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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Vinland Saga: Season 2, Part 1 Review

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This is a review of the first 12 episodes of season two of Vinland Saga, now streaming on Crunchyroll and Netflix.


Anime is filled with great stories, but it is not very often that one gets the sort of compelling character study and development that’s more frequently found in prestige TV dramas like The Sopranos or Better Call Saul. Sure, there are outliers likeNeon Genesis Evangelion or Berserk, but those are easily the exceptions rather than the rule. This makes it all the more impressive that the emotional journey of Thorfinn Thorsson in Vinland Saga is already proving to be one of the all-time great character arcs in any TV show, period – particularly in the first 12 episodes of what’s shaping up to be a pretty fantastic second season.

Vinland Saga season two takes a big gamble. After spending a whole 24-episode season on the exciting and brutal story of a warrior coming of age on the battlefield amidst countless bloody battles and flying heads, this season started very differently – we gained a new co-protagonist in Einar, and found out Thorfinn is now living as a slave on a Danish farm. The pace has somehow slowed down even more than before and the tone has shifted dramatically, going from reveling in its violence to taking a hard, thoughtful look at its role. Most of these first 12 episodes just follow Thorfinn and Einar as they work on the farm and deal with their situation, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still captivating to watch Thorfinn slowly repent and come to terms with his sins.

Though it was present in the first season, this season of Vinland Saga really highlights how well-paced this show is. It tells a very methodical and meditative slow-burn of a story, but that works wonderfully here. The right amount of tension is maintained in every scene while making room for great character growth to happen organically. And despite how slow it may seem, a lot still does happen, as these 12 initial episodes do as much to let us get to know Einar as most other shows would do in two full seasons.

This is best exemplified in Thorfinn's journey of redemption. Throughout these episodes, he reckons with the violence he inflicted on others, having now realized how pointless it all was since Askeladd's death brought him no peace. This agent of death and destruction deciding to now devote his life to pacifism is truly a jaw-dropping moment for the show, and Yūto Uemura does incredible work selling Thorfinn's transformation while grounding it in the pain that led him to this choice.

Above all else, this is a tragedy, and a rather compelling one at that.


Speaking of violence, Vinland Saga remains very much interested in exploring the role it plays in society in fascinating ways. We see that in the juxtaposition of Thorfinn and Olmar's stories, and even in that of Canute, as the once gentle kid now embraces violence and ruthless assassination plots to gain power, slowly building his Eden on top of countless corpses. This is now Canute's show just as much as it is Thorfinn's, and it is fascinating to watch him sink into his own path of violence. Above all else, this is a tragedy, and a rather compelling one at that.

Likewise, Olmar, the son of the farm's owner, has spent his entire life buying into the idea that killing is a sacred and noble ideal, as well as a way to prove one's manhood. But he gets a devastating awakening when he sees the reality of combat, as this season of Vinland Saga also interrogates how violence is generally used as a spectacle in anime at large, including in this very show's first season.

The team at MAPPA (all returning from the first season despite the change in studio) gives us more of the gnarly and bloody battles it’s known for, but now portrays them as brutal and unforgiving, as ugly and grotesque rather than exciting. There are moments where the action is justified and exhilarating, and the animation still looks phenomenal – but this is not a story about cool fights and heroic warriors dispatching enemies left and right, and it is thrilling to see these ideas explored in a more effective way than most anti-war anime. There is no honor in fighting, Vinland Saga argues over and over again, and no shiny Valhalla waiting. On the contrary, this season even interestingly twists Thorfinn's idea of Valhalla into a hellish nightmare where warriors are doomed to fight for all eternity.

Verdict

Vinland Saga season two take a huge risk by shifting gears significantly, even confronting its own fan base that started watching on the promise of fun Viking slaughter. That narrative gamble paid off big time, with the first half of this season already delivering an exhilarating story and  exploring bolder character arcs and more complex themes of redemption and the price of violence — all while delivering one of the all-time best character journeys on television. There are many other Viking shows airing right now, but only one dares to be this nuanced and complex. In retrospect, Vinland Saga season one truly does feel like the prologue to this, the actual story it always wanted to tell, and we are all better off for it.

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