One of the most interesting choices Studio Wit made in adapting Vinland Saga was to jump ahead in the manga's run to start the story off at the chronological beginning. The flashback chapters that dove deep into Thorfinn's backstory and the death of Thors originally came at a later point in the series, when author Makoto Yukimura had gotten a stronger handle on what the tone and style of Vinland Saga would end up being. Consequently, now that we've transitioned back to the original opening chapters of the story during Thorfinn's time with Askeladd's army, the Vinland Saga anime has struggled to marry the more heightened and spectacle-focused early phases of the story with the more grounded, introspective tone that it settled into later.
This isn't to say that Vinland Saga has always been a slave to realism. From the beginning, Thors was presented as a larger than life figure, a man who was so strong and swift that he could take out entire squadrons on his own and row a whole ship with a single massive oar. The presentation of that superhuman strength was blended better into the historical context of the show's first episodes though, feeling just tethered to reality enough so as not to diminish the harsh survival conditions of the time or the brutal reality of ancient warfare. “The Battle of London Bridge” delivers exactly what it says on the tin, as Askeladd, Thorfinn, and Floki return to the battlefield, squaring off against British troops. Among the enemy combatants is the Viking Thorkell, who we caught a glimpse of last week, a battle-hungry madman who chooses to fight against his own countrymen essentially because it would be more amusing to him.
Thorkell represents the slightly more exaggerated style of action and characterization that we've been seeing in these late-season adaptation of early-run chapters; his first action on the battlefield is to lob a preposterously large boulder at Floki's ships with the strength of a catapult, and he comes across as similarly cartoonish for the remainder of the episode. He's the kind of anime antagonist who, when stabbed in the hand by our ever-grim-faced Thorfinn, is struck with curiosity more than anything else. When he easily bests Thorfinn just a few minutes later, he waves an earnest goodbye with his mutilated hand, blood spurting from what remains of his fingers. It's a darkly comedic moment that's admittedly pretty funny, but it also detracts somewhat from how hard the show has worked to establish its own atmosphere, which has put a heavy emphasis on the physical and emotional cost of war.
Still, my misgivings with the show's handling of its character writing and tone don't detract from how entertaining “The Battle of London Bridge” ended up being. The fight between Thorfinn and Thorkell alone is worth the price of admission, giving the animators at Wit the chance to show off with a slick, fluid, and characteristically dynamic cut of action that we haven't seen from the show in a while. The rest of the episode is primarily concerned with setting up the long campaign that our protagonists have engaged in, dipping into the broad strokes of history to draw out both Thorkell and a new character, Prince Canute, whose real-world exploits in the wars against the British make for fascinating reading (so long as you don't mind spoilers for a thousand-year-old conflict).
Thorfinn doesn't get much to do aside from glare at Askeladd and fight Thorkell, but his character continues to advance by slow degrees. “That madman…” he remarks, clutching his bruised and beaten body in the aftermath of his defeat. “What's so enjoyable about battle?” It may be a blunt way to remind the audience of the question they should be asking throughout the whole of Vinland Saga, but that doesn't make it any less powerful. Every age has their Flokis and their Askeladds and their Thorkells, who revel and thrive in the blood-soaked soil of war and conquest. So too are there Thorfinns, who rightly wonder if there isn't a better way to live. With every day that passes, Vinland's call grows louder and clearer to our lost hero, and it's only a matter of time before he answers it.
Vinland Saga is currently streaming on Amazon.