Stream It Or Skip It: 'Vinland Saga' on Netflix, An Ambitious Mix of Grisly Violence and Historical Epic – Decider

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If the thought of cracking open a history book bores you to tears, you may assume Vinland Saga may do the same. You’d do well to ignore any preconceived notions you may hold about this epic historical series, as it’s one of the best available on Netflix right now, as well as an exemplary notion of how best to tell stories spanning large periods of time throughout real-world sagas. Following explorer Thorfinn, the son of a slain warrior, it soars through the 11th century throughout the expedition of Vinland, the Vikings’ stomping grounds. Filled with gratuitous, grisly violence juxtaposed with meaty character drama, it’s one of Netflix’s best by far, and well worth jumping into even if this type of series isn’t typically your thing.
Opening Shot: Seas of golden wheat sway gently in the wind. A man called Thors (Greg Chun) is resting in the wheat when suddenly stands up. A woman named Helga (Julia McIlvaine) seems to be greeting him with a child in her arms. Thorns turns to go to her, but we realize in an instant he’s not actually there in the field. The scene changes to reveal that he’s entrenched in a violent fight to the death aboard a vessel at sea that’s quickly falling apart. It’s the year 987 AD, and Thors is apparently dreaming of more peaceful days in the midst of a Viking sea battle: Hjörungavágr.
The Gist: Vinland, an area of North America, was once home to Vikings following explorer Leif Erikson’s landing there around 1000 AD. Chronicling these adventures are the Vinland Sagas, two Icelandic texts written in the 13th century: The Saga of Erik the Red and The Saga of the Greenlanders. From the beginning of the 11th century with the Viking invasion of England, it follows a young boy named Thorfinn Thorsson who grows up under the tutelage of his father Thors Snoresson. Thors fought in the famed Battle of Hjörungavágr and thought he’d live to enjoy a peaceful life with his wife Helga and their children. But the war changed things, and when Thors falls, it’s up to his son Thorfinn to carry on his lineage.
It’s difficult to watch Thorfinn deal with sorrow and frustration, but this plotline sets up the foundation for a saga spanning years and years, all based in historical record. It’s not stuffy or boring, as you might be inclined to assume upon first watch, but every bit as rugged and wild as a Hollywood blockbuster, only more visually striking. It’s a dark tale that deserves to be told, and one that you’ll find yourself sucked into (potentially to your amazement) rather quickly. In this, Vinland Saga is a successful series that does what it sets out to do extremely well.
What Shows Will It Remind You Of? Vinland Saga may be a historical epic, but it has plenty in common with dark fantasy tales like Berserk and shows of that ilk, including the more recent Bastard!! that also debuted on Netflix. It’s extremely graphic, rife with decapitations, maiming, and otherwise violent encounters. This is war, after all, so if you enjoy that type of content (a la Netflix’s Castlevania) you’ll feel right at home here.
Our Take: Vinland Saga could have been a by-the-numbers story that relies too much on its historical roots to be of interest to mainstream viewers. Instead, it centers what will be a lengthy ride on a sympathetic cast of characters that it’s ridiculously easy to quickly fall in love with. From the opening moments showcasing heroic Thors in the midst of battle to his family dynamic, this series is kind to its players, even when they’re killers who have no trouble cleaving others in half.
There’s a lengthy tale here that will unfold to much fanfare, and it gives every single player their fair due. If you’re curious about how a certain character fits into the narrative, you get enough information about them to understand their motivations. And with animation this impeccable and a voice cast this fantastic, it’s such an easy watch, even if you’re squeamish, that you’ll melt from one episode to the next, though the first one is gripping in such a way that you may very well wish to watch it again.
Sex and Skin: Nothing huge to speak of for this episode, but do be advised that the over-the-top violence permeates the entirety of the show and will be a permanent fixture throughout the rest of the season.
Parting Shot: Thors and Thorfinn speak about their ancestors as Thorfinn inquires if they “ran away” from the East. They convene while standing in the midst of the ice with the Aurora Borealis shimmering in front of them before the camera shifts to the wooden chest locked away, hiding important secrets.
Sleeper Star: Allegra Clark brings a special kind of warmth and kindness to Thorfinn’s older sister Ylva. Clark channels Ylva’s headstrong nature and inner strength perfectly as a beacon of strength throughout the village Thorfinn, Thors, and Helga live in. She manages to give Ylva a unique edge without sounding exactly like every other female anime protagonist, and she’s a delight to listen to.
Most Pilot-y Line: The legendary Leif Erikson (Frank Todaro) tells a group of enthralled children living peaceful lives in Iceland a story about his exploits throughout the world “With the lush forests of Markland behind us, we sailed onward to the south. The wind seemed to be telling us ‘There’s a better land waiting for you on the horizon’. And finally, we found it. A new frontier, full of fruit trees and grassy meadows. A place like that needed a name. So I called it Vinland.” You can guess where the story is going to go from here…eventually.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Vinland Saga is a gorgeously animated historical series that introduces an entire cast of sympathetic characters whose personalities and actions keep you watching at every turn. The first episode delivers impressive visuals, voice acting, and an impactful story that help push it miles ahead of its genre peers. It’s rewarding in ways you wouldn’t expect from a series of this ilk, and there’s a raw beauty hidden within its brutality. If you’re looking for a breathtaking character study fused with some of the most chilling battles you’ll ever see this side of Berserk, Vinland Saga is well worth diving into immediately.
Brittany Vincent has been covering video games and tech for over a decade for publications like G4, Popular Science, Playboy, Variety, IGN, GamesRadar, Polygon, Kotaku, Maxim, GameSpot, and more. When she’s not writing or gaming, she’s collecting retro consoles and tech. Follow her on Twitter: @MolotovCupcake.
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