Arcane is an animated show with gorgeous visuals, excellent character design, top-shelf voice acting, and some truly impressive fights. For a show based on the essentially story-free video game League of Legends, Arcane has far surpassed my expectations. However, as great as it is, Arcane still has a long list of problems. Since approximately everyone in the world has watched Arcane, that gives us a great opportunity to sharpen our analytical skills by examining how the show could have been improved.
Spoiler Notice: Arcane’s first season
1. Less Confusion
Something I didn’t expect when loading Arcane for the first time is how confusing the show is. At first, I would stop and rewind whenever I didn’t understand something, but after the 10th time, I gave up and just checked the wiki instead. I can’t tell you about everything that made me go “huh,” but here are a few choice examples:
- Before we even know who Jayce is, we get a flashback where a kid and his mother are saved by a mysterious mage. The kid is a young Jayce, but that’s not immediately clear, and we never get context for that scene.
- Jayce and Viktor say their inventions will help sick people in the undercity, but so far they’ve only invented powered armor and a laser gun. Maybe it’s a medical laser?
- Heimerdinger says that Jayce’s new power crystal needs more safety measures, but safety measures for what? The crystal is already perfectly stable. Does he mean security, so it won’t be stolen?
- Silco’s plan and objectives are kept extremely vague for the whole season. Even by the end, it’s not clear what he was trying to do or how he planned to do it
- When visiting a brothel for information, Vi tells Caitlyn to start flirting with the customers for unknown reasons. Then they leave without mentioning it again.
- In a council meeting, Vi gives no indication of being pro-war but gets very angry at the possibility of peaceful negotiation. The scene ends without clearly indicating what Vi actually wants.
- Ekko’s group of resistance fighters have somehow turned their corner of the poisoned undercity into a green paradise with healthy trees. How did they do that? The whole place is poisoned!
- The “undercity” appears and sounds like it’s underground, but it’s accessed by going across a normal bridge that leads to a distinctly aboveground city. I have pored over maps of Piltover, and I’m still having trouble with this one.
- Jayce orders all traffic across the bridges to be searched, but in the next scene, we see that no one is allowed through at all. Maybe someone applied creative license to Jayce’s orders.
- The Piltover council somehow switches from being completely against undercity independence to unanimously voting for it. How does Jayce get them to do that? By being offscreen for a while!
This is not an exhaustive list, and I was still thinking of new things to add even as I typed it, but I think that’s enough to get the point across. Some confusion is inevitable in any story, but Arcane pushes it beyond all limits. The last show I can remember being this hard to follow was Lost, which the writers made confusing on purpose.
Some of these problems could probably be solved with more explanation. For example, we might see the guards search people crossing the bridge at first, but this causes so much delay that the crowd gets rowdy, forcing the bridge to be closed entirely. However, that’s not really a solution when we’re seeing this many points of confusion. Even a novel, which can explain a lot more than a TV show, would struggle with this much exposition.
Other items on the list are just bad plotting. It’s difficult to imagine any scenario in which Jayce convinces the Piltover council to give up half their territory, no matter how persuasive he is.
The best solution that can be applied to nearly all these points is to revise the story so that the initial situation is easier to understand. In most cases, that means making things simpler. That way, each point doesn’t require a lot of explanation, and we’re less likely to have plot problems like Jayce’s offscreen council persuasion.
For a simple example, the term “undercity” makes it sound like the whole thing is underground, but we can tell from the visuals that it isn’t. Some of the undercity is just a normal city, while other parts appear to be in deep canyons that are still open to the sky. A less confusing choice would be to call it the “lower city,” which would encompass everything not in the rich upper districts. This is a common naming practice that wouldn’t need much explanation.
For a more complicated example, the story needs Jayce and Viktor to be working on something they think will help the people of the undercity, but it also needs them to be working on powered armor and laser guns, something no one in the undercity would benefit from.* An easy solution is to have Jayce fund public services in the undercity: hospitals, housing, food and water, etc. He needs the money from new inventions to keep those services going. This is easy to explain and would fit well with Jayce rushing new inventions to market before they’re ready.
We can apply this method to most of Arcane’s confusing plot points. Instead of Jayce needing to convince the council to grant the undercity independence, he might work to make them accept Silco as the new undercity governor, someone with a lot of autonomy but who still ultimately answers to the council. Likewise, gaining that position would be a good plan for Silco, easy to understand and with clear stakes. The list goes on, and the more confusion we can fix, the more time there is to enjoy the story.
2. More Efficient Backstory
Arcane’s first season was released on Netflix in three chunks, each a week apart and containing three episodes. From this, you might imagine that the show is divided into three distinct parts, but it’s not. Instead, episodes 4 to 9 form the main story, while episodes 1 to 3 are backstory that takes place before a time jump of several years.
That is, to put it mildly, too much backstory, and it creates a number of problems. Most urgently, it introduces several potentially interesting characters like Vander and Grayson, then abruptly kills them off before their story can properly resolve.* Three episodes is enough time to get attached, but not enough time for any kind of satisfactory conclusion. It doesn’t help that Grayson is killed offscreen by a mook and Vander dies from an explosion so magical that it’s somehow more deadly to people on the other side of a steel door than people in the same room.
The other big problem with this backstory is that it takes up precious time that the main story desperately needs. Arcane is incredibly ambitious with its storytelling, and later plots are often starved for time. The political plots especially suffer from this. Maybe with a couple more episodes we could see how Jayce is able to get his radical independence proposal through the council. But we could also have used more time to learn about the Firelights, or to develop how Silco runs his drug empire, since that question is suddenly very important in the later episodes.
Why is this backstory so long? Partly because it has backstory of its own. Even though Vander dies before the main story begins, these first three episodes spend a lot of time establishing his complex history with Silco and the history of previous political conflicts in Piltover. In fact, we learn more about previous political conflicts than we do about the current one. The backstory episodes also have to establish how Jayce and Viktor became famous inventors and introduce a few disposable side characters like Mylo and Claggor, both of whom die at the end of episode three.
With so much going on, it’s no wonder the backstory takes three entire episodes to complete. But believe it or not, there’s something very important that the backstory didn’t have time for: establishing a relationship between Jinx* and Ekko. The two of them barely interact, which is weird considering how important their connection is to the iconic bridge fight in episode seven.*
To cut this backstory down, we’d need to tear out everything that isn’t related to Vi and Jinx. That means Jayce and Viktor can get on out of here until the main story starts. We just need to know they’re rich inventors; we don’t need to see how they got that way, especially since the conflict over Piltover not trusting magic goes exactly nowhere. Likewise, Vander and Silco’s history should be simplified or eliminated entirely. All we really need to know about them is that they’re both criminal leaders, but one does good crimes and the other does bad crimes. We can probably keep how they’re old comrades from the failed revolution, but we absolutely don’t need the convoluted story of Vander trying to drown Silco.
Next, we’d get rid of unnecessary characters. Mylo and Claggor are the first to go, as their only purpose is to die so Jinx will feel guilty, and Vander already has that role covered. Instead, put Ekko on Vi and Jinx’s crime team. That will give Ekko and Jinx the time they need to bond so that the bridge fight hits as hard as it’s supposed to. This would be easy, since most of the needed footage already exists; it’s just hidden in this music video for some reason. Since we probably don’t want Ekko or Vi to invent the name “Jinx,” as that’s meaner than they’re supposed to be, it can be something a random bar patron shouts at them after a failed job.
I’d also cut Grayson, even though she’s played by one of my favorite voice actors, as her character is largely unimportant once the main story starts. Vander’s unofficial treaty with the Enforcers is interesting, but since it doesn’t matter in the later episodes, we don’t need it. From there, the backstory can play out largely the same way it does in the current version: the crew steals a magic crystal that both Silco and the cops want, they fight over it for a bit, and then Vander is accidentally killed by Jinx’s bomb. That way, Jinx has a motivation for her heel turn, Vi is whisked off to jail, and Ekko is left on his own.
I can’t say for sure how long this more efficient backstory would take, but my guess is we’d save at least one episode, maybe even two. It depends on how much time we want to spend developing the bond between Vander, Vi, Jinx, and Ekko.* Even if we only cut down the backstory by a single episode, that still gives the later stories more breathing room, especially once we enact my next few changes.
3. Fewer Characters
In addition to too much backstory, Arcane has too many characters. Way too many characters. Some of this comes from the need to shove as many League of Legends champions into the show as possible,* but a surprising number don’t come from the game at all.
Granted, a TV show can handle more characters than a novel for the simple reason that we have more things to remember them by. Instead of relying entirely on the written word, we can also see what a character looks like and hear what they sound like. That helps jog the old memory, even if we can’t recall a character’s name.
But Arcane still has too many characters. It has so many that a lot of important moments are crowded out by lack of development. In one scene, we meet an old friend of Vi’s who is now strung out on fantasy drugs, but it’s really hard to remember where we saw him before. In another, Viktor’s lab assistant has what should be a tragic death, but we’ve barely gotten to know her. The show is still figuring out Mel’s character when everything about her is turned upside down by the arrival of Warlord Mom. The list goes on. I’ve already talked about which backstory characters need to go, so let’s look at a few other prospects from the main story.
Despite being a beloved champion from the game and featuring a lot of screen time, Heimerdinger does almost nothing in this show. His main purpose is to interfere with Jayce’s plans, which is pretty frustrating, and that interference never even goes anywhere. Of all his warnings about Jayce’s tech, the only problem to come from it is when someone steals a power crystal, something Heimerdinger didn’t even consider. His only real contribution is to be a do-nothing ruler who fiddles while his city burns, and any of the other random council members can do that.
In the early episodes, the writers are clearly still figuring out Mel’s character. What she wants is exceedingly vague, yet also somewhat sinister, and it seems like she’s pushing Jayce to take greater risks. Then, before we can get any understanding of Mel, her mom Ambessa shows up and completely overshadows her. Suddenly, Mel’s main role is being the voice of reason who wants peace, with her previous motivations remaining unexplored. Meanwhile, Ambessa spends all of her time hanging out and foreshadowing a possible conflict in season two. We don’t need an entire character for that! Saving this character for next season would give Mel time to develop properly, and she’d also have plenty of time to foreshadow future problems in Noxus.
Finn and the Crime Board
For most of the show, we pay very little attention to the workings of Silco’s criminal empire. Then, we suddenly find out that he has a board of criminal investors who are apparently unhappy with his quarterly earnings. They try to overthrow him, it predictably fails, and the story keeps going as if this side adventure had never happened. The only reason these characters exist is because without them, Silco has nothing to do for large sections of the show. That’s a problem because Silco is a villain: he should be doing villain things that affect the protagonist! If the writers wanted to explore Silco’s empire, they should have made that the story’s focus.
I’ll admit I’m still confused as to why this corrupt cop has so much screen time in Arcane. It’s reasonable to have a named enforcer for Jayce to order around, but why give that enforcer an abortive character arc? The show spends a lot of time focusing on how torn Marcus is about serving Silco, which should then conclude in him either turning against Silco or falling permanently into his dark side. Instead, he’s killed off by Jinx’s explosive butterfly cloud. At time of death, Marcus is still working for Silco, but he also still has doubts about working for Silco, so nothing is resolved. Granted, as a cop who both beats up civilians and takes mob bribes, it would be difficult for Marcus to generate enough sympathy for a proper arc, but that’s another problem.
There are plenty of other characters whose roles could be reduced or cut, but those four* are the most obvious. Despite their screen time, they have very little to do with any of Arcane’s storylines, so cutting them would require few changes to other aspects of the show.
4. Related Storylines
Arcane’s biggest structural problem is that a bunch of its storylines are largely or completely unrelated to each other. We first see this in the backstory, where Jayce tries to get his invention approved while Vi tries not to get caught by either Silco or the Enforcers. Other than Vi and her crew stealing some of Jayce’s power crystals in the first episode, these arcs have no effect on each other.
Unfortunately, that trend continues past the backstory episodes. There are not one, not two, but three main stories:
- Jayce and Viktor working on new inventions
- Vi and Caitlyn looking for Jinx
- Silco’s revolutionary adventures
Plot #1 is almost entirely self-contained, only briefly interacting with the other two when Jinx steals a magic crystal. Again. Plots #2 and #3 sound like they should be connected, since Jinx is Silco’s main lieutenant, but they mostly aren’t. Instead, Silco is largely passive for most of the story, occasionally dealing with the ornery crime board but otherwise hanging out in his office. It’s not until near the end that Silco finally starts pushing his political agenda, and even then, it mostly seems to fall into his lap as a side effect of Vi’s fight with Jinx. Silco himself seems a little confused that Jayce is already suing for peace after just one raid on a drug factory.
Compounding the problem, we have several significant subplots that also branch off on their own with little relation to each other or to the main plots. The two most significant of these are Viktor’s quest to cure his illness and whatever is going on with Ambessa. Don’t get me wrong, I’m more than happy to watch a badass lady relax and enjoy herself, but I would like it to be plot relevant somehow. The only effect Ambessa has on the rest of the plot is when she urges Jayce to be more ruthless, and he was clearly going in that direction already. Viktor is even less related; he’s just working on a side project.
These fractured storylines have two major effects on the story. First, the early episodes aren’t nearly as engaging as they could be. Instead of developing one story, we keep switching around between them. I really enjoy Vi and Caitlyn’s investigation, and I would like it a lot more if we didn’t keep cutting away to Jayce and Heimerdinger arguing over unrelated inventions.
Second, the later episodes feel rushed because the writers are literally rushing to tie off their many storylines as best they can. Even after watching the entire season, I cannot articulate what Silco’s plan was before Jayce called him up and offered independence. Likewise, the undercity gains independence in about 10 minutes, with no buildup or anything to justify how it’s even possible. The Firelights completely vanish after seeming pretty important, and we briefly see Heimerdinger try to help out in the undercity before immediately giving up. Granted, that’s fairly in character for him, but it’s still frustrating.
To fix this, we need to decide what Arcane is actually about. A story can be about anything, but it can’t be about everything. Personally, I think Arcane is about Piltover’s political struggle. The magitech is great for novelty, but it doesn’t need to form part of the plot. There are other possible directions to take the story, but we can’t explore all of them in one article, so let’s look at this approach.
First of all, this means axing the entire Hextech-invention storyline. It’s done, get it out of here! Jayce is already on the Piltover council when the main story starts, propelled to leadership at a young age because his inventions are so important to how the city functions. Heimerdinger is now the counselor who urges restraint when dealing with the undercity, while Mel argues for decisive action so that Piltover can be ready for a conflict brewing in Noxus, which will be important next season. Jayce is caught in the middle, and we could even make him originally from the undercity if we want to add some depth to his character. We’re also axing Silco’s problems with the crime board, because honestly no one has time for them.
The plot kicks off with Jinx stealing a power crystal for Silco. Silco wants to reverse engineer the crystal so he can equip his soldiers with Hextech weapons, thus making them a match for Piltover’s Enforcers. If Viktor is still in the story, he can be working on that for Silco. Jayce, with his famous out-of-the-box thinking, pairs Caitlyn up with Vi and sends them both to retrieve the crystal. If they can get it back, a heavy-handed response won’t be needed. Officially, Vi is doing this to earn her freedom, but she’s got her own agenda to find Jinx, just like in the existing show. Vi could even have an arc where she starts off only caring about herself and Jinx, but eventually realizes that she needs to fight for all of the undercity.
From there, the story mostly follows Caitlyn and Vi, but it also cuts to either Jayce or Silco occasionally as the political conflict slowly escalates. Caitlyn and Vi meet the Firelights, of course, who are against both the upper city for how it oppresses them and Silco for how he exploits the very people he claims to champion. We don’t meet Ambessa until next season, but Mel can mention her as foreshadowing. The climax could even be similar, with Jayce offering the undercity independence to avoid a war, but this time it would be built up enough to be plausible.
That’s obviously only one way to unify Arcane’s disparate storylines, but it gives you an idea of what has to be done. A story can get very complex and still be great, but once it starts pulling in different directions, there’s a problem.
5. A Stronger Conclusion
Now that we’ve looked at Arcane’s story from a bird’s-eye view, it’s time to zoom in for our final section. Specifically, zoom in to the show’s climax. While the scattered plotlines yield several possible candidates for the climax, one scene is clearly more dramatic than the others: teatime with Jinx. That is, Jinx captures Vi, Caitlyn, and Silco, then ties them all up at an Alice in Wonderland-style tea party. I have some serious concerns about the potential ableism of this trope, but for now I’ll leave that to more qualified critics and focus on the drama instead.
This scene is meant as the culmination of Jinx’s character arc. Will she choose her sister Vi and turn good, or will she stick with her adopted father Silco* and stay evil? Caitlyn is there too, but mostly as a catalyst to raise the stakes from just words to both bullets and words.
The first problem is that Jinx’s choice is made in a rather arbitrary fashion. Vi and Silco are at a standstill in their verbal battle when Silco flips the table by trying to shoot Vi, forcing Jinx to shoot him first. Jinx then feels guilty and decides to stay evil. I can see what the writers wanted here, but it’s not very satisfying, as it places all the agency on Silco rather than on Vi, the actual protagonist.
Once Jinx has made her choice, she goes on to launch a rocket at the council building, right after they’ve voted to grant undercity independence.* This is also really unsatisfying because Jinx’s motivation is extremely hazy. While Jinx is a violent person, she’s never shown much interest in Piltover’s political situation, so this particular act of violence feels very out of left field. I think the idea is that she’s carrying out Silco’s wishes after killing him, but there isn’t much to indicate why Silco would want the council building bombed or why Jinx would think he does. Put together, the whole climax leaves you feeling emotionally disconnected. Something certainly happened, but there isn’t a strong reason for you to care.
Fortunately, fixing this climax doesn’t require rewriting the major storylines like the last entry, though of course that wouldn’t hurt. The first thing we need is a real turning point in Vi’s conflict with Silco, something to show that Jinx is actually being convinced one way or another. The most obvious option would be for Vi to say something that actually gets through to Jinx. Ideally, this would demonstrate Vi’s growth as well.
- Vi might offer forgiveness for Jinx’s part in Vander’s death.* This would represent something she was unwilling to do before, even when she was trying to help Jinx.
- If we’re able to revise previous scenes, then Vi might confess that Vander’s death wasn’t Jinx’s fault, showing that Vi is finally able to move on and stop blaming her sister.
- Alternatively, Vi could focus on how Jinx didn’t kill Ekko when she had the chance, offering Jinx proof that she isn’t completely lost. This would require some modifications to the bridge sequence, but it’s hardly a stretch that Jinx could have finished Ekko when he was wounded from her grenade.
Whatever the turning point is, we would see Jinx starting to turn toward Vi. That’s when Silco escalates to violence and Jinx shoots him. Alternatively, we could also see Vi fail her turning point, which makes Silco overconfident, thinking he can kill Vi and Jinx won’t intervene. That turns out to be false, and Jinx shoots him. Whatever happens, it needs to be rooted in Vi’s actions – success or failure.
Next, we need a better ending for Jinx, something that puts her firmly in villain territory for season two but is more satisfying than a random rocket attack. To keep the theme of trying to carry out Silco’s wishes, I would have Jinx take over his organization and vow to finish what he started. That puts Jinx in charge of Team Bad, which is currently leaderless.
The current ending also builds a lot of drama on the irony of Jinx starting a war just as the council was voting for peace. If that’s important to keep, then we can end with Jinx declaring that independence isn’t enough – they’re going to take over the upper city too. To justify this, she can pin Silco’s death on Caitlyn, who is clearly one of Jayce’s associates. Jinx tells her followers that they were betrayed, and the season ends with the undercity mobilizing for war.
Not only does this scenario give Vi and Jinx’s arc a more satisfying conclusion, but it also ends with a stronger hook for season two. In the actual ending, all we have are question marks. Presumably, some of the councilors are dead, but we don’t know who, nor what the consequences might be. It’s likely the upper city will make some kind of response, but against whom, now that Silco is dead? Will it be a hunt for Jinx or a general war? It’s good to leave the ending with some unanswered questions, but without a strong idea of where the story is going, there’s little to draw audiences back except for the beautiful visuals. Granted, those visuals are so impressive that Arcane will probably do fine, but the point stands.
Given Arcane’s impressive acclaim from both critics and audiences, I imagine a lot of folks will see this article and conclude I’m just trolling. It’s already so good, why bother improving it? Partly for the challenge. Improving on a quality story is a great way to stretch the editing muscles. But more importantly, because no matter how good a story is, it can always be better. Except for Vi’s fight against Sevika. That one’s perfect.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?