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Arcane - Act Two Review

A few years have passed since the end of Act One. Hextech gates are now fully operational in Piltover, heralding an era of progress and untold riches... and increased tension among Houses and criminal kingpings, as they wrestle each other for a slice of the Hextech pie.

Spoilers Warning

This review of Netflix's Arcane - Act Two contains several major spoilers about Act One.

It also contains minor spoilers about Act Two.

Here be Yordles

Two Sundays ago, the 7th, the conversation around family breakfast was about Yordles.

"No clue what those are," said my wife, after I brought them up.

"You don't remember them being mentioned?"

"No, I don't," she said. "Is that one of the Houses on the Piltover Council? I confess I didn't keep track of all their names."

To anybody reading this on a Runeterra-related site, that probably sounds a bit of a silly question. On my wife's defense though, I have to say that she's the biggest cinema buff (that's how we started dating -- going to the movies), but unlike me she has no interest in video games. It took quite a bit of convincing on my end to make Arcane's Act One our Saturday's Netflix choice; half an episode was enough dispell her doubts.

"What's a Yordle, daddy?" asked Lupe, our little girl.

Making Arcane mom and dad's Saturday Night choice, to which toddlers are very much not invited, had also proven to be a tough sell in her case. Somehow our daughter got wind that Arcane is an animation show -- I probably let that slip in front of her, big-mouthed that I am -- so by the time she should have been in bed we had to deal with the equivalent of a one-toddler picket line demanding to stay with us, since we were watching cartoons. And it was totally not fair that we stood up watching cartoons while sending her to bed.

"Yordles are, hum… like teddy bears, all furry," I said.

"Ah!" said my wife. "You mean the little scientist with the blue eyes, Heimerdinger? Yeah, he obviously wasn't human, but I don't think they ever explained what he was. There was also one like him, ah…" she glanced at our daughter. "You know, that. Standing on the door of one of the undercity bars. Same race, no doubt."

I nodded -- she meant the Yordle prostitute, or course, which would be one of the reasons toddlers don't get to watch this particular cartoon.

But if I had to sum up in two words what struck me the most about this fantastic, very adult animation series, it would be "No Yordles". This is a story in which Hemerdinger plays a key role and, as far as I (or my movie buff significant other) could tell, Yordles, let alone Bandle City, are not even mentioned.

That's how impressively tight and well-told Arcane is. It ruthlessly leaves aside mountains of lore and backstory, to focus on what matters: the characters, their stories, and just enough background so that everything makes sense without wasting time in lengthy expositions and infodumps.

"What I thought we'd see," continued my wife, "is dragons."

"That's the fangirl talking," I chuckled. She's been listening to Imagine Dragons since Radioactive, and I'm pretty sure 'Enemy' in the opening credits is what closed the deal for her to give Arcane a shot.

"No, really," she said. "Weren't you writing about dragons the other day?"

"Daddy writes about dragons!? Really? Like the dragon that knits scarfs?"

That's Lupe's favorite bedtime story, and it's actually about a dragon that learns to knit a sweater; but I've told it so many times that by now the dragon knows how to knit socks, gloves, blankets, hats and scarfs, too -- the latter are a crowd pleaser, for reasons I've yet to discover.

"No," I said, "this was a different dragon…"

"A mean one?"

I made a vague gesture. "Kinda…"

Mom stepped in with toasts and jam to save Dad and distract lil' Lupe's attention, but Dragons, like Yordles, show what a gigantic pile of stuff the writers left out of Arcane. The dragon my wife was referring to is Aurelion Sol: a couple of days before Arcane Act One, I had been giving MonteXristo a hand writing about the Braum Asol Ramp Deck. That's how big Runeterra's Lore is: not far from Piltover there's a frigging Space Dragon, for crying out loud, that forged the very stars that Jinx and Powder look up to in Zaun's night sky.

But, like Yordles, there's no mention of dragons, at all.

In an interview for LA Times, when asked why Riot didn't give the story to a Hollywood studio, and rather made Arcane by themselves, Riot co-founder Marc Merrill says: “We concluded that no one is going to care to the same degree as Rioters. That is a fundamental part of the equation. ... We can add on the great capabilities that other creators can have, but we cannot sacrifice the love, the attention to detail and the historical knowledge and perspective that Rioters have.”

Yet, to write Arcane, its creators were willing to leave aside yordles and dragons and god-like entities and warring empires and undead kings returned to life to search for their dead queen, and ignore pretty much everything in their detailed History that's outside Piltovian walls, so they could better tell a story as old as time: love, like Merrils says, goes hand in hand with sacrifice.

The power of restraint shown by Arcane's creators/writers Christian Linke and Alex Yee is nothing short of titanic.


Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura

Arcane Act Two, like Act One, again deftly avoids entangling the story with details that don't enrich the tale. Yordles are again left unexplained; dragons are absent; the only mention I caught about the outside world is that Noxians prefer wine to vinegar.

But inside Piltovian walls… oh boy, does stuff happen.

Those, like myself, that found only one thing to complain about Act One -- namely that Jinx herself doesn't show up, only her younger Powder self -- rest assured: there's plenty of Jinx to go around in Act Two. And if you've played the overhauled PvE mode, Path of Champions, also rest assured: Arcane's Jinx is not that Jinx, the loony girl with a rocket-launcher that sounds like Riot thought LoR was in need of some comic relief.

No, not at all. Not by a long shot.

Arcane's Jinx is as if Batman and the Joker got married and had a steampunk baby from Hell. Like the Dark Knight, she lives in a cave, she works largely alone and possesses a (mad) genius-level intellect for creating cool gadgets. Like Batman's nemesis, she's batshit crazy and loves nothing better than leaving (and entering) with a big boom.

Act Two's story is as tightly-told and action-packed as the first installment, and the confidence Linke and Yee show in their creation -- again letting characters and setting speak for themselves, not needing to dump lore on us or use any other storytelling crutches -- is both refreshing and exhilarating.

We again follow Viktor, Jayce, Heimerdinger, Caitlyn and Vi as their struggles unfold, while we learn more about the "non-Champion" characters that are unique to Arcane. The latter are yet more proof that Linke and Yee are willing to make sacrifices to tell their story. They could have easily devoted every minute of their show to existing LoL characters (and who could have faulted them for such a decision?) Yet movie-savvy non-LoLers like my wife are incapable of telling Champs from non-Champs in the story (she had a Game of Thrones' Ned Stark moment when Wyde, Claggor and Vander die by the end of Act One). Every character in Arcane is memorable and interesting in their own way. 

Speaking of Game of Thrones, perhaps the only segments in which Arcane's narrative loses a bit of steam is when dealing with politics. They tend to be a bit too simplistic, and to me it felt as if politics had a bit of "plot armour", so to speak. Most things on the Piltovian political sphere happen mostly because the plot needs them to. For example, a Councillor can earn a ton of enemies just by tightening security, uncovering a bit of corruption and ruffling some economic feathers. But on the other hand, Piltovians apparently care so little about their city's politics and power balance that you can have a massive (and very visible) shakedown in Piltover's Council and nobody moves as much as a finger.

Then again, once the story puts its focus back on personal relationships, the show never loses a beat. And visuals, on their part -- everything from grand Piltover vistas, to Zaun's dank and intricate alleys, to vicious fight scenes, to Viktor's close-ups that remind those of Keanu Reeves in Linklater's A Scanner Darkly -- are never below superb.

Arcane's story should wrap up in Act Three next Saturday. Will Linke and Yee show equal mastery for finales, as they've shown for openings and middles?

Runeterra fans and non-LoLers alike, we're all hoping that they shall.