If there’s anything that I think we need to take away from Vinland Saga‘s second season so far, it is this: Einar is very good. Here’s a guy who watched his whole family get slaughtered, got forced into a life of hard labor as a slave, and now finds himself as the close partner to a self-pitying Danish warrior that represents everything that ruined his life in the first place. How has Einar responded to this adversity so far? Aside from that one teensy little slip into “almost choking Thorfinn to death in his sleep,” Einar has been a beacon of humanity and positivity. He has fought to maintain his sense of self while pursuing his promised freedom in return for his hard work and compliance, and he has gone out of his way to befriend and even mentor Thorfinn. He is, in his own way, showing a commitment to fighting for his own right to exist that Thorfinn has straight-up forgotten how to do at this point, and I can only hope that Einar’s hard work and commitment pay off. Given the nature of his position in society, I’m not sure how realistic it is to expect fair and humane treatment for either of our protagonists at this point. Still, I’m trying to take a page from Einar’s book and think positively.
After all, as “I Want a Horse” takes so much care to show, the journey towards freedom can be slow and frustrating, but you can still find moments of grace and dignity if you look in the right places. On the surface, this might seem like a very “uneventful” episode of Vinland Saga, since the whole plot is concerned with Einar and Thorfinn’s attempts to secure one measly horse to help them rip the stumps out of the farmland they’re meant to be cultivating for Ketil. That’s really about it. There’s no politicking, no conflict with the local mercenaries, and not even one PTSD-induced flashback to traumatize Thorfinn. That lack of overt violence and drama is exactly the point, though.
There are two scenes this week that perfectly encapsulate the themes of this entire story arc, and they have nothing to do with war or conquest. The first comes when Einar and Thorfinn have finally made progress in their quest for their one loaned horse on account of the generosity of an enigmatic and very surly old man named Sverkel. While Einar is basking in the glory of their success, Thorfinn admits that he doesn’t even know what crops they will be planting come the fall. Later, he remarks on how impressive and revolutionary the technology of the plow is, and Einar can only see Thorfinn’s newfound curiosity and interest in the world around him as that of a newborn baby. It’s a bit on the nose so far as metaphors for rebirth and spiritual renewal are concerned, but we’re working within the context of an ancient saga here. The realm of the near-mythic. It’s perfectly okay to be a little blunt. For the first time in years, Thorfinn is showing a genuine interest in the life he is living, in the world that he lives in, and that is a monumental victory, no matter how small it may seem on the surface.
Later, after Thorfinn and Einar discover that Sverkel is none other than Ketil’s father, the pair overhear a candid argument between the father and son, who cannot see eye-to-eye when it comes to the old man’s insistence on working the land that isn’t even truly his to claim anymore. Earlier in the season, Vinland Saga made a point to highlight how meager the slaves’ rations are when Ketil’s men are in charge. In stark contrast to that demeaning behavior, Sverkel offers both men (and Snake, who’s just chilling) a full, warm meal. “Men who work deserve to eat,” he says, and while that might seem the most obvious truism to modern viewers with even an ounce of human compassion, given the time period, Sverkel’s words are downright revolutionary.
This is a time where, by virtue of law and custom, there are whole swathes of men and women who most certainly do not deserve to eat, no matter how much they work. This moment of recognition, where Sverkel so casually and matter-of-factly acknowledges that our heroes are, in fact, human beings, is another one of those tiny victories that are gargantuan when you look at where the two are at in their journeys. Their success out in the field was a major one, yes, but it was still at the behest of the wealthy man who owns Thorfinn and Einar as property. This dinner, though? That belongs to them.
So, yes, this may be another episode of Vinland Saga that has little more to it than a couple of broken men trying to farm some land and earn their freedom. Still, in the context of Thorfinn’s larger story, it’s as riveting and emotionally satisfying as any of the battles and betrayals that defined Thorfinn’s entire concept of “living” up until now. It makes the jump forward in time to a slightly older and even closer Thorfinn and Einar at the end of the episode so goddamned delightful. What our wayward hero has had to learn is that some of the most important battles are fought from within, where your only weapons are your wits, your calloused hands, and the meals you share with strangers and friends alike. He probably never knew, at least not until Einar came into his life, that these are battles he can win.
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