A Masterpiece: Arcane, an Animated Action-Adventure Series

Riot’s Arcane on Netflix premiered in early November 2021 to a growing audience of fascinated viewers. The show boasts a Rotten Tomato rating of 100% and is easily one of the best recently released creative works, if not the best.


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“I never would have given you to them. Not for anything. Don’t cry. You’re perfect.”

Throughout my entire life, I’ve always found it easy to summarize and review books or movies that have been acclaimed as “masterpieces.” From the classics in my AP English Literature class to the World War II movies that my dad always likes to praise, I’ve never understood how it could be difficult to describe something so full of masterful artistic craft. I always assumed the wonders of great media might simply be lost on me.

That was until I watched Arcane.

Arcane was produced by Riot Games, an entertainment company renowned for creating popular video games such as Valorant and League of Legends. While both games have their fair share of naysayers, Riot has been known for having hit media campaigns involving art. However, no prior knowledge of anything related to League of Legends is necessary in order to understand and enjoy the show. For most fans of the game, the less you know about the game itself, the better.

Arcane was released in three acts. Each act contained three episodes, with the final episode in each act ending in a major climax for all characters. From November 6th to November 20th, 2021, an act was released each Saturday which left me and all of my friends, whom I had corralled into watching the show with me, to wait  in anticipation for the subsequent tear-fest that would be the next act.

I still remember watching the last episode of each act, my heart jumping into my throat at the end of the third, sixth, and ninth episodes. I remember sitting up from my laptop as the credits rolled, bringing my hands up to my face just thinking, “Wow. This is art.” 

After recommending the show to multiple different people, I had never seen such a wide range of emotions coming from a single, nine episode epic. My favorite was a message sent to me, at 6:48 a.m., that simply stated “YOU,” sent to me by a friend who had watched the entire show in one sitting. 

We first begin in a tale of two cities. Piltover, the city of progress, is a technological bastion that was created by scientists in order to remove themselves from the dangers of magic. However, over the years, the city slowly began to find itself divided into classes, creating a separation between the rich, well-spoken topside and the poor undercity. 

The first episode introduces the idea of class divisions beautifully. Our perspective comes from the eyes of a young teenager, Vi (Hailee Steinfeld), who lives in the undercity. The first scene in the entire show introduces her character, along with her little sister, Powder (Mia Sinclair Jenness). 

It’s eerie and terrifying in a surrealistic way. A child sings to a visual of debris falling and fire burning, along with soft footsteps, and other children watching. The children are rescued by Vander (JB Blanc), the pseudo-leader of the undercity who drops his weapons, two heavy gauntlets, before picking the two children up and bringing them to safety, all to the sound of a symphony of string instruments. This is one of the many reasons the undercity hates the topside. They are, without a doubt, oppressed economically and politically. 

Directly following this scene, the episode cuts to Vi leading Powder and her two adoptive brothers, Mylo and Claggor, in order to break into one of the fancy homes of the topside and steal some of their trinkets. One thing leads to another and Powder drops a magic crystal that is the equivalent to a magical grenade which explodes, starting the main conflict of the first act. 

The explosion itself was monumental for the politics in Piltover. The people in topside began to feel unsafe, causing the topside police force, the enforcers, to raid the undercity looking for the four criminals who they knew to be Vander’s adoptive children. While the idea that a city is so terrified that they would need to punish children is utterly baffling, it shows the separation between the two cities; even the undercity children are seen more as criminals than as people, a real prejudice that is all too cemented in reality.

The main draw to this series is the connection between Vi and Powder. As the story goes on, Vi begins to take on more responsibility to the point where she attempts to get herself arrested and take the blame for the raid on topside. She is constantly characterized as strong, dependable and powerful. Powder, on the other hand, is weak, unstable and unreliable — to put it plainly, a jinx. 

This causes Powder to have an incessant need to please and become part of the team, which  sets up for a strong dynamic as the show progresses to the next acts. 

However, the brilliance of both the contrasting story of topside and the villain is another big draw.

An equally important side plot starring Jayce (Kevin Alejandro) and Viktor (Harry Lloyd), two scientists who show the story of Piltover through the means of creating “hextech,” a new era of technology based on those previously mentioned magic grenade crystals. Jayce and Viktor are both key players within the story, showing why topside also cannot be necessarily villainized, questioning the original perspective of Vi.

Here is an artwork detailing Viktor and Jayce looking at a hex crystal, a magical power source used within the series. (@Marik_draw on Twitter)

The audience is also introduced to Silco (Jason Spisak), the main villain of the series. From the first introduction he’s visually a sneaky, snake-like villain. He’s scrawny with a scarred face and has a menacing murky orange and black eye that can never close. Behind the scenes we see flashes of him creating a substance called shimmer, which can turn people into hulk-like monsters. 

Vander and Silco are revealed to be brothers in the third episode, a direct parallel to the relationship of Vi and Powder. Both had similar goals of freeing the undercity, but Vander abandoned their plans after adopting the children of the people he had doomed.

Without spoiling too much, as the episode three climax is nothing short of cinematic gold, everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. The heartbreaking performance from Mia Sinclair Jenness made this scene, and it was one of the best showcases of talent throughout the production. After the final line is spoken, one of the many custom songs made for the series, ‘Goodbye’ by Ramsey plays in the background, setting the tone for the rest of the series as it cuts to black. Vi and Powder end the first act separated, which leads to a fast downward spiral as the next act begins. 

Act two and act three explore what happens to Vi, Powder, Jayce and Viktor after a time lapse of roughly six to ten years. Arcane tackles new issues such as mental health and the effect of trauma in a complex manner that is almost universally praised for the lack of romanization.

Powder has now been taken in by Silco, becoming his pseudo-daughter. To deal with the pain and guilt she feels after her separation with Vi, she takes on a new persona in order to cope, called ‘Jinx’ (Ella Purnell). “The characters that drew me in the most were Silco and Jinx. Their familial dynamic really showed through subtle details and actions. It was a bittersweet relationship that was vital to the story,” said Geena Yeo ’22. 

The transformation and introduction to Jinx is a great, low dialogue scene that shows off both her stark transformation and trauma induced mental health issues. While the show does not follow a specific perspective, when the audience is meant to see things from Jinx’s point of view, we see flashes of deceased characters, hear the voices that she does, and see flashes of sketches that create an overstimulated look.

Throughout this act, we see the development of Jinx’s mental state. She sees visions and is constantly haunted by her past. She’s afraid but still manages to hide  behind the facade of an uncaring machine.

Here is a painting study of a screencap from ‘Arcane,’ featuring Jinx. (@coleleur on Twitter)

Act two also has a few interesting dynamics. Vi, who was sent to prison in the wake of act one, is freed by Caitlyn Kiramman, an enforcer from topside who comes from one of the richest families in Piltover. The two are more or less forced to work together to complete their goals, but quickly come to depend on each other. 

Jayce and Viktor, our topside point-of-views give more insight into the political sphere, especially in regards to the undercity. Jayce’s platform is elevated from mere scientist to political leader as he slowly becomes the face of topside and is on the receiving end of Silco’s crimes along with Jinx’s destruction. As the undercity grows more combative, he decides to set up a blockade on the bridge that connects topside to the undercity, turning the divide into a physical border. 

The act ends in an explosive finish, with the two sisters reuniting in a long scene with Woodkid’s ‘[People] for Hire,’ adding a dramatic flare to a beautifully cutscene that flashes between the perspectives of Silco, Vi and Jinx. Without any dialogue, the animation perfectly captures a tone of desperation. Immediately following this is one of the many action-packed scenes that show off the stunning animation from the production studio, Fortiche. 

“The visuals are top-tier and extremely detailed. The attention to detail of the city and its architecture really ties the show together,” said Yeo. The separation between topside and the undercity are shown in both coloration and design style. The topside is colored in bright blues, sleek whites, and shiny golds while the undercity is grim, darkened with murky greens and dull yellows. 

The amount of work that went into the entire animation process is also extremely impressive. Most of the animation was done using 3D models, but the style itself is reminiscent of a painting. You can pause at almost any moment within the show and get a stand alone painting. According to Caro, an animation student in Switzerland, “What impressed me most is the large amount of models they have. For the main cast alone, they had three models for each person (child, teen, and adult).”

Act three is where the loose ends begin to be tied together — expectations are subverted in a way that does not harm the audience, but in a way that feels natural instead. There are no villains and no heroes; there are no winners and losers. These characters are written to feel natural and human in a way that makes me want to go into cryostasis to wait out the hiatus as season two begins development.

Act three concludes the series and is nothing short of a masterpiece. The act starts by continuing all of the conflicts from Act two, with every character realizing that none of their problems were actually solved. 

It begins by reintroducing an old character from act one, Ekko. He was once Powder’s best friend, but has now given up hope that she will ever become the girl whom he used to know. In the wake of Silco’s destruction, he’s created a small utopia that helps those in need from the undercity, fighting against the spread of shimmer.  

Most of act three is dedicated to momentum. Vi finds herself more divided than ever with her sister, while Jayce is beginning to feel the pressure of being a politician and cannot handle the pressure of having to betray his friends for the sake of the city. The episode ends with Jinx and Ekko fighting in a beautifully animated sequence that parallels their old friendship with their newfound aggression. 

As the series concludes, a few stories finally overlap. Vi and Jayce meet for the first time after she approaches him with an offer to fight against Silco after he was the only one in Piltover’s leadership to recognize that war and violence might be the best answer to a growing divide.

After all the build up, the final episode gives excited viewers everything they never knew they wanted. Jayce meets with Silco, striking a deal for the undercity’s independence in exchange for peace. He accepts all of Silco’s demands, only wanting one thing in return, Jinx. We see Silco pondering this later in the episode in a way that humanizes him. For once, he will have everything he ever wanted, but he loses Jinx, his daughter. 

This is all the set-up needed to edge into the best scene of Arcane, the dinner scene. The scene is definitively perfect. It finishes old stories and introduces new ones. We see Jinx breakdown as Vi and Silco both make their cases. We see Vi unable to accept Jinx as all she sees is Powder, while Silco does not want Jinx to remember her old past. Everything boils over, building up to a final fight that we never see.

“Don’t cry. You’re perfect.” Those lines defined the series, as it was the best way to break the perception of hero and villain. 

To watch Arcane on Netflix (subscription required), click HERE.

Arcane is a masterpiece, one that deserves far more praise than I could ever give to it.