The first season of Vinland Saga, which I watched when it was streaming on Amazon Prime, was a very fast-paced and dark period action series with some serious political undertones to it. The second season, which aired in the Spring 2023 season, maintains the dark tone, but with a shift in the focus of the story. There will be spoilers in this review.
Vinland Saga’s second season is set almost 13 years after the conclusion of the first season – with Askeladd’s murder of King Sweyn and Askeladd’s own death, leading to Thorfinn being taken prisoner and hustled off into slavery. When the series starts, Thorfinn has been a slave for most of those 13 years and is now the property of Ketil – an older farmer in Denmark. We’re re-acquainted with him through Einar, another slave from the Danelaw who is captured after his village is sacked and his wife and children are killed.
This leads into the main thrust of this season – undermining and ultimately demolishing the concept of the “Good Slavemaster”. We see throughout the early stages of the series how Einar is dehumanized by the Vikings who are selling him as a slave, how the other slaves he’s transported with are so treated by livestock that ones who become sick enough in transit that they’re unlikely to survive are thrown overboard and left to drown. When Einar is taken to the farm of Ketil and is sold, he’s told that if he and the slave he’s assigned to work with – Thorfinn – are successful, they can buy their freedom, but we also see that Ketil’s guards and enforcers are still horrifically cruel to the slaves, and Ketil never really does anything to stop them.
Further, the option to buy their freedom only lies with slaves who are men, as women slaves, such as Arnheid who we are introduced to around the same time, have no such opportunities. Indeed, Arnheid is basically raped via coercion by Ketil repeatedly – he generally doesn’t threaten her with physical violence (until later in the season when he goes mask-off) but the threat is constantly there. This does indeed lead to physical abuse later in the series, and ultimately to her death.
Through all of this, we don’t get a lot of the heavy fight scenes that were the feature of the first season. There are fights, but until the series starts building to a climax, they’re a lot of one-on-one fights. The ones for Thorfinn in particular also help focus on how he’s changed as a person. At this point, he’s started seeking to atone for the deaths he caused while in Askeladd’s company. He’s not a total pacifist, but instead, he’s adapted his fighting style to work unarmed, building off of the stances and techniques he used while fighting with two knives.
The build-up for the final actual open warfare that concludes the series also brings some of the political elements of the story to the fore as well – in particular related to King Cnut’s efforts to solidify his hold on both England and Denmark, which ultimately leads to him attacking Ketil’s farm. It’s really intense and helps build up Cnut’s own changes in philosophy and worldview since the end of the last season.
And on top of all of this, Vinland Saga has Wit Studio’s tremendous animation, which presents tremendous fluid action, which they’ve shown their aptitude for in the past on other works (not just the first season), but also some excellent subtle animation work with characters facial expressions, playing into the more focused story, and with it giving more interiority for all the members of the cast.
Sadly this season didn’t come with an announcement of a third season yet, but after this really strong showing, I’m definitely hoping we get additional seasons of this series in the future – but even if we don’t, if reading manga isn’t your speed, this is a decent place to wrap up.
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