When I write about “Arcane”, I cry. When I search for images of it to run in an article, I start shedding tears. When I go through videos to see which one shows off its animation without too many spoilers, I’m overwhelmed. It wasn’t always this way. I went into the show, based off the video game “League of Legends”, with no detailed knowledge. The trailer looked interesting, the animation a potentially complex blend of oil painting, art nouveau and art deco, splash art, graffiti, scratch art, pop art, you name it. It was a shot in the dark, though. I had no expectations. Its opening scene is abruptly powerful and I was visually impressed by its opening heist, but content-wise, it’s any old cutscene. Then the street fight happened, and one shot told me I could be watching something remarkable.
You see the shot above. Vi has just returned with her gang from a botched amateur heist. Another gang tries to take the sack of stolen items that’s their only reward. The two sides fight, Vi’s younger sister Powder backed up against a wall and gripping the bag for dear life. Amidst a gritty, dusty, sloppy fight, we get a wide shot in slow motion, the blue-haired Powder at its center.
There is terror here, the fear of a child in danger, worried for her sister and friends yet incapable of helping in any way. The best she can do is cower and not get in the way. There is also a reverence to the shot. Its symmetry, stillness, and the separation of characters evokes the tableau of a stained glass window, as do the rays of light.
The sepia suggestions, that reverence, it begins to suggest nostalgia for this moment in a show we just started watching. And yet these are the good times, a moment of golden, preserved memory before far worse arrives. The music evokes a longing and yearning, as if you shouldn’t want this moment to pass.
The reason I react to “Arcane” the way I do, even a year later, is because the show is about losing what’s important – people who’ve died, illusions of fairness in the world, even memories and realities that are questioned. This moment is real. As violent and terrifying as it is, it serves as an anchor point in the middle of trauma.
It also describes Powder’s inability to help, and how Vi is torn between becoming a leader and taking care of her sister. One distracts from the other, and Powder is keenly aware of this. It describes Vi’s gang as the best at their amateurish level of theft and fighting, before a world they can’t possibly contend with crashes down on them. It’s their last moment in a reality when this is the worst they have to face, when they can go toe-to-toe against what threatens them. This will be gone soon.
The moment is deeply worrying for Powder, and it describes Vi’s inability to both fight and protect her. Yet it’s also a halcyon state, one memory that’s incorruptible amid so many that are. Powder’s later memories are represented through scratches on the film, a reality she aggressively tries to remove and overwrite for herself no matter how much it haunts her. As the show gets much, much darker and the audience grapples with just how much is erased and taken from certain characters, this shot and this scene also become more meaningful to us. It’s the last moment where ideals remain intact, where these characters preserve a more innocent understanding of their place in the world, and likewise the audience preserves more innocent ideas of what these characters will have to endure, as well as our preconceptions about Western animation’s ability to discuss trauma.
When I named “Arcane” the best show of last year, I said it was one of the best series ever made. I told you that if you take its trio of three-episode acts as films, it’s the best trilogy since “Lord of the Rings”. You’d think those kinds of strong feelings for a show would fade. Sometimes that happens; it’s only natural for your top choices to shuffle over time. Hell, I understand if you think I was just being hyperbolic or overexcited. Yet I just keep thinking of “Arcane” and what it does. The more I look back at it, the more I revisit scenes, the better I think it is. There are so many visuals in it that can be pulled apart to reveal what it’s saying for its characters and world. There are so many echoes throughout, visual themes that dominate each character’s story, movements and shots that repeat as characters betray or become who they are. The entire story is told early on, but only in ways you can understand if you’ve already watched it all. Foreshadowing isn’t everything, it’s just one tool out of many for a storyteller, but I’ve never seen anything master that tool the way “Arcane” does.
Rarely does analyzing a shot or scene evoke so much emotion, yet the entire show is sequences that can be unfolded just like this. “Arcane” gives us this shot of poor Powder backed against the wall, scared for herself and her loved ones, desperate yet unable to help. It’s one of the first sequences in the first episode. It tells us this is a cherished memory. If this is what’s cherished, how much changes for her? If this violence is nostalgia, how will her norms be shaped? If Vi can’t protect her as a child, how is there any hope of doing so as the world closes in around them, seeking and persecuting them? Rewatching “Arcane” is to realize the storytellers have already made the answers to these questions obvious, we just don’t always want to see those answers until it’s far too late. If we won’t see them, how can these characters see them, as children? And if we shield ourselves from those hard truths in a story, in a safe place with storytellers we learn to trust, then how do we practice that in our own world, with less safety and trust?
“Arcane” is built to resonate, over and over within its own structure until it keeps on going when you’ve finished it, when you’ve put it away and moved on to other things. It keeps on going when you haven’t watched it for a year. It’s still as fresh in mind as when I first saw it, still contains surprises and thoughts worth dwelling on. This is the shot that convinced me “Arcane” was special, but it’s hardly alone, and even then I had no clue how remarkable or important it was, as a shot or as a show. There’s something about both that speak beyond the confines of a series to an era where our norms and realities are moved on a daily basis. “Arcane” wrestles with the erosive effects of traumatization when most shows – fantasy or reality-based – won’t even acknowledge there’s a need to be processing these thoughts right now.
When I saw this shot, I knew the show was special within its own space as a series. When I look back on it, I know it’s special outside of those confines. That’s why I cry when I start to write about this show, because in a world of constant trauma, where people’s norms are shoved aside by cults and con artists, I’m reminded that art serves as an anchor for our norms. I cry because being moved by something gentle can make me immovable against what isn’t.
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