Ever feel like you’re late to the party? Do you ever regret not coming on board with something when it first becomes popular? Welcome to my world!
Arcane was released to Netflix in 2021 and I remember at the time hearing good things about it. A rash of Cosplay images flitted through my Instagram, mostly of the Jinx character. I bookmarked the series but never got around to watching it.
Until last week.
Fuck! Then I realized what a mistake I’d made putting it off.
Taking a week off work to do some writing, I put on Netflix on as background noise. Arcane was sitting there on my ‘To Watch’ list so I figured now was as good a time as any. Thus I started episode 1, only half paying attention.
I think I know why I was a little on the fence about watching it. I’d been burned before by Netflix and their animated output. I had no frame of reference for Arcane. I never played League of Legends, the game upon which it is based. But I did have a deep rooted loved for Godzilla and Pacific Rim, and as much as I enjoyed their animated runs, I can’t say I was blown away by them. And as much as I adore Love, Death + Robots, as an anthology show it can be a little hit and miss.
Thus, I think I’d unconsciously shuffled this into the pile of ‘watch it when you’ve got nothing better to do’ options.
Boy, was I wrong to do that.
This is a show that is all things. Beautiful to look at. Exquisitely animated. Wonderfully voice acted. An amazing soundtrack that is both haunting and thumping. All fleshing out a story that will both exhilerate and heartbreak in equal measure.
In my opinion (and it is just my opinion, feel free to disagree!) this show is a masterpiece, and I’ll tell you why in a moment.
But first I want you to watch it. TWICE. Carefully.
Put your phone away, and pay attention to it. Honestly. It’s totally worth it.
We live in a time where things compete for our attention. I’m as guilty of it as anyone. I watch TV with one eye on my phone scrolling through Twitter feeds. Most TV shows these days don’t demand your attention. As long as you get the gist, then that’s okay.
Arcane DEMANDS your attention. To only half watch it is a disservice to the time put into it by the creators.
Anyhoo, here’s the trailer to whet your apetite…
Welcome back. Intrigued? You should be.
So, let’s get on with my telling you why this is a masterpiece.
Let’s start with an objective metric, as usual. How was Arcane season 1 received?
The numbers speak for themselves. I was late to the party, but I’m not in a minority on LOVING this show. Not at all.
9.1 / 10
Now, it does say SPOILERS above, and I am going to spoil it a bit. Only a little teeny bit though. Most of what I say later can be inferred from the trailer.
I’m am going to run you through the first 2 mins and 51 seconds of the first episode in detail, because it will illustrate my point about the NEED to pay attention to this show. The attention to detail in the storytelling is mindblowing. They way the whole thing has been carefully crafted to bring together visual cues, music, and voice acting is a a tour-de-force of creativity.
So strap in and join me for those first few minutes.
Oh, and here’s the video so you can watch it as you read.
The opening of episode 1 ‘Welcome to the Playground’ is incredibly powerful, ESPECIALLY on a rewatch when you know what happens over the rest of the season.
It opens with a burning orange backdrop on a bridge while you hear a haunting singing of a little girl. This little girl is Powder, the younger of two sisters who are the primary focus of the show. She is being led by the hand through a mess of fire, death, and destruction by her elder sister Violet. Powder has her other hand over her eye obscuring her vision.
Or at least…that’s what you get on your first viewing.
On second viewing after you’ve seen the whole series, you start to pick up the subtle nuances.
The images are blurred, indistinct. Just peeks of the bodies they walk past. This is what Powder see’s peeking between her fingers. A series of rapid scribbles appear on the screen. Devilish faces over the Enforcers wreaking the violence. Scrawling lines blocking out the eyes of the dead as she walks past.
These are representations of the breaking of her psyche and is a theme that develops as the series moves forward (see gif below). They become really obvious when Powder becomes Jinx, but I totally missed them first time around. Or maybe I did see them but didn’t realize the significance. On a rewatch you can clearly see that THIS is the moment Powder begins her slow descent into madness.
This is where Jinx truly begins.
There’s no dialogue here. No sound. As the singing ends, and it cuts to a view of the two girls stood looking at the devastation in shock, a simple violin and piano score take over.
We see a figure in shadows, battling the Enforcers. When I first watched, I thought it was the girls father but, once again, a repeat viewing uncovers the nuances you missed first time around.
As the man approaches the girls they seem scared of him, backing up a little. Violet pushes Powder protectively behind her before looking around for her parents. The man, Vander, simply makes a gesture with his head, and Violet follows his prompt to see two bodies lying on the ground. Their parents.
The reaction is crushing. Powder’s fear and her need for safety make her look up toward her sister. Violet, however, is on the verge of breakdown, her face contorted into tears. As a young girl she can only show so much strength to support her sister. Finally, she drops to her knees and weeps. The whole scene is delivered without sound, only the score. It’s powerful stuff.
Wifey says I have a heart of stone, but at this point (less that 2 minutes in) I’m virtually sobbing along with her. The first time around I watched pretty dispassionately. But this time…my heart is breaking for them.
Powder embraces a weeping Violet, holding on to her in a gesture of desperate need but also of supportive love. They only have each other now. This first minute of the show, tells you all you need to know about how much these sisters love and look out for each other. Which makes what happens during the series all the more devastating.
We’ll also find out later that Vander has become something of a pacifist. On the rewatch you can clearly see that THIS MOMENT is where he makes that choice. After seeing the effect of the devastation his little rebellion has caused these two innocent young girls, he drops the gauntlets he was using to beat the Enforcers, and instead chooses to pick up the girls and carry them to safety. Love rather than hate.
It’s a hard won lesson, but while he chooses a way of peace in this moment, things are different for the girls.
As they walk away from the bridge, Violet looks back over Vander’s shoulder, her face initially full of sorrow, but as she sees one of the Enforcers staring back at her, her face hardens. Her fist clenches. Her eyes rise to see the city of Piltover above them.
This is the moment where she chooses the opposite path to Vander. To fight. It’s a path that puts them at odds as the series continues.
And then we’re done and into the beautiful opening credits and that Imagine Dragon’s song (Enemy) that I haven’t been able to get out of my head for weeks!
This first scene is a small example of just how finely crafted this series is, and how if you’ve just binged through it once in one sitting and thought ‘yeah, that was okay!’ then you’ve missed so, so much.
In just under 3 minutes, Arcane sets out the motivations for both Powder and Violet. It sets the tone for the whole show.
Powder just wants to be loved, to be safe, and the be helpful. She wants to stop this from happening again and would do anything to help Violet. She was too young to do anything here, but as she grows up and gets skills of her own, she’s keen to help. Too keen sometimes. But her parents are just the first losses for her. These will mount up until she is finally twisted and broken.
Violet wants to protect Powder, but is also consumed by anger and rage towards those who live in Piltover that did this to them. Eventually it is this anger, and following her emotions rather than her brain, that will lead her to royally screw things up. And that screw up changes everything.
But I won’t spoil that here.
A quick word on the two main characters…
Violet and Powder grow up, and become Vi and Jinx.
Their lives follow very different paths.
I love the Jinx character, there’s definite shades of DCs Harley Quinn in there. But while Harley is a study on what an abusive relationship can do to a person (if you haven’t read Stjepan Sejic‘s stunning ‘Harleen‘ graphic novels then you really should go read them now!), Jinx is a look at what post traumatic stress can do to a child. Jinx just desperately needs a father figure, or someone to look up to and respect. But is constantly let down.
She is broken. Fun. But broken.
For me, though, Vi is my favorite character. She’s a sassy, kick ass, character with trauma in her past and a shit load of repressed anger. (Note: Reminds me of another sassy kick ass character with pink hair and a propensity for anger…HUNTERS)
Where Jinx feeds off her insanity and is empowered by shimmer (a drug that makes you stronger and faster), Vi is just fuelled simply by anger. She gets some toys later, but she barely needs them. She’s a brawler who relies on her natural skill and determination. But there are shades to her. Depth. She loves her sister dearly, and does open up and show a softer side to one of the other characters (Caitlyn) that you’ll meet along the way.
Consider me definitely Team Vi.
If it’s not clear by now, I ADORE this fucking show. It’s truly hard to fault it anywhere.
The voice cast is amazing. Hailee Steinfeld, Ella Purnell, and Katie Leung are especially good, bringing a real sense of emotional depth and nuance to their characters.
The animation is kind of akin to video games (which is where the roots of this show lie) but taken to another level. Stylized. I haven’t been this impressed by an animated project since SpiderVerse. It just shows you how penned into a box Disney and Pixar have become. Sure, they do glossy incredible, sometimes photorealistic work, but the style here (and in SpiderVerse) is something that pushes the artform forward artistically rather than just technically.
Take the fight scenes. Not only are they beautifully choreographed, but they’re genuinely innovative. They are miles better than almost anything you see in live action. In a later episode, Vi is fighting something of a rematch bout with an opponent from an earlier episode. The fight is brutal, fluid, fun, and uses both their weapons and the environment to wonderful effect. There’s this wonderful moment mid-fight where both character pause to gather themselves. Brilliant.
The facial expressions and tiny nuances of each character are beautifully drawn out.
So, here’s the nitty gritty. The score. Out of 100, I’ll give it an INCREDIBLY strong…
Yeah, I know. Perfect score.
Honestly, I was about to give it a 97 but couldn’t think of a single reason why I was docking it three points. So fuck it. 100 it is.
(By the way, buy the soundtrack! It’s cracking! I’ve been listening to it on a loop! Standout tracks: Playground by Bea Miller, Goodbye by Ramsey, What Could Have Been by Sting. The music is perfectly matched up to the animation to a degree that’s just nuts. Example. There’s a moment right at the end, where Jinx walks past Vi, and looks at her just as Sting is singing the lyric “…I am the monster you created…”. And it’s absolutely spot on. Another example of the care and attention to detail that runs through this show from start to end.)
My only issue now, is this…
Apparently this season took them something like 6 years to make. You can see it. The attention to detail is staggering. Everything has been honed to perfection, from story, to voice, to animation, to soundtrack. It all just fits.
Season 1 ends on a hell of a cliffhanger, and a second season has been confirmed, and we’re told it won’t take as long. On the one hand I’m happy that I’ll hopefully get my fix of new episodes sooner rather than later. On the other hand I REALLY hope that it doesn’t mean that the season won’t be as polished as the first.
I genuinely worry about that.
Arcane – League of Legends season 1 is a tough act to follow. I do not envy those creating season 2 one bit!
Love & Books (and animated series!)