Arcane Episode 1 recap: League of Legends' Netflix series is stunning

Arcane episode 1 recap
(Image credit: Riot Games)

Netflix's Arcane is finally here, and we're recapping each of its episodes. Each Saturday until November 20, a new act containing three episodes will premiere on Netflix. You can read our review of Act 1, or check out our recaps of episode 2 and episode 3.

When you think of League of Legends, the word "tragic" probably doesn't come to mind—not unless you're laning against a Teemo. But Arcane, the Netflix animated series based on Riot's uber-popular MOBA can hit unexpectedly hard. Acting as a kind of origin story for some of League's most iconic champions, it's much more down to earth and melancholy than you might expect. And that's what makes its first episode so damn good.

The first scene doesn't waste any time setting the tone. On a bridge extending between the scientific utopia of Piltover and Zaun, its wasteland underbelly, two orphans wander through the smokey remains of a battle looking for their parents. Hours earlier, it seems, residents of Zaun tried to storm the gates into Piltover and were met with the unbridled fury of Piltover's storm-trooper-esque Enforcers. Among the carnage, we see a much younger version of League champs Vi and Powder (who later becomes Jinx), as Vi leads her sister by the hand while she covers her eyes and sings a lullaby to ward off the horrors that surround them. Through the smog, they see a giant of a man beating the shit out of someone. It's someone they obviously know, given how Vi—with a mere look—seems to ask if he's seen their parents. With a frown, the man turns his head and, following his gaze, the two glimpse the corpses of their mother and father in the rubble.

It's a heart-wrenching moment, as Vi falls to her knees crying while Powder cuddles in next to her. The man, taking pity on the two orphans, drops his massive iron knuckles and carries the kids away from the massacre. A vengeful look fills Vi's eyes as she stares at the remaining Enforcers and, beyond them, the gleaming cityscape of Piltover.

(Image credit: Riot Games)

Welcome to The Lanes 

After a stylish title sequence set to Enemy, a song Imagine Dragons wrote specifically for Arcane, we cut forward an indeterminate amount of time. Vi, Powder, and two of their fellow orphans have snuck onto the rooftops of Piltover, and marvel at the massive city and its advanced technology, like floating airships. It's an evocative establishing shot that really showcases Arcane's gorgeous, hand-painted approach to 3D animation. "One day I'm going to fly one of those things," Powder says whimsically. 

It immediately becomes clear that the four street rats aren't here as tourists, though. And after a dangerous bit of acrobatics to cross from one set of rooftops to another—where Vi reinforces her big sister image by saving Powder from falling at the last second—the crew continues to their mysterious destination. Not everyone is onboard with the plan, though, and Vi's two friends Milo and Claggor worry that someone named Vander will "kill them" for what they're about to do.

"Only if we screw up," Vi says. "So don't screw up."

Dropping onto the balcony, we discover the crew's target: a science lab full of strange and expensive equipment. Vi, Powder, Milo, and Claggor waste no time pocketing anything and everything they can find. In a separate room, Powder stumbles upon a mysterious chest containing glowing blue nuggets of crystal, brimming with energy. Before she can investigate further, though, Vi hears the sound of footsteps in the hall. Someone is coming. Milo smartly jams the door with a chair as the crew scrambles to grab what they can, but in her haste to pocket all of the crystals Powder drops one. 

As they flee onto the balcony to make their escape, the blue crystal rolls across the stone floor—each bounce releasing increasingly violent arcs of magical electricity. Just as Vi grabs her bag to meet everyone outside, the crystal shatters and explodes, obliterating the lab and nearly killing the orphans. Just then, part of the balcony they're on collapses onto the street below, nearly killing a patrol of Enforcers. As Vi stares down at the Enforcers, they lock eyes. "Shit," she says as warning sirens begin to blare.

(Image credit: Riot Games)

Their cover blown, the crew makes a break for it through the streets of Piltover, weaving in and out of rich aristocrats while Enforcers tail them. Vi and everyone runs across the same bridge where, years earlier, her and Powder found their dead parents. On the other side, they dart into a series of alleys and manage to lose their pursuers before riding a slime-filled pipe to safety.

"What the hell was that," asks Claggor, and it's here we get another glimpse of the dynamic of these four orphans. While Vi is undeniably their leader, Powder is the runt tagalong that Milo and Claggor seem to think is bad luck. She's too young and helpless to roll with them.

Moving through the desiccated streets that separate Piltover and the underground of Zaun, the crew is challenged by another street rat named Deckard who heard about the commotion across the bridge and suspects they've stolen a small fortune. Attempts to diffuse the situation fail, and the kids are drawn into a surprisingly vicious street fight. All except Powder, who watches on the sidelines, clutching a backpack full of stolen goods. One of the attackers notices Powder, and she takes off running with him in pursuit while the rest are too distracted by the scrap. The fight ends with Deckard desperately drawing a knife, to which Vi calls his bluff like a total badass. Drawing in close, so the blade is mere inches from her eye, she stares Deckard down. "Wanna see how that ends?"

Meanwhile Powder flees through the streets and is cornered on a riverbank by the one remaining thug. She pulls out a homemade grenade she calls Mouzer and throws it at him, but all it does is fizzle and release harmless pink smoke. Back against the water, Powder throws their backpack of loot into the water and uses the distraction to make her escape.

Undercity blues 

Once everyone is reunited just before nightfall, Milo chastises Powder for once again screwing up and ruining all their hard work. Vi steps in to defend her and reassure her that it's all okay. But Milo isn't having it. As the group boards an elevator down into the true undercity of Zaun, Milo pushes the issue: "Every time she comes something goes wrong. She jinxes every job."

It's here that we get our first look at the city that the four orphans call home: A sinister green vertical sprawl of ramshackle buildings jutting out from either side of a narrow canyon. Zaun. It's a grimy, neon drenched metropolis lined with brothels, shady back alleys, and merchants selling illicit goods. And it's here that we find out that Vander is, in fact, the man from the intro who took Vi and Powder home after their parents were killed.

(Image credit: Riot Games)

Vander isn't just a giant, Australian-accented adoptive father, though. He's the "Hound of the Underground" and owner of the popular watering hole, The Last Drop. You could say he's a bit of a local hero, which is made obvious when Vander intercedes on behalf of a merchant being extorted by two villains. I'm immediately in love with Vander's roguish dad vibe.

As Vi and crew slip into The Last Drop's back room, Vander spots them and knows something is up. Following after them, he immediately sees through their feeble attempt to feign ignorance about the enormous ruckus they caused topside with the explosion. "What the hell were you thinking?" Vander says, and I'm a little surprised Vi doesn't shout back "We learned it from you, dad!" because that's clearly what's happening here.

As Vander and Vi argue, it helps establish the dynamics of not only their relationship, but the violence looming over Piltover and Zaun. Vander, keen to help these orphans become self-sufficient, is horrified to see them mimic the very types of crimes that made him a legend in Zaun. More importantly, he's upset that Vi doesn't seem to understand what kind of responsibility she has being the de facto leader of the group. Meanwhile, Vi doesn't see why Piltover should be off limits when everyone there is living a life of luxury while Zaunites are condemned to the gutters. "We make ourselves a problem for Piltover, and they will send the Enforcers," Vander warns. But Vi, being younger and full of spunk, welcomes that threat of violence.

Bigger issues aside, what matters now is that, thanks to Powder throwing the backpack overboard, nothing can tie the kids to what happened in Piltover. Still, Vander will need to smooth the situation over—starting by having a chat with the informant called "Little Man" who tipped Vi off to the science lab in the first place. He's equally concerned about Deckard, the street rat who seemed to know what Vi and everyone were up to. As Vander heads out into Zaun with Claggor, we see Powder fishing around in some trash looking for metal scraps to make another grenade. She opens her small side bag and reveals she kept one of the magical crystals that caused the explosion above. Zoinks.

Heading back inside The Last Drop, Powder overhears Milo and Vi arguing about her. Again. Only this time, the snippet of conversation she catches makes it seem like Vi is agreeing with Milo when she was really standing up for her. Hurt and ashamed, she flees to her room.

Vander, meanwhile, makes a visit to a close friend and local merchant named Benzo. The two talk about the kids and Vander's vain desire to protect them from the harsh reality of the world they inhabit. Vander mentions Deckard and how troubling he finds it that he seemingly knew about the heist and hints that there's much worse things in the world than Enforcers. Outside, Claggor questions Little Man—who turns about to be a much younger Echo, another League champion—about how he learned about the science lab. Just as they're talking, two Enforcers show up and Claggor flees.

(Image credit: Riot Games)

It's clear right away that Vander has a special relationship with one of these Enforcers, an older woman with a gravelly voice named Grayson. The two, it seems, have an uneasy alliance to try and keep the peace between Piltover and Zaun. But that peace is now threatened by today's events. Turns out the lab was owned by a powerful Piltover family and Piltover's ruling government, the Council, is demanding someone's head. Unless Vander gives her a name, she can't guarantee it won't lead to Piltover cops shoving their way into Zaun. Vander, being the absolute unit that he is, refuses to snitch, but Grayson leaves him with a communication device he can use to reach her if he changes his mind. Meanwhile, Echo had been eavesdropping on the whole exchange and is obviously troubled to see Vander cavorting with cops.

Back at The Last Drop, Vi finds Powder drawing a cute face on another grenade—a kind of calling card for the hero's makeshift (but haphazard) weapons in the game. Vi tries to console Powder, who is upset about letting the group down again, but it doesn't work so Vi takes her topside to show her something. Sitting on the roof of a building in one of the districts straddled between Piltover and Zaun, Vi shares old stories about Claggor and Milo. She also shows her a stuffed bunny that Vi used to love, which bullies threw over some electrical wires crossing the street, putting it forever out of reach. Vi explains that she used to come up there and stare at it, hoping one day a gust of wind might knock the bunny loose so she can reclaim it. The two make amends just as Powder reveals that she held onto not one but several of the magical crystals from the lab. "Should we tell Vander?" She asks.

"No. Let's keep this our little secret," Vi says as the camera pans out to reveal Piltover bathed in the light of the moon. "Milo is wrong, Powder. You're stronger than you think. And one day this city is going to respect us."

Just before credits roll, we're taken to what appears to be some kind of underwater lab. Deckard sits in a chair, flanked by massive tattooed gangsters. He's clearly in trouble. In the darkness of the lab, a thin man with facial scars and a single, black eye questions why Deckard disobeyed when his orders were merely to follow Vi—not fight her. Deckard, scrambling to save his hide, reveals that Vi was responsible for the explosion topside and that Enforcers are looking for them. "Vander's in trouble?" the mysterious man says and congratulates Deckard for being useful and sends him and the gangsters away. Now alone, he turns to a gaunt scientist in the corner of the lab handling a glowing pink substance and tells him their timeline has moved forward. 

It's clear that whatever they're up to, this mysterious liquid is a critical ingredient—and it's not long before we have some idea of what it does. As the scientist places a cat in a cage with a helpless mouse, he goads the rodent into drinking from a tube containing the liquid. Almost instantly, the mouse is transformed offscreen into some kind of abomination that slaughters the cat, spraying its blood across the glass panels of the cage.

"Do you have a subject in mind?" the scientist asks.

And as the camera settles on the chair Deckard was just sitting in, the man with the black eye responds, "Someone just volunteered." Cue credits.

And that's the first episode of Arcane! It's a killer opener—one that does a remarkably good job of introducing you to a world as complex as League of Legends. But what I really love is how much emphasis there is on interpersonal drama between Vi, Vander, and the rest of the orphans. Be sure to check out our recaps of episode two and three, or read our review of all three episodes.

Steven Messner

With over 7 years of experience with in-depth feature reporting, Steven's mission is to chronicle the fascinating ways that games intersect our lives. Whether it's colossal in-game wars in an MMO, or long-haul truckers who turn to games to protect them from the loneliness of the open road, Steven tries to unearth PC gaming's greatest untold stories. His love of PC gaming started extremely early. Without money to spend, he spent an entire day watching the progress bar on a 25mb download of the Heroes of Might and Magic 2 demo that he then played for at least a hundred hours. It was a good demo.