Netflix’s “Arcane” Is Full of Queer Badasses and Emotional Gut Punches

I’m not quite sure what I expected Arcane to be, but I didn’t expect it to be an epic sci-fi adventure about found family, queer badasses, and underground rebellion. And yet, to my delight, that’s exactly what it was.

All I really knew about Arcane going into it was that it was aesthetically pleasing and related to the video game League of Legends, which I’ve never played. And, based on the specific people who were enthusiastically recommending/insisting/begging that I watch it, I assumed it was also a little queer, at the VERY least in a subtexty way.

The best way I can describe this show is that it is like a montage of all the best cut scenes in a video game. The graphics and fluid motions and possibly impossible and fantastical acrobatics and fight maneuvers are all reminiscent of a well-made modern video game. Which, I mean, all makes sense, because it’s based on one, but you just have to watch a trailer for the Sonic live-action movie to know that not all cross-media adaptations stay faithful to the vibes of the source material.

Vi holding up her magic gauntlets, ready to fight

Did I consider getting a roman numeral V (for Valerie) tattooed on my cheek after seeing this VERY BRIEFLY YES I DID.
(ARCANE: HAILEE STEINFELD as VI in ARCANE Cr. NETFLIX © 2021)

True to my first impressions, Arcane is visually stunning. It’s fantasy-modern, with arcane ingenuity making the city above hum, and the clockwork/steampunk vibe of the underground giving it that gritty feeling. The show explores overarching and high level relationships between cities and governing parties, while also delving into interpersonal relationships in a way that stomps at your heartstrings, starting right off the bat with the opening scene being of a young girl, Vi, guiding her little sister through the aftermath of a battle where their parents lay slain.

But! Then! We flash forward to when the girls are teenagers on a romp of a heist mission, so it really runs the gambit as far as emotions go, and every beat hits more soundly than the last, often in unexpected ways.

Vi smiling down at Powder, who is smiling up at her

When I learned this child’s name was POWDER I knew I’d kill and die for her right then and there. Same as Vi.
(ARCANE (L to R) : HAILEE STEINFELD as VI, ELLA PURNELL as JINX in ARCANE Cr. NETFLIX © 2021)

Also, I’m here for the uptick in Hailee Steinfeld content this year, because her voicing Vi brings layers to the character not everyone could, especially in the lines where you can hear a smirk in her voice even when you can’t see one on her face.

While Vi has…other things to focus on over the course of the season, she’s definitely queer, and definitely an amazing character to add to our list. It’s not a thing that’s said outright, no labels or anything, but it becomes clear as the season goes on. For example, when grumpy, rebellious Vi’s path crosses with golden child Caitlin, an enforcer from the city above, the city that represents everything Vi hates, Vi starts calling her “Cupcake.” And if your favorite fanfic tag is hurt/comfort, you’re in for a treat.

Okay now there’s something else I want to talk about but BEWARE! I’m going to get into some VERY SPECIFIC SPOILERS below and I cannot recommend highly enough that you go into this show as blind as you can!

Arcane: Caitlin plotting

Me planning how to divide this review so those who haven’t seen it won’t get spoiled but those who have know I want to talk about it.
Arcane. (L to R) Kevin Alejandro as Jayce, Katie Leung as Caitlyn Kiramman in Arcane. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2021

So the show is broken into three acts, and each act is three episodes long. And as the first three episodes went on, I thought I knew the kind of show I was watching. I thought I knew what path we were on. I thought I knew, in broad strokes, what the plot of the next two arcs would be like. I thought I knew. But I sure did not. At the end of episode three, when the plan was working, when they were almost safe, I knew things were about to go sideways. But when Powder’s bomb finally works and you know it’s not the right time and you know it’s going to cause some chaos but then it KILLS people? People she LOVES?? I gasped and I’m pretty sure I held my breath the rest of the episode. I don’t get got very often while watching TV but I sure got got this time!

Caitlin sitting in the rain under an umbrella

Me after I got got. (Arcane. Katie Leung as Caitlyn Kiramman in Arcane. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2021)

When Vi walked away from her on that bridge, I felt like there was a vice grip around my heart only made tighter when she called her a jinx. I kept expecting her to change her mind, to run back to her sister. And when she didn’t, I could feel the seismic shift in the plot I thought I knew. I could feel the world tip upside down, shaking up all my expectations. But even so, I didn’t expect Powder to become THE villain. It was brilliant and twisted and dark and fun and I loved it.

Where I expected D&D-style adventures and highly stylized fight scenes, I got an exploration on societal stigma and oppression, class wars, and the way trauma impacts us all differently. Where I thought it would be all blams and pows, it was a desperate plea to a sister you hope isn’t totally lost. It was rebellion in the face of loss and defeat. It was heartfelt conversations on a discordantly fancy bed.

I also definitely thought the Vi/Caitlin stuff was going to stay subtext but by the end it became clear to me that it’s canon, and I look forward to the second season, where hopefully they will get to save the world together.


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Valerie Anne

Just a TV-loving, Twitter-addicted nerd who loves reading, watching, and writing about stories. One part Kara Danvers, two parts Waverly Earp, a dash of Cosima and an extra helping of my own brand of weirdo.

Valerie has written 414 articles for us.

10 Comments

  1. I was wondering when y’all would write about Arcane! By far my favorite show of 2021, possibly my favorite show ever. It is very nearly perfect in every aspect of what goes in to making an animated show come to life (imo). And of course Vi and Caitlyn’s whole arc is……very good.

  2. Amanda Overton was the executive story director and specifically wrote most of episode five (though she emphasizes, repeatedly, that every episode is a team effort).

    Anyway, on her twitter account (@leeloo104) she frequently takes time to answer fans’ questions (to the extent that she can without spoilers for season two/breaking NDA’s), and between her and other people who worked on the show on twitter, it’s super obvious that Cait/Vi’s relationship is going to be further developed (which…seems obvious to me lol) and we’re not being baited. There’s also some great notes about comparing the script to what Fortiche animated–the scene where Vi sees Caitlyn talking to the woman in the brothel, the script just says something like “Vi looks up, curious; and smiles” and the animation shows Vi’s face doing something like “Oh she’s into women then, nice….oh shit I have a chance, oh god, OH FUCK” and somehow her face does this journey in like, two seconds of animation??? The folks at Fortiche absolutely should get some of the credit for making it That Gay! One of the Fortiche animators even posted “yes, I’m the one who made Cait 6ft tall in the League of Lesbians show,” which made me lol for a while.

    I don’t play League but my partner does and they’ve been a Vi main for years and has a tattoo of Vi’s gauntlet, and from them I learned–Caitlyn and Vi have been teased as a ship for yeeeeeears via their voicelines in the games. Their ship name is often called Piltover’s Finest in part because of an in-game advantage your team gets if there’s a Caitlyn and a Vi on it. :D

    Also: the tag on ao3 has, of course, absolutely exploded. They had like 200 fics pre-Arcane, and as of right now they have 1374!

    • We’re definitely not getting baited. I think people’s fears about queerbaiting have made people forget that slowburns exist (and still exist for straight ships).

      It’s a slowburn, that is all. They are the main romance of the series.

      • YES. Someone on twitter pointed out that the very chaste scene on the bed between Vi and Caitlyn had far more emotional intimacy than the one straight sex scene, and Amanda replied “Yes, that was intentional.”

        I know we’re not getting the next season until at *least* 2023 (various show people have confirmed it) and aaaaaugh!

  3. I was hoping someone would’ve clocked this! Thank you Valerie Anne for following the pulse of fandom, and lol @ the review murderboard. I’m glad you had people that insisted you watch! Yoinking folks into Arcane is like a family tree of queerness but THIS time there’s this puff of pride that, wow, it was also really really good.

  4. Feel like I might be the only person who didn’t love this show all that much. I’m extremely tired of the mentally ill villain, and Powder/Jinx embodies that archetype so completely I found it tough to watch. The animation team should be very proud of themselves, though.

    • I’m mentally ill (don’t want to specify, but it’s one of the “scary” ones) and I love mentally ill villains, they’re pretty much the only characters I relate to. I’d like to see more… amoral? fiction about mentally ill people, but with the archetypes that are more generally in use, heroism doesn’t mean much to me and feels like it always cuts off mentally ill characters’ range of expression. Like, if society’s going to decide you’re a devil anyway, then shouldn’t you at least get to be a proper devil?

      It’s totally okay that you feel differently, though (and also… not my place at all to judge whether it’s okay, I don’t have anything to do with you or your life), and I’m not trying to say that mentally ill people who don’t relate to villainy on a conceptual level are the ones in the wrong, either. Just, here’s a vote for “one person’s trash is another person’s treasure and vice versa”, that’s all.

    • I want to start this comment by noting that I’m not sure if this site tracks router IP addresses, so in case it does, I am the poster using the name Alice’s partner and we live in the same apartment and are using the same router. And yes, I have had enough stupid experiences with the internet to be justified in worrying about having my (or both of our) opinions dismissed over something like that.

      Like Alice, I’m mentally in a way some people consider to be scary (though in my personal experience it mostly just leaves us vulnerable for neurotypical people to exploit and then self-righteously abandon), and I’m also sick of the grotesque lie that is the idea of heroism limiting the range of expression for mentally ill characters. (Heroism, a concept Arcane deconstructs and exposes for the hypocritical sham that it really is with the same grace and dedication with which is demonstrates that the idea of heroism pretty much exists so people doing horrible things can feel self-righteous about those things, and to allow for a state of “villainy” to exist in contrast, creating a false divide between people that allows the privileged to dismiss the damaged.)

      The thing is, apart from that stuff, I actually disagree with a lot of what my partner said here, mainly in terms of your right to your opinions and expressing them. Yes, you technically have the right to do this, but there are many things we technically have the right to do that are still shitty and wrong. In my opinion your comment speaks much, much worse of you as a person than my partner thought it did. You are allowed to be tired of “mentally ill villains”, and I imagine/hope you are in some way mentally ill yourself, and you’re entitled to your feelings even if I don’t agree to them, but that isn’t actually the problem here.

      The big problem is that you watched this show and you thought that Jinx was intended to be a villain. This is not a universal opinion, and considering how relentlessly sympathetic to Jinx the show is, I very much doubt that Jinx WAS as meant to be seen as a villain. I’d argue the actual villain is… society and human nature mostly, and beyond that it’s Piltover’s council for their oppression of the undercity’s people, but even if I were to engage with the twisted way you interpreted this show and therefore chose a character to assign as the show’s “mentally ill villain,” it wouldn’t be Jinx, it would be Silco.

      If you’re not mentally ill, then stop talking. If you are, and again I am assuming that you probably are, then I’d like to say here that while it’s probably objectively sad that you dislike yourself enough that you can’t find empowerment in sympathetic portrayals of mentally ill characters who make mistakes and cause harm, I really can’t care at all because I think it’s gross and harmful to toss your awful take out into the world like this.

      Projecting your resentment of whatever your own issues are (or maybe other people’s issues? I continue assuming you have mental health problems yourself, but I could still be wrong) onto characters like this, especially ones like Jinx who are not at all a typical embodiment of the archetype in that they are being treated with nuance, sympathy, and empathy by the narrative, is… like… concerning at best and repulsive and frightening at worst. You watched this show, in which a council of wealthy, privileged noble houses spend nearly the whole run oppressing the poor, the outcasts, the ignoble, the unfortunate, and the only “villain” you saw fit to mention was Jinx? Did you not care about any of that, or was it just not worth bringing up while you were reducing a character many, many people relate to and felt empowered by to some idea of a stereotypical mentally ill villain that she really does not fit? The direction your bias about this has taken is a really, REALLY bad look, and I honestly worry for any mentally ill people in your personal life, because I can’t imagine you’re a safe person for them to be around.

      Lastly, her name is Jinx. Use it. Vi gets some leeway here given their shared past and despising herself for the last thing she said to her sister before spending [X] years in prison. You don’t. The ending of this first season of Arcane left zero ambiguity as to what Jinx’s name is. “Powder/Jinx” my ass. If you want your takes to be taken seriously, have enough respect for characters to not undermine their self-identification. That, too, is a really, REALLY bad look. If I were you, I’d take a long hard look in a mirror and think that over. But really, I imagine this post’s wasted effort, because if you were the mirror-gazing type your comment wouldn’t be here in the first place.

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