Outside of the immediate League of Legends fandom, few of us saw Arcane coming. Despite the popularity of the game that the show is based on, Arcane‘s popularity is limited by its niche appeal and its medium.
Your average viewer tends to be dismissive of any show that’s animated because their experience with animated shows is often, frankly, juvenile. After all, few of us want to sit down and watch Frozen for the nth time when we don’t have a small kid screaming “Let It Go” within a 20-mile radius. But Arcane is different.
It’s one of those surprisingly mature animated shows that will leave you staring at the screen, wondering what you just watched after a day-long marathon. Its living, breathing world is packed with heavy themes that fans of Avatar: The Last Airbender and Game of Thrones would love.
It’s also why the show has drawn some flak.
Political views being what they are, no one and nothing gets to talk about anything that’s remotely political without it being a target for debate about what its narrative should be like. Most of the time, stories like this are treated as if they should present a black and white narrative or, at most, a narrative that’s gray but still leans closer to one view just so no one gets uncomfortable about the fact that it won’t take sides.
But Arcane does the one thing that an audience living in a polarized sociopolitical atmosphere rarely wants to see: it tells a story that says everyone is kind of wrong, but they’re also kind of right.
A quick warning: You don’t want to read this if you don’t like getting spoiled because there’s really no way to talk about it without spoiling parts of each characters’ story. That said, if you really want to, the spoilers are kept as minimal as possible so that some of the key plot points are left unexplored.
What’s Moderate Politics and What Does It Have to Do With Arcane?
Arcane is set in the twin cities of Zaun and Piltover, a very on-the-nose metaphor for its polarized atmosphere. Piltover is a shining megacity that overlooks the sea, a literal and metaphorical beacon of light in the planet of Runeterra, a world devasted by war and extreme ideologies.
Citizens of Piltover proudly call their city “The City of Progress” because it serves as the technological and cultural center of its continent. Piltover’s industrialized economy has allowed it to amass wealth that lets its citizens enjoy a high standard of living as well as a relatively crime-free environment.
In contrast, its twin city, Zaun, is a polluted wasteland that practically lives off of Piltover’s castoffs. It’s not a great way to live, to say the least, especially when you start accounting for the toxic air, crime lords that control the city, and the indifference of Piltover’s ruling class.
The rampant crime and violence in Zaun have progressed in a way that Piltover government officials don’t really have control of what happens in Zaun. Instead, they leave it all to Vander, the undercity’s de facto leader who cares enough about Zaun and its citizens to try and at least keep it somewhat peaceful.
Of course, this peace isn’t perfect as the first episode shows his adoptive children being robbed by other young criminals. It helps drive home the point that Zaun’s evils are so deeply rooted that there is no quick fix for it, not even strong leadership.
Instead, both Vander and Sheriff Grayson, the top dog of the Piltover wardens, try to keep a balance between the two cities as they both understand that allowing Pilltover’s citizens to grow more afraid of Zaun and letting Zaun’s citizens lash out will result in another violent clash where, realistically, no one wins.
Sheriff Grayson and Vander try to keep their people in line throughout the first few episodes of the show to prevent bloodshed which in their view isn’t worth it just to let hotheaded young wardens, idealistic children, and an actual domestic terrorist prove a point about who is more “correct”.
If that leaves a bad taste in your mouth, you’ve probably recognized what political position these two characters take in the show. They’re political moderates.
Political moderates get a bad rep. For better or for worse, people in the opposing ends of the political spectrum push for a “You’re either with me or against me” attitude towards anybody who doesn’t share the same political views hook, line, and sinker. Now, I’m not going to argue for whether moderate politics is in itself wrong, right, or a bit of both. Let’s just keep things restricted to Arcane for now.
Moderate politics and the people who take a moderate political stance basically advocate for a middle ground between two or more wildly opposing political views. To moderates, matters of state and policy aren’t “us vs. them” or “either/or” issues because ultimately, in the moderate view, political tensions aren’t just about resolving them for the sake of getting an answer for that one issue, but a matter of managing the sentiments of every person in a given society. The goal, ultimately, is unity and creating a cooperative environment where the extremes aren’t constantly at each others’ throats.
Given this non-committal approach to ideologies, it’s unsurprising that political moderates are accused of secretly being for the other party. We see this in Arcane when Vander’s insistence that Vi doesn’t go out and pick fights with Piltover citizens she sees as one dimensional bad guys and Sheriff Grayson’s insistence that her own wardens don’t beat up Zaunites who they see as one dimensional bad guys make their subordinates see them as being secretly on the “other” side.
Both Vi and Marcus see their more moderate allies as misinformed or misguided which is similar to how moderates in real life are seen as. Contrary to this increasingly popular belief though, a poll found that moderates aren’t secretly for or against one side nor are they ill-informed. They’re just more wary about fully exploring the nuances of both perspectives.
This wariness, the sinking feeling that the increasing tension between both sides of each argument is going to be ugly is exactly what the writers of Arcane have managed to impart to its viewers.
So Why Insist on a Centrist Message?
Arcane has a lot of merits. Everything from its phenomenal soundtrack to its beautiful art to its emotionally gripping voice acting shows the hours of work and thought that have gone into the show. What is less obvious is the care with which Arcane handles its politically loaded story.
The show is about many things. The juxtaposition of Piltover and Zaun can be read as a critique of capitalism and how it perpetuates class inequality. The increasingly deadly air of Zaun points out the human and environmental costs of industrialization.
Its largely amoral political elite are profit-driven and seem to have no interest in good governance beyond how well it can keep the public calm enough not to turn against them. The show doesn’t flinch from depicting its wardens as cruel and corrupt.
It would have been easy to turn this into a story about how a group of teenagers, Vi, Powder, and Caitlyn, come together to stop the selfish interests of Piltover’s elites and align them with the likes of Silco, an extremist crime lord who’s willing to burn Piltover and its citizens to the ground to establish the independent nation of Zaun. But, you know, with a nicer Silco and a more evil Piltover that would make them look like heroic revolutionaries.
It could have also been a story about how Caitlyn, Jayce, and Viktor stop the vile terrorists of Zaun from destroying Piltover. It could have also chosen something simpler: showing inventors Jayce and Viktor as technological visionaries fighting against an overly conservative system that seeks to stifle innovation. Or something, anything along those lines.
Instead, Arcane refuses to depict its politics as something that can be reduced to either/or. The closest thing we get to traditional villains are Silco and Mel Medarda, a scheming member of the Piltover council, but even they aren’t as plainly evil as they first seem.
In an interview for their Netflix original series, Alex Yee and Christian Linke reveal the careful balancing act that’s done to make Arcane show you what’s going on in its world and its characters’ heads without making you pick a side right off the bat.
“I think we were really interested in the two perspectives on, like, the political situation between Piltover and Zaun.” Linke said, “I think it’s a good way to show that it’s very easy to be influenced by the perspective that you have and really lack an understanding of what it’s actually like on the other side.”
Yee added, “Everyone should feel as though the troubles that they’re facing don’t have easy answers or easy outs. The magic connections you see in the show are the ones that happen between characters from opposite sides of the world.”
Of course, it’s clear that Zaun is the exploited party between the two cities and that this imbalance of economic and political status between Piltover and Zaun citizens shapes the relationships between the characters of the show.
But it isn’t the point, because what Arcane advocates for, if it even advocates for anything, appears to be the fact that all of its characters are shaped by their experiences and their limited perspectives of the world around them — even the “bad” guys.
Because Ultimately, Arcane Is a Story About People
Arcane oozes sympathy for all of its characters. This is easiest to feel with Powder, a clueless child who just wants to help protect her family but ends up on a downward spiral of madness. All she cares about is her family and that’s as far as her morality goes.
For Jayce and Viktor, their hard work is focused on creating a new world where no one lives in poverty. When the unrest in Zaun threatens the safety of Piltover’s citizens, Jayce begins to fear for them and rushes to protect them the only way he knows how. Viktor, of course, doesn’t agree with making weapons to fight underprivileged Zaunites.
Mel Medarda, for all her scheming, doesn’t let Piltover’s politics interfere with its safety. Her childhood in Noxus exposed her to how brutal real war can be and she would have been happy to keep negotiating for peace.
Vi, who has seen what extremes Silco will go to just to free Zaun from Piltover, wants war. She refuses to let old hurts go, largely because she knows Silco as a threat who murdered her family and took her sister from her.
For Silco, Piltover is a city built on oppression that can only be resolved if it were destroyed despite the fact that even an independent Zaun would still be under his control thanks to his drug empire.
And would it have things been better if Vander and Sheriff Grayson kept the status quo? Probably not given that they couldn’t fix the extreme poverty that Zaunites lived in.
Arcane‘s staunchly moderate politics works for its world because it ultimately isn’t about just political ideology. It’s there. It shapes the world. But it isn’t the end-all and be-all. Instead, its story is about the people on different spots on the political spectrum whose interests and ideas of a greater good clash with each other in ways that, frighteningly, can’t be reduced to bad guy-good guy or chaotic good guy-exploitative capitalist. Its characters are just people trying and failing to do good and, in the process, doing evil.
As poet W.H Auden once wrote, “Evil is unspectacular and always human, and shares our bed and eats at our own table, and we are introduced to goodness every day.”
Which is exactly the conundrum its characters are faced with when they realize their enemies may not be as bad as they thought.