Questions of Trauma and Fragmented Self in Netflix’s ‘Arcane’

Is trauma not like a moment of death? What’s so traumatizing about a traumatic event is that life can never go on how it was before, and so in a sense that life is, in one way or another, over. You have to be reborn in a sense, and you might carry over parts of yourself into this after-trauma life, but you can’t live as or be the person you were before. How does this change the way we relate to others? To the world? In some cases, can the destruction of trauma be severe enough that so much of you can be changed that your family is no longer your family? This is the painful questioning of Arcane.

Arcane is an animated steampunk, science fantasy television series created by Christian Linke and Alex Yee for Netflix. The show is based on the backstories of some of the characters from the popular online PC game League of Legends. The story is set in Piltover, known as The City of Progress, and focuses on the rising tensions between the more affluent class in Piltover and the oppressed undercity, Zaun. Within these narrative themes of progress and socioeconomic divides is a story of trauma and the questions of who we are and how we move forward after a traumatic event. 

Arcane focuses on the stories of Vi (Hailee Steinfeld) and her sister Powder (Ella Purnell), later known as Jinx. Right from the show’s opening scene, we are introduced to the world of Piltover, a traumatic event for Vi and Powder. When their parents are killed, the two girls are only small children trying to escape to a better part of the undercity. Vander (JB Blanc), a man who was attempting to lead this group of people across the bridge, adopts the girls as his own after their parent’s deaths. Flash forward a few years, and Vi, now a teenager, and Powder, now around the age of twelve or thirteen, work with Vander’s sons on various kinds of small criminal jobs that mainly include robbery. 

Jinx and Vi in Arcane (COURTESY: Netflix)

Early on, we can already see how the traumatic event of their childhoods has shaped them. Vi is the strong leader of the group, working hard to protect everyone, especially Powder. She does her best to motivate Powder and treat her like she is capable while keeping a watchful eye on her to ensure her safety. Meanwhile, Powder is far less sure of herself and struggles in her sister’s shadow. 

 Vi fosters Powder’s inventive and artistic nature, pushing her to keep working on the bombs she is trying to create to be more beneficial to the group as she is not much of a fighter. Vi encourages her, telling her, “what makes you different makes you strong.” She lets her know that everyone makes mistakes and has bad days after the rest of the group is hard on her for losing their loot in a fight after a big job. The rest of the group calls her a “jinx,” but Vi tells her everyone makes mistakes and “we learn.” 

Vi seems to have fully taken on her adoptive father Vander’s protective and encouraging traits, opting for teamwork and a way to move forward from trauma together. In the first traumatic event, Vi and Powder went through it together and could more easily reckon with their past and present selves as they were healing together. Yet, even before the second traumatic event, which we will get to in a moment, Powder was beginning to show the deep abandonment trauma their parents’ deaths had left her with.   

After Vander takes the fall for Vi and the boy’s crime, Vi immediately constructs a rescue mission. However, she tells Powder she has to stay behind because she’s too young. Left alone, Powder begins to work herself up into a panic attack. She can’t get her bombs to work, and she feels this failure is causing her to be abandoned again. Then, by accident, Powder receives one of the crystals they stole from the wealthy family in Piltover to work in the bomb. Ecstatic to help, she rushes to the team’s aid. 

Vander rescues Powder and Vi when they are children in Arcane (COURTESY: Netflix)

Meanwhile, Vi and the team have gotten to Vander. They are fighting with Silco (Jason Spisak), a dangerous man trying to take over the Undercity and use his newly made magical drug, Shimmer, to create an army to gain independence for the Undercity; he calls the city of Zaun. Things were looking dicey for the team for a minute, but they managed to close the massive stone door with them and Vander on one side and Silco and his minions on the other. Then Powder shows up. Thinking she would help rescue the team, she throws one of her bombs. It has a far more powerful explosion than anyone was expecting, one that will have blasted a hole through more than the door separating her family and enemy. 

The show slows down this moment, not through slow motion, but through repeating the seconds before the moment the bomb explodes. These moments are shot from different angles showing the various places of impact. It’s disorienting, and we know the moment it happens that this is going to change something forever.

The boys are killed nearly instantly in the explosion; Vander and Vi both survive, but Vander is forced into a battle with Silco’s Shimmer-injected minion, one he ultimately loses. 

Vi finally escapes from the rubble, and while she is taking in the destruction and the death of the boys and Vander, she hears an excited Powder yelling about how she’s done it! It’s worked! Vi is in shock. She says: “You did this?” Powder then realizes exactly what she’s done. In this moment, Powder is not only experiencing a traumatic event, but she is the cause of a traumatic event for her sister. Vi, overcome with grief, slaps Powder, knocking her down, and yells at her, “Milo was right, you are a Jinx.” Powder is sobbing and apologizing, clearly horrified. Vi looks down at the hand she just used to hit Powder and decides she needs to leave, so she does. Powder again begins to panic at being left and starts sobbing harder and begging her sister not to leave her, but Vi keeps walking away. 

Not long after, Silco finds Powder, and in her panic, she hugs him, sobbing into him. Silco, surprised, returns her hug. Powder has found another adoptive father. Vi attempts to return to Powder upon seeing Silco approach her but is arrested by an Enforcer before she can get there. 

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A few years later, Silco has taken over as both the Undercity and as Jinx’s adoptive father. The Undercity is split between those who supported Vander, many of which are now with Ekko, and those who support Silco in a bloody rebellion or fight for independence. While Vi has been in prison during these years, Jinx has been growing up with Silco, perfecting her bombs and other weapons, and generally working for Silco. The separation of Vi and Jinx over these years and the fact that each of them chooses to uphold a different father’s values complicates Jinx’s question to Vi in the finale, “Are we still sisters?” While it’s one that Vi answers quickly and definitely, “Yes. Nothing’s going to change that,” for us on the outside and Jinx, it’s not quite so clear and simple. 

Silco, having gone through his own trauma, told Jinx that she had to let Powder die so she could be reborn as Jinx and let all that fear die with Powder. In this life as Jinx, are she and Vi still sisters? Again, I ask, is Silco wrong? Is trauma not like a moment of death? As viewers, we want so badly to believe it can’t be true. We want to answer with Vi that yes, nothing can change that. We want to believe that some things never change, and yet we feel this isn’t true in the undertones of the entire show and in that last painful moment when Jinx sits down in the chair labeled “jinx” when she rejects Powder, and says “I thought maybe you could love me as you used to.” Maybe sometimes it can change and there isn’t always a path back. 

Yet, there is a truth in Vi’s words “Nothing can change that.” Nothing can change the past. Nothing can change history. It is a fundamental fact that Vi and Jinx are blood-related sisters, and there was a time when they were sisters in every single way you could be. That history will exist between them. After trauma, there isn’t death in the simple, clean way Silco imagines where the old you die and you move forward as this you. It can never be that simple because you can’t erase the before, no matter how much that would be easier. 

Even Silco can’t forget when Vander was his best friend. We learn this in the final episode, “The Monster You Created,” when we see Silco talking to Vander’s statue in Zaun, a statue that he, as the leader of Zaun, allowed to be built despite being responsible for Vander’s death. We get the impression that Silco comes here often to talk to Vander and pours a drink out for him. Not to mention he adopted Powder, Vander’s daughter, and loves her like his own. He considers her his daughter and often refers to her as such. Though he claims that the old him died when Vander tried to drown him, his past with Vander still exists, his connection to him still holds. He even refers to him as “brother” as he pours out part of his drink into the fountain at the statue’s feet. 

Jinx and Silco in Arcane(COURTESY: Netflix)

Even though Silco says your old self must die in order for you to be reborn and move forward, the moment he tries to impart this on Jinx does not quite read as death but more of an absolution. He takes Jinx out to where he was almost murdered and dunks her in the water, saying she has to kill Powder. But is this not more like a baptism? It doesn’t feel like a death scene. Silco replays his moment of trauma with Jinx but unwittingly gives her a different ending. He gives her forgiveness. This happens again when in the final episode, after Jinx shoots Silco during a traumatic moment, he immediately absolves her of the action. “It’s okay. Don’t cry. You’re perfect.” Unfortunately, this does not truly give Jinx the different ending she needs for her trauma cycle to end. She can’t stop being a mad bomber because that’s where her trauma lies in the explosion that killed Vander, Milo, and Claggor. She needs that absolution, but no matter how Silco tries, he’s not the one who can change the ending. Jinx tries to force Vi to change the ending. Pick me. Prove you won’t abandon me again. 

Sadly, Vi, does try to apologize, but she doesn’t know how to change the ending of Jinx’s trauma cycle, and that’s because she can’t. Only Jinx can. But even more sadly, Jinx doesn’t know how to do that either, so she finishes the cycle in the end by blowing up the building where the council is voting for peace between the cities. This is why other articles say the show bookends itself, but technically it doesn’t. The first episode does not feature this traumatic moment of Jinx blowing up her family; that doesn’t happen until episode three, but for the viewers, that moment is where it feels like the show begins because it so starkly influences the rest of the story. And that is why it feels like Arcane bookends. Jinx brings all of her family to a mock dinner scene, including dummies made to look like the dead Milo and Claggor.

This once again results in her father dying and her blowing up a situation that was just about to end well. In the first scenario, Vi, Vander, Mylo (Yuri Lowenthal), and Claggor (Robert Craig Smith) are just about to escape when she throws in a bomb, thinking she is helping them. This time Jinx thinks she is fulfilling Silco’s legacy. The final words before she launches the rocket at the council are Silco saying, “We’ll show them. We will show them all.” And once again, Jinx destroys something that was about to end positively. This entire ending scene shows Arcane’s answer, “I don’t know how to stop the trauma cycle.” It’s uncertainty in the face of how we move forward after trauma. Who are we after trauma? Even the song playing in the background’s final refrain of “What could’ve been” is what we are left with. We sit in that tragic wonderment of “what could’ve been?” There could have been peace. Things could have been okay. But they weren’t. They aren’t. How do we turn away from that moment, that picture of what could have been, and carve a path forward while carrying that truth that something else shimmered, for one impossible breath it was there?

So how do we move on from these varying degrees of trauma? These feelings of betrayal, guilt, and the inexplicable sadness of a loved one’s disappearance from life or our lives. This is one of the overarching themes of Arcane. It’s not as potent as its themes of progress or the divide between economic classes and the oppression of the poor. Still, it is tangled throughout every moment, informing the actions of some of the show’s most influential characters and, therefore, the state of Piltover and Zaun. It informs the brewing war between them. Jayce (Kevin Alejandro) offers Silco everything he wants, even independence for Zaun, in exchange for Jinx, but Silco refuses because he can’t give up Jinx. Jinx who has become his daughter. Jinx, who is his present, but also his tether to the past. Jinx, the smallest link to the Silco who lived before Silco was born. This hold between the two, this balancing act of the life before trauma and the life after trauma, this dissonance, causes Silco to refuse peace. To refuse everything he wanted, but also the thing that healed him. That brought love back to him. That made him a better version of either of the selves that existed on either side of trauma. Silco shows us too that this reconciliation may happen without our even noticing it. We might still think we believe in this death of a past self to move forward but then suddenly it’s clear that never really happened. This is the final message Silco seems to leave Jinx with. Not “Jinx is perfect,” as he said earlier in the season, but “You’re perfect,” as you are now. 

And perhaps if he had realized this, and taught this to Jinx, that with time you can find a way to reconcile both, to find your footing on both sides of the chasm, she could have found a way to be Jinx without completely destroying Powder. Perhaps. Yet Arcane still questions, can we reconcile both? Arcane says maybe, maybe with time. Maybe only in brief flashes can these two selves merge, for just a moment. Just a moment where “we are sisters.” Just a moment where “nothing can change that”. Just a moment of “don’t cry. You’re perfect.” Until, maybe, eventually, that’s all there is. 

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