The first two episodes of this season of Vinland Saga have been relatively low-key. But given the circumstances, there was never any question that things could get seriously ugly at any turn. This is the canvas on which Yukimura Makoto has chosen to paint this phase of the story – slavery allows for basically any and all atrocities you can imagine and none of them are outlandish in context. It’s the very definition of a dehumanizing institution – “peculiar” indeed. It’s a very different sort of darkness than he pursued with the first season, but that’s just a testament to how good Yukimura is as a writer.
The general sense of unease which began when the two bodyguards intercepted the drunk Olmar in the wheat fields last week intensified exponentially here. Those two are Fox (Takahashi Shinya) and Badger (Gotou Hiroki) – whether mercenaries using animal names was standard practice in this time and place or it’s a narrative affectation I don’t know. They refer to themselves as “guests”, and they basically act as Ketil’s private army – a landowner as wealthy as he would certainly need one. But when men like that have nothing to do (i.e. no one to kill), they go looking for amusement in other ways. And Olmar is an easy mark for them.
Olnar is not stupid. Even drunk, he realizes that these men are “laughing inside” at him, but he’s a surly 17 year-old desperate to be taken seriously and uncomfortably aware of his own limitations. Eventually Fox and Badger convince him that the way for him to become a real man is to kill someone. And being a slave owner, he has a ready supply of victims who carry no legal protections whatsoever. Olmar might get in trouble with his father for destroying his property – that’s about the worst he has to consider. That’s what slavery is, as Fox rightly points out.
As for the slaves, Einar is more or less seamlessly slipping into his role but on this morning Thorfinn wakes up screaming from a nightmare he can’t remember. He has no shortage of traumas to recall – having watched both and father and the man who dominated his existence after his father’s death surrender their lives to save his obviously changed him. Not that there might not be more besides – Thorfinn not remembering the dream suggests the possibility that something from the gap between the first and second seasons could be involved. Einar is soon enough distracted by seeing the beautiful blonde girl again. This time they speak, and her name is Arnheid (Sako Mayumi). And much to his surprise, she’s not in fact the boss’ daughter but a slave herself (there’s hope, then).
It’s not hard to see where all this is going. But it’s the low-key, matter of fact way Yukimura and Yabuta portray it that makes it so chilling. Fox and Badger lead Einer and Thorfinn back to their barracks, and Fox – the ringleader if ever there was one – chooses Einar to be be Olmar’s first kill. Einar is still naive enough to be horrified at the injustice of it, Olmar is just horrified generally, and for Fox and Badger it’s a mildly amusing distraction. Einar has in mind to throw himself on Olmar and buy Thorfinn time to run to the master for help, but Thorfinn doesn’t move a muscle. Eventually with a sigh he offers himself in Einar’s place, but that’s when things get really horrifying.
Fox’ umbrage at Thorfinn’s offer is based on a simple premise – he and his ilk sell death. Thus anything that lowers the market value of death lowers his bargaining power, and death’s value comes from people being afraid of it. Thorfinn’s indifference is an affront to that – and it continues even when Fox starts ruthlessly slashing Thorfinn all over his body and (eventually) face. The really heartbreaking part of this is seeing just how dead inside Thorfinn has become. He’s not right of course that nothing good ever happened to him – his family loved him – Leif too – and so did Askeladd after a fashion. But Thorfinn can’t imagine a scenario where his life is worth fighting for any longer. He’s totally packed it in.
Into this breach steps Snake (Komatsu Fuminori). As we meet him he’s waking up (with a book over his face, which is very notable in this setting), and hectoring his grandfather to make him breakfast. The old man refuses on the grounds that Snake never helps in the fields, so he lazily ambles over to the guardhouse And judging by Fox and Badger’s reaction when he arrives, his presence there is a rare occurrence. He sizes up the situation pretty quickly – one gets the idea that Snake is not a man who needs a lot of explanation to understand a situation – and makes his displeasure clear to Fox in no uncertain terms. Unfortunately by this time Thorfinn has already suffered at least a dozen cuts and lost half his left ear (to which he still refuses to react).
That this chain of events is shocking is no bold proclamation, but the thing is, it shouldn’t be – for a slave this sort of thing was hardly an aberration. Thorfinn will snap back to life at some point, obviously – we have no story otherwise – and it seems very likely Snake’s arrival will be the first catalyst. Again, Snake is obviously very sharp – it won’t have escaped him that there’s something exceptional about Thorfinn. What he’ll want to do with that information is a fascinating question, but it seems certain that whatever it is Thorfinn won’t be drawn in willingly.