‘Marco Polo,’ Netflix’s shiny new epic, may not live up to the lofty, unfair “Game of Thrones” comparisons foisted on it by the media. But the young property, created by showrunner John Fusco, still gets a lot right in its eminently watchable, dramatically flawed first season. “Marco Polo” is easily Netflix’s most ambitious production to date, featuring a massive budget and epic scope. The young show offers spectacular production values, sumptuous world-building, riveting set pieces, and a cast of game actors who inhabit compelling, if underdeveloped characters.
Perhaps more importantly, “Marco Polo” the show does for TV what Marco Polo the man did for Europe: It introduces the East to the West. For the first time, a mainstream, high-profile American TV series explores Asian history, politics, and culture, while employing an almost fully Asian cast. While this makes “Marco Polo” both impressive and important, the show’s various compelling elements do not yet cohere into a dramatically satisfying whole. The season’s narrative eventually frays and loses momentum due to unrigorous story logic and inconsistent character motivation.
Most Americans probably know Marco Polo from that really fun swimming pool game he invented. But it turns out, Marco was also a merchant traveler who spent over twenty years in the famed court of Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan. Marco eventually returned to Italy and relayed his Eastern experiences to the Western World through his famous writings, which still exist today.
“Marco Polo” the series follows Marco’s (Lorenzo Richelmy) early years with Kublai (Benedict Wong), beginning with his conscription into the Mongolian imperial court. The pilot depicts Marco’s initial conscription as an imprisonment: Marco’s greedy, merchant father Niccolo (Pierfrancesco Favino) sells a bewildered teenage Marco into Kublai’s “service” (i.e. slavery) in exchange for permission to conduct business along the Great Khan’s famed trade network, the Silk Road. Apparently, blood is not thicker than trade routes. A betrayed and stupefied Marco – who only recently met dear old dad for the first time – is promptly stripped and tossed in a Mongolian cell. Thanks, pops.
Many in the court react to Marco with fear and loathing, derisively referring to him as “The Latin.” Yet Kublai is taken with his new toy, charmed by the novelty of having a “round-eyed” European in his court and also by Marco’s intelligence, honesty, curiosity, and eloquence (in many languages, including Mongolian). Kublai has Marco trained in the ways of the court: horse riding, calligraphy, dress, manner, etc. Marco is even given a fight-mentor, Hundred Eyes (Tom Wu), who is equal parts Pai Mei from “Kill Bill,” Syrio Forel from “Game of Thrones,” and Denzel from “Book of Eli.” Hundred Eyes trains Marco in swordplay, archery, Kung Fu, and general bad-assery, all while being completely blind (if that sounds preposterous, Wu sells it better than Denzel did). Oh, by the way, this show has Kung Fu – a ton of it. If the series is part Eastern ‘Game of Thrones,’ then the other part is ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ – a film which clearly inspires the superb choreography, editing, and overall aesthetic of “Marco Polo’s” myriad epic fight sequences.
Marco rises in Kublai’s court, arousing the ire and jealousy of insecure Crown Prince Jingim (Remy Hii) and scheming finance minister Ahmad (Mahesh Jadu). Marco navigates the court’s tricky political waters while gaining military and diplomatic responsibilities, before eventually finding himself in some major jeopardy late in the season – partially due to his own hubris and partially due to the political forces aligned against him. Along the way, Marco befriends Kublai’s bastard son Byamba (Uli Latukefu), beds Byamba’s eventual love interest, Warrior Princess Khutulun (Claudia Kim), and falls hard for the mysterious “Blue Princess” Kokachin (Zhu Zhu), who is harboring a dangerous secret of her own.
If all that sounds a bit meandering and unfocused… well, it is. Marco may be the show’s titular character and protagonist, but he doesn’t have an abundance of agency or drive. Similar to the protagonist of another hot Netflix property, “Orange is the New Black,” Marco often functions as a passive observer on his own show, bearing witness to the maneuverings of more powerful and driven individuals than himself (much as the real Marco Polo did).
The season’s true narrative anchor is Kublai’s relentless quest to overthrow the Song Dynasty, thus uniting all of China and Mongolia under his rule. The Emperors and armies of the Song Dynasty have resisted the Khan’s attacks for over thirty years, shrewdly hiding behind their massive, impenetrable city wall. Kublai loses patience as the season progresses and becomes single-mindedly determined to break down the Song’s wall or die trying.
When the Song’s elderly emperor dies, villainous chancellor Jia Sidao (Chin Han) seizes power and steers the Song Dynasty towards open warfare with the Khan. Sidao is such a moustache-twirling, war-mongering baddie that he orders his own peace envoy slaughtered, framing the Khan for the deed, to ensure war with Mongolia and consolidate political power. If that’s not evil enough, the good Chancellor also sends his own sister, imperial consort Mei Lin (Olivia Cheng), on an undercover suicide mission to Kublai’s famed pleasure dome; Naturally, Sidao forces his sister into capitulation by threatening and even torturing her young daughter, graphically breaking the girl’s feet on screen.
While Mei Lin tries to keep her daughter alive by becoming the Khan’s favorite concubine and spying for her brother, Sidao fights a two front war: a military war against the Mongols and a political war within his own walls against the Empress Dowager (Tan Kheng Hua) – wife of the late Song Emperor. The show’s various power players make their moves – some die, some don’t – eventually culminating in an exciting, cinematic climactic battle between Mongol and Song.
Kublai’s war with the Song is overly predictable and revels in well-worn plot beats, but nevertheless provides “Marco Polo” with a much-needed dramatic foundation to structure the season around. The story is elevated by “Marco Polo’s” impressive recreation of ancient Mongolia and Song China. The show’s meticulous set and costume design immerses viewers in a lavish, fully realized historical backdrop. The show’s evocative portrayal of Kublai’s famed palace, imperial city, and pleasure dome will be catnip for history buffs.
The writers and actors have also created a host of distinct, compelling characters to build a series around. As Marco, Mr. Richelmy is eminently likeable, exuding charm, intellectual curiosity, and magnanimity. Marco is our clear identification point as a Westerner being immersed in an exotic Eastern kingdom. This technique (thrusting an outsider into a unique new culture) is a classic way to structure a pilot, since it allows for natural world-building and exposition, as various characters explain the culture’s rules and values to the outsider (and, by extension, to the audience). We learn about the Great Khan’s realm as Marco does.
Mr. Wong imbues the Khan with the requisite gravitas, charisma, and egomania expected of such a legendary historical figure. The Khan is also complex and fascinating: On the one hand, he’s amazingly tolerant of all religions and cultures, welcoming them into his kingdom; on the other, he’s a ruthless, megalomaniacal, shockingly brutal conqueror. That brutality becomes increasingly evident as the season progresses, and the Khan loses himself in his war. Hii and Latukefu give solid, evocative turns as Kublai’s sons Jingim and Byamba. Latukefu captures Byamba’s loyalty and ferocity, while Hii palpably conveys the backbreaking emotional pressure of growing up as the heir to the Mongolian Empire.
But the show’s women are the ones who really stand out. Ms. Cheng is captivating as Mei Lin – a famed concubine with secret deadly Kung Fu prowess. Mei Lin is gifted with the most compelling story line of the season’s first half, as she scrambles to save her daughter by entrenching herself undercover in Kublai’s pleasure dome. Joan Chen is commanding, cunning, thoughtful, and manipulative, yet somehow still likeable as Empress Chabi – the Khan’s favorite wife (and also one of his chief advisors). And Claudia Kim inhabits Warrior Princess Khutulun with vivaciousness and energy, though the material doesn’t provide Kim with a storyline worthy of her performance – Khutulun spends much of the season wrestling (yes, literally) random guys and flirting with Byamba. Zhu Zhu is endearing and vulnerable as Blue Princess Kokachin, but like Kim, Zhu Zhu hasn’t been utilized in a coherent or dramatically satisfying story.
Unfortunately, “Marco Polo’s” large cast, sweeping scope, and abbreviated 10-episode 1st season make it tough for the show to explore many of these characters with an abundance of depth. Future seasons will need to dig deeper beneath the surface of these compelling yet under-explored characters. Sidhao is particularly one-note as the season’s principal antagonist, and Chin Han’s sneering performance frequently lets the character descend into cardboard villainy.
In addition, a number of characters lack clear and convincing motivation, undermining realism. For instance, Marco’s steadfast loyalty to the Khan is under-explained and tough to believe, particularly late in the season after he’s witnessed the Khan’s brutality firsthand. It’s also hard to understand Marco’s complete infatuation with the Blue Princess; he seems to be hopelessly in love with her, despite barely knowing or interacting with her. This makes their romance difficult to invest in. More egregiously, late in the season, a minor, thinly developed character inexplicably sacrifices his life to save a prominent character he barely knows from execution, without any clear rhyme or reason. This resolves a key plotline with an artificial deus ex machina, rather than an organic, dramatically satisfying resolution.
Where “Marco Polo” really falls short of “Thrones” is its lack of commitment to rigorous story logic. “Marco Polo” constantly realigns its political power structure without letting viewers know how or why these changes have taken place. For instance, Sidhao’s growing political civil war with the Dowager Empress seems to shift at random: In one episode, Sidhao has all the power, leaving the Empress begging for scraps; in the next episode, Sidhao is being pushed out the door, forcing him to execute a daring gambit to reclaim power; at the start of the next episode, he’s already lost that power again, without explanation; in another episode, he gets all his power back by defeating the right person in Kung Fu. The show fails to provide viewers with enough basic clarity or consistent logic to understand why events unfold as they do, making the show’s court intrigue and political story lines difficult to invest in.
The show’s lack of clarity and rigorous logic undermines individual scenes, as well as whole plotlines. For instance, in one scene, two of the show’s most accomplished Kung Fu masters are engaged in an epic fight; in the next scene, the characters have somehow gone their separate ways unharmed, without explanation, despite the fact that one of them was under explicit orders to assassinate the other. Logic gaps like this will undermine an audience’s immersion in the story.
“Marco Polo” has drawn a ton of heat for its abundance of nudity, sex, and “sexposition,” just as its supposed progenitor “Game of Thrones” once did. While “Marco Polo’s” nudity may be a touch excessive, especially early in the season, the writers have every right to explore Kublai’s famed, fascinating pleasure dome, which the historical Polo discussed in his writings – and frankly, there’s no way to do this without a whole bunch of sex and nudity.
I’ll say one last thing about the media’s ubiquitous “Thrones” comparisons, which I have now clearly perpetuated, and then be done with it. “Game of Thrones” is not the only show to revel in medieval-style warfare, politics, and court intrigue; it’s merely the best. And if every new series, like “Marco Polo,” found itself instantly compared to the best show ever in its chosen genre, the disappointment would be inevitable and sweeping across the television landscape—at least to those parties making these hasty, unfair comparisons.
Overall, “Marco Polo” offers meticulous yet decadent world-building, stirring performances, and a whole lot of action, sex, violence, politics, and intrigue. The writers have established a strong foundation for the series and can hopefully use season 2 to dig deeper into the characters, while applying clearer, more rigorous logic to its political story lines.
— Jason Teich