Arcane : Season 1
Might contain spoilers.
Magnificent. Nigh-perfect. Truly something special. The writing is brilliant in its themes, its pacing, and its dialogue. The animation is a splendid, unique mélange of cel-shading, CGI, and anime æsthetics. The direction is superb: the tone of the series might be misconstrued as ‘dark and edgy’, but unlike Dota: Dragon’s Blood (which really should be embarrassed about airing the same year), Arcane is a lesson in genuine, complex maturity. It helps that the swearing is restrained and believable, while the single fleeting glimpse of nudity serves to establish dominance rather than titillate.
The expertly-crafted audio design is more than just half of the equation when it comes to the tactile steampunk world with its solid sense of logic and reality. The score is marvelous, although the often-discordant pop music doesn’t fit the tone.
Granted, the violence is just a little too brutal and gruesome (witness the scene with the cat and the mouse at the end of the first episode), and I can identify one solitary instance of the quality of the animation wavering: Jayce’s odd movements and expressions as he gives his big speech in ‘Happy Progress Day!’. None of that matters. This isn’t simply ‘great animation’ or a ‘great adaptation’ but a towering achievement in storytelling that stands alone.
The directing team should be showered with acclaim for how real these characters sound, whether it’s Mia Sinclair Jenness’s shocking blubbering as the young Powder (something I’ve never before seen depicted realistically), Hailee Steinfeld’s powerhouse performance as Violet, or Harry Lloyd’s nuanced portrayal of Viktor… I could wax lyrical about every single character. Ella Purnell infuses Jinx’s every breath with the complete history of all the trauma that shaped her. I’ve heard Shohreh Aghdashloo in other productions, but her role as Grayson is the first time I heard the unparalleled richness of her voice. Even Yuri Lowenthal does good work as Mylo, in contrast to his turn as Davion elsewhere. Paste Magazine’s partial review is completely accurate:
Even with the heighten, painterly design of each character, the nuance and subtle facial movements Fortiche manages to imbue every single character with achieves “how are they managing this?” levels of great. Pairing it with such great voice work means there is no barrier to getting lost in the emotional stakes of what the characters are experiencing.
Every beat of the story lands; every misguided choice is natural and fitting. All one can do is watch, hypnotized, as circumstances conspire to set these deeply human characters on the wrong paths; just to take one example, it’s hard to bear how the young Violet turns on Powder and abandons her, but it feels justified from her perspective.
Silco’s motivations are revealed late in the first section and it’s clear in subsequent chapters that he lacks any goals except to maintain the status quo. Nevertheless, Jason Spisak delivers an awards-worthy performance throughout, particularly when Silco demonstrates why he’s the boss in ‘The Boy Saviour’ and, of course, in his disproportionately affecting death at the hands of Jinx.
Jayce and Viktor’s intertwined story doesn’t quite sit right in the first section. It’s only there to set the stage for what is to come: a prologue with a different tenor whose juxtaposition with the rest of the climax steals some of the momentum. However, Jayce comes alive after that as he finds himself imprisoned by his own decisions. It’s deeply sad to see him turn on Professor Heimerdinger with perfectly logical arguments in hopes of saving Viktor. It’s also sad to see him first embrace politics then try to take matters into his own hands with terrible consequences.
Viktor’s tale is a recognizable, classical tragedy in its own right: his gentleness, the pain and yearning, the heartbreaking costs of his desires, and the resentment are all familiar and beautifully executed. The unmistakable parallels between his journey and Jayce’s make his choices seem almost reasonable in comparison.
Indeed, deft execution transforms scenes and moments from cliché or melodramatic into outright transcendental. There’s Viktor quietly apologizing as he scatters Sky’s ashes only to find he has no words left. There’s Caitlyn’s bewilderment and shock at the puzzlingly self-righteous Marcus’s death, rendering his last words oddly poignant. Then again, some of the greatest moments are built entirely on sincerity: Violet hugging Ekko when she sees him for the first time since their childhood; Ekko losing his will to fight Powder; Powder’s constant maniacal laughter (Ella Purnell rivaling Mark Hamill’s Joker in what is apparently her first voice role); and so on.
The genius of the writing is how the individual story of any of the lead characters could make for a satisfying movie or series on its own… yet this show puts them all together, playing them off each other while protecting their integrity, and weaves them into a tremendous, gripping epic. It’s an incredible tale in a fantastical world filled with lost souls descending into their own personal hells, step by mesmerizing step.
And then there are the visuals. The way Arcane renders Black skin is gorgeous, epitomized by Ambessa Medarda. I can’t forget, either, the beautiful movement away from the silhouettes of Silco and his gang as he holds Powder under the archway at the end of the first section. The action is astonishingly good, as in Violet’s fight with Jayce, or the unforgettable moment when Jinx parts her from Caitlyn with a shot only for Ekko to flicker in on his hoverboard (not to mention the ensuing battle). The representations of Powder’s inner demons are clear and effective, whether it’s the overdrawn lines or the eerie dolls. Heimerdinger’s fur and his pet’s fur are lovingly detailed. Caitlyn’s flashback to Violet leaving is quick and beautiful.
Speaking of Caitlyn, her character is well etched, but her relationship with Violet is a study in creating a believable romance from almost nothing. There’s hardly anything to it except for them being two strong, capable, attractive people in a tense situation, but their chemistry is palpable and every frame reinforces their growing feelings. I’m still miffed that the finale failed to deliver us a kiss.
I must confess I expected the other Council members to have more of an impact, but they mostly provide (interesting) window dressing. The same cannot be said for Mylo and Craggor, whose presence lingers even after their brutal deaths, thanks to the dolls. I hoped something similar was in the cards when Grayson showed up alive and well in ‘Everybody Wants to Be My Enemy’ until I realized it was only a flashback.
Netflix releasing the show in three tranches of three episodes each makes me wonder whether they’re slowly converging on a weekly schedule. It was a smart strategy: enough episodes at a time to tell a story while leaving you impatient for more, and an overall season that also tells a complete story that nevertheless obviously lends itself to being continued. You could easily believe that, like last year’s Andor, this season was written as a trio of three-act movies. The attention to detail from start to finish goes far beyond any ordinary work.
Of course, despite the general sense of completeness, the devastating finale—the image of a single missile streaking past the moon to obliterate everything these characters have fought and bled for, to the accompaniment of a silly song with good music, is haunting in a way I could never have imagined—leaves much unresolved. It’s a conclusion filled with pathos, empathy, and understandable motivations, all leaving me begging for more. It was hard to believe when I watched it that I’d be waiting two years; it’s hard to stomach the wait even now.
I can’t deny Arcane made me wish I played League of Legends, at least enough to understand
the significance of everything onscreen. Many of the characters are game Champions, and when I see
Hextech balls, it makes me think of mana, though it’s unclear what exactly they do.
I’ve read that there are countless easter eggs too, like Vander’s head at the end.
- My notes:
CAITLYN AND VIOLET DIDN’T GET TO KISS, I WANT MY MONEY BACK.↩