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Vinland Saga [Season 2] (2023)


We all love violence. We can find any number of charitable interpretations to twist our morbid passion for violence into something innocuous: martial arts can be quite beautiful; it provides a sense of vicarious empowerment in a scary world; it’s so, damn cathartic.  

A common way of justifying violence from our heroic characters is to pose them as fighting “for good,” either in defense or for a good cause. Just about any act, from robbery to assault to murder, can be twisted from its savage appeal to the reptilian brain into something noble, even peaceful. Many of us became enthralled with anime because of the abundance of blood-thirsty heroes it often has to offer, especially in anime meant for children.

It can’t be helped - kids want to see it, so we should at least show them violence being done “for good.”

Vinland Saga is a scathing indictment of this feeble justification. Season 1 of Vinland Saga is straight out of the age of the Heroic Code, where great men were determined as such by the greatness of their cruelty. The show stood apart from its contemporaries by presenting an honest vision of how this ‘heroism’ really looked at the time, rendered in the shapes and colors we associate with shonen anime with mass appeal.

Season 1 of this show is deeply ugly: even fighting children are drawn with whited-out eyes and gnashing teeth with harsh, conspicuously dark lines between them. One character is even turned into a sort of unconscious beast when fighting (after eating a mushroom. Not my personal experience with conscious-altering mushrooms, but alright).

It was, at many times, hard to love season 1 of this show. The showers of blood, the mass-killing of civilians, the allusions to rape, the endlessly brutal treatment of slaves, and the callous ends of the show’s most gentle characters, displayed in an often hyper-active and sometimes immature way, had me constantly on the edge of either boredom or complete disgust. The incessant voice of the narrator, who seemed to bust into episodes at unwelcomed moments, seems callous and unfeeling as it glazes bloodlessly over the political events of the time. That voice feels mocking in its neutrality: don’t worry, it’s far more gruesome than it looks.

It was with great surprise, and relief, to see that this special brand of violence was not only reversed, but brilliantly capitalized on in season 2. The grueling experience of the first season ushered in a largely meditative and highly discursive second season. The show’s early commitment to showing pain and brutality over, and over, and over again served to bring the high-minded conversations and realizations of season 2 into vivid and visceral understanding. This show doesn’t do empty or thoughtless words, and I cannot tell you how refreshing and dignified I found that. 


The best moments of season 2, which concluded on June 19th, are the parts where character’s turn inward to face themselves. One particularly striking sequence takes place in a dream, where Thorfinn conceives of Valhalla (a Norse afterlife, similar to heaven, where warriors go after falling in battle) as a blood pit where the skeletons of every person he ever killed endlessly beat and break eachother: more an ironic, Dantean circle of hell than anything like heaven.

I won’t spoil the conclusion of this dream for any undecided, potential viewers reading, but the power and drama of this scene is so much greater than any mundane show where a hero has to rally their strength to win a fight or learn to ‘never give up.’ The despair of knowing he has committed truly evil acts, and resolving not to shuffle onto the easy path of ‘self-defense,’ is so much more authentic, affecting, and real than any final battle. I’m reminded of the arc words of another anime: you’re gonna carry that weight.


The season has a pacifistic version of a final fight: in keeping with the religious undertones of the show, where Norse polytheism is painted as bloody and savage and Christianity is pascifistic to the extreme (it was literally medival times, cut them some slack), the show renders a final fight that seems to intentionally allude to the famous biblical quote:

“You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth. ' But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”

This quasi-fight inspires the onlooking soldiers, who seem to grasp the mythic size of the event they are watching unfold: it’s not weakness that leads to pascifism. Indeed it takes great strength, fortitude, and courage, as many civil rights leaders have taught us in the past century.


The final showdown of this season, after this ‘fight,’ is one of words and ideas. It is the most exciting, vivid, and tense scene of the entire series. One particularly striking moment of beautiful animation and bombastic poetics is cinched effortlessly with a witty, surprising, and poignant reversal. You’ll know the moment when you see it: it was the first time in watching this show that I felt certain I was in the hands of adept writers.

Canute, once a sensitive and shy prince, has quickly blossomed beyond the determined visionary he almost became in season 1 and withered into a shrewd and pernicious king. While Thorfinn and Canute have worked decently as foils throughout the show, with the trajectories of their character arcs crossing and passing each other in a vaguely symmetrical way, I found the conclusion of the young king’s arc somewhat lacking in this season. Particularly because, after the intensely moving and thought-provoking confronation between these characters in episode 22, the last two episodes were a bit weighed down by the tying up of Thorfinn’s 16-year-long adventure. I was as excited as anyone to see where Thorfinn would go next and how he would confront the world he left behind. But much of these remaining episodes after the climax seemed like the product of a few well-written and powerful scenes that got just a little out of hand in the drafting process. 


Canute’s shaky relationship with pascificm really should have come to a more pronounced culmination in the fallout of his meeting with Thorfinn. As Einar points out, Canute’s big plans of colonizing a grand empire through war, coercion, theft, and murder are at odds with his stated goal of ending violence in the region. Thorfinn and Einar, the season’s voice of the small folks, have enough of an effect on Canute to neatly resolve the battle (the least interesting part of the season), but somehow not enough to send him onto an introspective journey of his own. This season has gone far beyond the last one in exposing Canute’s inner turmoil: as an anti-Christian, his conversations with the decaying head of his own father almost seem like a twisted version of mystic visions some medival nuns were said to have of Jesus. With such a powerful tool to express his feelings, I have to wonder why his final scenes of the season feel so flat, and even a bit rushed.


Einar is another character who doesn’t feel quite settled by the end of the finale. With the exception of a very sweet moment with Thorfinn’s mother that wraps a warm blanket around the horrific loss of his mother in the very first episode, his development fizzles out a bit to make room for Thorfinn’s many moments of closure and reunion. 

Einar has his own complicated history with violence: one that almost mirrors Canute’s. Canute turns a blind eye to the people effected by his violence to work toward his goal of systemic peace in the future; Einar abhors this abstracted stance on violence that crushes the little guys at the bottom of society, but can’t can’t seem to control his own body when he feels the violence of the broader system closing in on him. Thorfinn doesn’t know how to reconcile these two visions of pascificm and violence, so it would make sense if Einar and Canute ended the series without concluded arcs. But any indication that these were still burning and difficult questions the side-characters were wrestling with would have made for a more purposeful and structured lynchpin to the season.

The show seems to be promising a radical change in setting and focus once again in season 3, and I can’t wait. This is one of the few shows that consciously has me coming back for more philosophy and heavy, ethical discussions. I want to know what a peaceful colonialization might look like: how will Thorfinn’s people engage with the native people of the “New World”? Is there always a pacifistic solution and how far will our “true warrior” be able to go to for his beliefs? I have high hopes for the next season, and if the writers can commit to fleshing out the supporting ideas of their side-characters and continuing to develop their relationships with Thorfinn, I know it won’t disappoint.

 FORMAT: SERIES AVAILABLE ON: STREAMING  FROM: Crunchyroll/ Netflix RATING: TV-MA [US] 15[UK]  RUNNING TIME : 24 mins x  24 episodes

IN A NUTSHELL:  Season 2 of Vinland Saga capitalizes on the distinct tone of the first season, and despite some bland choices toward the end, delivers some striking and unique moments anime fans won’t want to miss..


Shain Slepian is a screenwriter, script consultant, and content creator with a life-long love of animation and media analysis. Their work can be found on MediumLeft Voice, and on their YouTube channel, TimeCapsule. Shain's book, Reframing The Screenwriting Process, is available on Amazon.