four episodes of Vinland Saga thus far rapidly unfold, reflected in the blade. Then we’re teased with new locations and new characters, but no explicit announcement of a second season. While it seems highly likely one is coming, questions abound: Will Thorfinn be a part of it, or will his story conclude in an upcoming film?

Whatever the case, this finale was a brilliant culmination of the events that have unfolded thus far, with the stories of old players like Sweyn and Askeladd coming to a close and the stories of young players like Thorfinn and Canute still up in the air. More than anything, it left me wanting more, and hoping to get it as soon as possible. After all, if such a tremendous work was merely the prologue, how does that bode for the story proper?

Vinland Saga – 23 – Adrift At Sea

Following the thorough and decisive physical and emotional ownage cast upon him by Askeladd, Thorfinn is quite literally lost. Limping through the mud, his arm searing with pain and the blood still on his face, he can’t be bothered to do much of anything, aside from engage in a bit of street brawling and get arrested and thrown in jail.

Canute, meanwhile, begins the intricate dance of death with his father Sweyn at the council of elders. The king embraces his son and thanks the gods for returning him and Thorkell, then appoints Canute to rule the fertile and prosperous lands of Mercia, hard won by his leal service. To Askeladd’s eyes, everything is going as he had foreseen…right up until it doesn’t.

While the king is playing nice, he adds a caveat that, intentionally or not, changes the game completely: announcing his intention to open up a new front against Wales in the Spring. This leaves Askeladd scrambling to think of a counter-move that will still net Canute the crown without setting his beloved homeland ablaze. He doesn’t come up with one here, indicating he underestimated the king’s wits. And Floki definitely notices Askeladd going pale (as Ash!) upon hearing Wales.


As for Thorfinn, he’s probably where he should be considering how he’s basically squandered the last eleven years of his life on a meaningless, self-defeating, futile quest for revenge. Leif Erikson hears he’s been locked up, and visits the jail to try to snap him out of this profound slump, first by considering it a matter of personal honor to return Thorfinn to Iceland.

That doesn’t go over so well, so Leif offers him something else: The New World: Vinland. Perhaps there, Thorfinn can gain a new, more fulfilling purpose. To his credit, Thorfinn sits up and doesn’t immediately dismiss the offer. Here’s hoping he takes it, especially if things with Askeladd turn sideways.

Vinland Saga – 22 – How to Kill Someone You Hate

Before the latest Thorfinn-Askeladd duel, Thorkell asks Prince Canute who he wants to win, as it who he’d bet money on. Canute doesn’t care who wins. His only task is to stop the duel before someone dies. Ever the King-in-waiting, Canute, looking further out than anyone. The prince then puts the question to Thorkell, who says he’s got Askeladd in this one. When asked why, particularly when Thorfinn beat him, Thorkell goes in real close, and again Canute shows how much he’s matured by not flinching.

Why Askeladd? “Just a feeling. It’s his aura.” Thorkell isn’t kidding. Askleadd just mercy-killed his only friend not a minute ago, and Bjorn’s body is still warm when the duel with Thorfinn takes place. Only it’s not much of a duel. As much of an age advantage Finn might have, he’s missing a fully-functioning arm, and he’s so angry and obsessed with finally cutting his father’s murderer’s throat, he’s rendered an absolute joke of a fighter.

Askeladd, as “in the zone” as a warrior can be, tosses his sword away, so confident he can put Thorfinn down with his bare hands. And he does. Thorkell is disappointed. But Askeladd is fed up with Thorfinn, and moves to deliver a killing blow, seemingly stopped only by a direct order from Canute.

From there, Askeladd declares Thorfinn an exhausting, unrepentant idiot, because he fights like an idiot, both by going into the duel injured, letting his temper get the best of him, and letting his win over Thorkell inflate his opinion of himself. So Askeladd has a seat on the remnant of what could be a Roman wall, and gives his life story, in hopes of teaching the boy “how to kill someone you hate”.

Thorfinn and Askeladd are alike in many ways, but while they both had frail mothers, their childhoods were vastly different. Thorfinn lived in a comfortable, cozy, loving, free family; Askeladd’s mother was a slave his father Olaf raped, and Olaf didn’t bother even naming his bastard children. At age eleven, Askeladd (so named because of his propensity for being covered in ash and soot) had to keep his mother alive as well as himself.

Despite their dire situation, he and his mother were descendants of Artorius, and she never stopped believing that one day he would return from paradise and free his people from bondage and despair. But one day, when his mother snapped and recklessly approached Olaf in the streets, and Olaf raised his sword to kill her, Askeladd knew: Artorius would never return.

That meant someone else—not a hero or a god, just a person—had to save his mother, and himself. For Askeladd, that person was him. Despite having never been trained in swordsmanship, he picked up a blade and used it, putting up a decent fight against Olaf and finally gaining his attention. Far from angry this child attacked him, Olaf sees potential in young Ash, and brings him into his hall.

For two years, Askeladd was trained by his father and half-brothers in both bow and blade, and became someone trusted, accepted and adored by all. Then, one night, the 13-year-old Askeladd made his move, plunging a sword into his father’s throat and killing the only witness, a woman sharing his bed. The sword belonged to the black sheep of the legitimate brothers, and so the murder was pinned on him, not Askeladd.

Olaf’s guard was down, and Askeladd had already determined a path to inheriting his property. Then and only then he struck, with all the certainty his poor mother had that Artorius would come. His people waited 50o years for their hero to arrive, and in the meantime suffered and stagnated. Askeladd only waited two years, until the time he knew he could kill the one he hated.

It’s a masterful story, masterfully told by Askeladd’s seiyu Uchida Naoya, who deserves all the awards.

It’s a stark contrast to Thorfinn, who has been trying to kill Askeladd since the moments after his father died, believing that somehow losing his temper, shouting loudly, and waving his sword around could lead to victory. In this way, Vinland Saga subverts the shounen formula of prevailing by doing all three of those things! His belief that victory will eventually come has been just as futile as Askeladd’s mother’s dream of Artorius’ return.

While it took Askeladd only two years to kill Olaf, it’s been ten years for Thorfinn, and he’s no closer to killing Askeladd. If anything, he’s less likely to do so now that he’s endured so many injuries in battle. He cannot contest Askeladd’s assertion that he’s an idiot, because Askeladd had an objectively worse past and achieved his revenge in less than a fifth of the time it’s taking Finn.

Askeladd’s final barbs before carrying Bjorn away to be buried, about Thorfinn being no better than a dog chasing after food and being “useful” since it’s so easy to “pay” him with these occasional duels he’ll never win, rankles Thorfinn anew, but he can barely stand, and Canute has to prop him up and insist he let his wounds heal before trying again.

Canute also asks Askeladd why he doesn’t just seek the throne himself, Askeladd laughs. Canute is far more suited to being king than either Askeladd or Sweyn. Askeladd considers himself “just a Viking.” If Vikings are anything, they’re decisive, and act to further their interestrs? Had he followed his mother’s path of simply waiting for a hero who will never come, he’d have died long ago.

To be alive today to teach whippersnappers valuable lessons, he became what he hated. Kingship is out of the question.