At the start of the 2010s there was this fascination with ‘lethal’ media. The type of television that had dominated in recent decades: sitcoms, game shows, reality TV, began to take a backseat to scripted dramas that emphasized their deadliness, that no character was safe. To put it mildly, this phenomenon launched some of the most successful franchises of all time.
Series like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead separated themselves from the competition by introducing characters, giving them time to endear themselves to the audience, and then killing them off casually. This didn’t just shock and wound the audience as they experienced the loss of a character they liked, but it now presented a riveting question. How does the story change now that Ned Stark, our presumed protagonist, has been executed?
Every character in the story had been banking on his survival, and they are now forced to scramble in order to salvage their plans and goals. To put it simply, the death of a major character introduces complication that forces the rest of the cast to shift in response. Their death becomes a force for change, and it’s no wonder it became such a compelling tool in the screenwriter’s box.
And it wasn’t just western television that was so willing to send their characters to the chopping block. Two of the biggest anime of the last decades, Attack on Titan and Sword Art Online, were made famous for the simple fact that they would kill characters off indiscriminately. Now, SAO rarely lives up to the promise of its death game premise, but back in that first season you really thought anyone could die.
Despite all that, we’ve lost our way in the art of killing off a character. The Walking Dead only kills a character when their actor’s contract expired, and Game of Thrones lost its edge when it lost its source material. On the anime front, Attack on Titan managed to keep things fatal, but SAO only ever killed off fodder side characters and villains. So today I would like to instead highlight one of the best deaths I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.
This essay is going to spoil all of Vinland Saga season one, plus past that, up to volume five of the manga. This is a stern warning, as it’s something that deserves to be discovered firsthand, so go read/watch it first, you’re in for a real treat.
Vinland Saga is a loose historical tale of the Vikings early in the 11th century, at the zenith of their influence. We first meet Thors, the mightiest warrior in the ranks of the Jomsvikings, as he fakes his death and takes his wife and daughter to Iceland. We meet our actual lead, Thorfinn, as a young boy practicing with a wooden sword in the snow, unaware that his father’s name is still enough to make most grown men shiver a thousand miles away.
But war is brewing between Denmark and England, and commander of the Jomsvikings and close advisor to the Danish King Sweyn, Floki, arrives on the shore of their small village to demand that Thors joins them. To avoid being executed for desertion and bringing the wrath of his old comrades down on his community, Thors heads off to war, unaware that Thorfinn has stowed away in his ship, or that Floki doesn’t intend for him to reach the battlefield alive.
Either out of petty jealousy or anger at Thors’ betrayal, Floki hires a group of pirates led by Askeladd to assassinate Thors. Askeladd corners Thors’ ship and watches him defeat dozens of men without drawing a sword before agreeing to duel him to settle things. Thors wins the duel with ease, but Askeladd’s man grabs Thorfinn and holds him at knifepoint, forcing Thors to relent, being riddled with arrows even as he urges Askeladd to keep his word and not harm his crew.
Askeladd agrees, having accomplished his mission, but he underestimates the fire lit in Thorfinn, now so filled with hate that he stows away again in the hopes of assassinating Askeladd. Thorfinn stops just short of killing him in his sleep, but he’s determined to kill Askeladd honorably in a duel. Askeladd, ever the opportunist, keeps Thorfinn around with the promise that he can have a duel whenever he distinguishes himself in battle. From there, we jump forward a decade around the end of the Danish conquest of England, when Askeladd allies with the king’s soon-to-be rebel son, Prince Canute.
Canute, long seen as a weakling unfit for the throne, undergoes a severe change of character after being left to die at the siege of London by his father. Askeladd helps him escape the English forces by revealing he’s the son of Welsh nobility, descended from Artorias, believed to be the inspiration for King Arthur. Askeladd’s mother died believing Artorias would return to free the Celts from their oppression, though Askeladd only holds onto that dream in spirit, searching for a king who would be worthy of his service.
Askeladd throws his lot behind Canute after the boy’s radical transformation, seeking to overthrow King Sweyn. Sweyn, however, is crafty and takes note of Canute’s new advisor, and soon learns of Askeladd’s attachment to Wales. Askeladd’s plans are in tatters as Sweyn announces that Wales will be the first target as the conquest of England ends, and he offers Askeladd a choice: Canute or Wales, the country he loves or the king who would free that country. Askeladd instead chooses to slay Sweyn in front of the nobility, martyring himself so Canute might still succeed.
Askeladd is the most compelling character in Vinland Saga up until that point, and it’s a bold decision to kill him then, but smartly done. Canute has a fascinating journey about losing his Christian faith and steeling himself to become king. Askeladd is certainly more interesting than Thorfinn, who up until now has been defined solely by his hatred and revenge, and sacrificing everything in pursuit of getting another duel.
The importance of killing off a character is not the mere shock value that someone has died, it is in the lost potential. A person, particularly in a well-plotted story, has so much potential for action and growth. Killing them is not just sad because you were attached to them, but it cuts off all of their potential in the story.
Killing a character is, in a sense, trimming the branches from the tree of the story. That’s why most stories ether don’t kill characters, or don’t do so permanently. It’s a difficult decision to make, but when it’s done right, it can launch the story in radical new directions.
Until now, the protagonist has been a static, two-dimensional character. He has no wants or goals outside of killing Askeladd, and it’s even pointed out to him that once he succeeds, he’ll have nothing. Thorfinn doesn’t even think about that, even as he dreams of his father, happy and alive in the mythical Vinland (y’know, America), begging Thorfinn to not lose his life to revenge. You might have noticed that in my entire plot description, Thorfinn basically wasn’t in it.
Thorfinn’s significance between the opening and end of the prologue is close to nil, but that changes with Askeladd’s death. Once again his struggle is brought to the forefront, raging at the dying Askeladd. He’s half-mourning the sick sort of mentor relationship they had, and half throwing a tantrum that he’ll never get his revenge. The culmination of Askeladd’s character arc is what forces Thorfinn’s to start.
Askeladd had come to the end of his journey, and he’s already completed the purpose he served in this story, so it’s basically the perfect time for him to die. A character’s death really ought to follow the exact moment that they no longer advance the plot by being alive. He forced Canute to experience change and grow, and the only way for Thorfinn to have that growth is for Askeladd to die. His death is the resolution of his character arc, and a springboard for all the subsequent development for both of his wards.
That being said, Thorfinn has a rough journey ahead of him. The story skips a couple of months after Askeladd’s death and when Canute seizes the English crown, but in the meantime, Thorfinn is sold into slavery. We see him working in the fields, but through the eyes of a fellow slave, and it’s smart to reintroduce us to Thorfinn like that, because he is a complete stranger. Deprived of his singular purpose, he’s dead-eyed, apathetic, and unable to fathom a reason for living.
It isn’t until Thorfinn is provoked to violence again that he sees what has been keeping him running in place this whole time. He meets Askeladd in a dream, along with all the other warriors who fought and killed alongside and against Thorfinn. It’s not the glorious valhalla they believed awaited them, but in an endless, mindless slaughter. Thorfinn has been gradually realizing the futility of his vengeance, he can’t even bring himself to hate Askeladd anymore. The problem comes when he has nothing to fill that void.
It isn’t until then that he remembers a conversation he had with his father when he first pulled his short swords out of the chest. Thors asks him who he would kill with the blades, and Thorfinn insists that he would only kill his enemies. Thors merely says, “you have no enemies, no one does.” Thorfinn is back at square one, but he only could have gotten that way by learning the complete inefficacy of his violent actions. He had to complete a whole character arc just to get him in place for his actual development to start.
I didn’t get to talk for nearly as long as I’d have liked to, but I committed to only talking about the first five volumes. You don’t get to see much of Canute in that brief period I’m discussing post-Askeladd, but his character development is positively fascinating. Makoto Yukimura has filled his story with a multitude of three-dimensional characters, and also Thorkell.
Yukimura crafted a story where Askeladd was essentially the protagonist, the agent of change and plot development, just so that he could set the actual main characters in motion. I found it kind of hard to believe that the last episode of the season was titled “The End of the Prologue”. However, the ambition of this story would only continue to grow, much like its characters.
This is usually the point where I urge the reader to watch the anime, but considering season one is just “the prologue” and there’s no season two in sight, this is the part where I tell you to read the manga. You get stunning character arc, immaculately conceived and drawn landscapes, and you don’t need an Amazon Prime subscription. In the future, more series would be wise to ay heed to the precedent set by Vinland Saga in all aspects of storytelling, but especially in how you kill off your characters.
And if you liked that essay, now’s a great time to follow the Otaku Exhibition on WordPress, or if you’ve already done that, maybe check out one of the other essays on anime that are just as good as Vinland Saga. And if you get bored and pull up Twitter, you can follow me over on that @ExhibitionOtaku. Until next time, thanks for reading.