You know, even if this week’s episode of Vinland Saga wasn’t titled “Iron Fist Ketil”, I would have been able to clock that some bad shit was about to go down based purely on the fact that the opening minutes of the episode are just so damned sweet. First we get that incredibly cute exchange between Einar and Arnheid that only underlines how special it was for our heroes to be treated with such humanity by Sverkel last week, and then we get one of my absolute favorite moments of this entire second season so far: Thorfinn regarding the fragile wheat sprouts that he helped planed with genuine awe and appreciation. Not only does it encapsulate Thorfinn’s whole character arc in such a wonderfully simple way, the comedic bit where Einar ropes Thorfinn into praying to whatever god will help bring a good harvest is hilarious.
Of course, this being Vinland Saga, we have no reason to be spoiled with such revelry and good cheer without suspecting that the series is just going to sucker punch us with more period-appropriate drama and misery, and yeah, that’s exactly what we get when Snake and Ketil’s eldest son, Thorgil, force their father to confront the two very young thieves that they have recently captured and interrogated. The younger men demand punishment, and with the way that Thorgil espouses his father’s legendary exploits as the “Iron Fist”, its clear that nobody is crying out for Ketil to have mercy on the children that sit shackled at his feet…except for Ketil himself. As this agonizing sequence draws on for essentially the rest of the episode, it becomes all too obvious that Ketil’s gentle demeanor and desire to treat his slaves with at least a modicum of kindness hasn’t been an act. He really does abhor violence, and he feebly attempts to veer the conversation away from straight up dismembering the brother of the pair, Sture, and instead prefers the solution that Pater offers, which is simply to force Sture and his sister into indentured servitude until they work off their debts.
We cannot go so far as to absolve him of the moral failings that belong to anyone that would own other people as their own property, but Ketil is clearly a man who is at odds with the expectations of “strength” and unfeeling subjugation that the culture and time period demand. Even Pater, a former slave himself who must surely understand the pain and degradation that comes with corporal punishment, cannot envision a circumstance where Sture is able to walk away without some form of flogging. When the awful deed is done, at Ketil’s own hand, Ketil is reduced to blubbering in Arnheid’s lap and confessing that he made up all of those stories about “The Iron Fist”, it is almost enough to make you feel bad for the man. Almost.
A part of what makes Vinland Saga such a remarkably written piece of historical fiction is the way it has always been able to paint its cast as complicated and even relatable figures without ever trying to let them off the hook for the damage that they do. Yes, Ketil seems to be a decent enough man, and he clearly harbors a lot of guilt and shame over what he felt “forced” to do to the defenseless child that simply tried to keep his family from starving, but he is still, at the end of the day, a slave owner. He may have his own hardships to endure, but he also lives a life chock full of comforts and privileges that are built on the backs of the exploited and abused. Even his relationship with Arnheid, which Ketil describes as the one good thing he has in his life, is founded on a dynamic of rape, since there’s no way that Arnheid could ever truly say “no” to what her master expects of her.
When Arnheid tells Ketil that “there should be nothing wrong with being kind”, it is not only a neat summation of one of this season’s central themes, it is also a subtle but damning indictment of the entire system that allows Ketil’s family to live the way they do. Ketil might end up comforting himself with the notion that the punishment that he dealt to the boy was preferable to the brutalizing that Thorgil would have given him, but the lesser of two evils is still evil. Such is the way of this world, at this time. It will take someone with real courage and real strength to break away from it completely and search for something better.
Vinland Saga Season 2 is currently streaming on