“After three years crossing seas, deserts and the Silk Road, a young Marco Polo finds himself a prisoner of the great Kublai Khan.”
I had my reservations going into Netflix’s new original historical drama series Marco Polo, mainly because I could very easily see this becoming a typical White Savior/Exoticized “Other” type of show, and because of clips in the trailers where women are constantly shown moaning, writhing in orgies, beckoning come-hitheringly to the camera, and in one instance, killing people while inexplicably nude. I was torn between side-eying all of that and being happy about actual people of color being cast rather than a bunch of white-washed or yellow-faced characters (look how far my standards have sunk). But far be it from me to pre-judge a show before even seeing it – much better to do so after seeing it, so I can give highly specific examples!
I just finished the pilot episode and can safely say I’m underwhelmed so far. The episode starts with the merchant Polo family – the eponymous Marco, his father, Niccolò, and uncle, Maffeo – making their way through the Silk Road in Kublai Khan’s empire to deliver a chalice of holy oil in lieu of Christian priests, in hopes of spreading Christianity and gaining permission to trade in Kublai’s lands. They witness the aftermath of a village massacre before being set upon by a group of Kublai’s soldiers, taken prisoner, and brought to Kublai Khan himself. Like anyone who’s seen the trailers knows by now, Marco’s father sells him out in order to gain trade routes along the Silk Road, and Kublai, having taking a liking to Marco’s cleverness and apparent knowledge of his people, agrees to the deal.
Flashback mode shows us a younger, beardless Marco meeting his father for the first time after Niccolò returns from one of his voyages. With his mother long dead and desperate not to be left alone again, Marco sneaks onto the ship when Niccolò sets sail once again for China.
Back in present day, Kublai and his advisors debate what to do about the Song rebels rising up against him. With the Walled City being one of the last strongholds to conquer, Kublai sends his son, Prince Jingim, and his brother, Ariq Boke, to battle. In the Walled City itself, we meet Kublai’s enemies: a dying emperor, an empress, Jia Sidao, a scheming Chancellor, and Mei Lin, a royal concubine and Jia’s sister.
Marco is brought before a man named Hundred Eyes, who teaches Marco in order for him to survive. Cue extended training montage, wherein Marco learns archery, calligraphy, horseback riding, and more. Eventually he’s brought before Kublai Khan again, who tells him he will accompany a tax collector around the Imperial City, observing Kublai’s subjects and then reporting back to him. When Marco takes his leave, Prince Jingim shows up and bids farewell to his father before he and his army ride to war in the morning. (Sidenote: I’m a little surprised by the lack of animosity between the King and his son; Kublai compliments him twice and they trade fond smiles and jokes. This is no Denethor/Faramir or Robert Baratheon/Joffrey relationship, which has me a little worried for Jingim’s continued survival.)
My worry ends up well-founded; Jingim and his army arrive at the Walled City and the neighboring farming village ready to fight, but Ariq’s army is a no-show. Jingim is advised to retreat, but, having something to prove to himself and his father, he rides into battle anyway.
Thus ends the first episode of Marco Polo. Here’s my first impressions:
Lorenzo Richelmy, though very handsome, doesn’t quite have the magnetism necessary to get us to to root for Marco Polo as the series’ lead. A big part of this is his dry delivery of meant-to-be passionate lines. Benedict Wong, on the other hand, does much better at commanding attention as the Great Kublai Khan and manages to adequately flesh out his character, though at times he does slip into cheesy, shout-y dictator territory. Yelling “I will be emperor of the world” and stabbing a sword into a map is not as cool as you think it is, Netflix.
The women, however, don’t get much in the way of characterization in this first episode, being relegated to sex scenes and/or sitting around decoratively. A lot of it is unnecessary, like an extended scene at the end where Marco walks through the halls of an orgy and instructed not to touch while scores of unnamed naked women flit around groping him. It seems as though there’s supposed to be a distinction of power between Jingim’s wife’s sex scene, where she croons about him giving her his “nectar” so she can bear him a son, and Mei Lin’s scene, where she pulls out a blade mid-coitus and starts talking about the “danger game” to her terrified client, but as Jingim’s wife doesn’t appear again and Mei Lin seems to be under the thumb of her brother, the distinction is weak at best. Women’s power lying only in their sexuality is an overused, tired idea.
I’m also wary of the fortune cookie wisdom that’s dropped by “wise” characters like Hundred Eyes and Jia Sidao. (Cringe-worthy, is another way to describe it.) “My mantis is great,” “Of the Yin and the Yang, you have an abundance of Yang,” come on.
The cinematography is admittedly breathtaking; wide shots of landscapes, of Kublai’s court, the fight scenes, are all gorgeous and almost manage to take your mind off everything else. I’ll keep watching for now, but I can definitely see this going the way of Game of Thrones – namely, an increase of gore and gratuitous female nudity and a decrease in nuanced storytelling. But since Netflix is obviously trying to make Marco Polo their GoT, maybe that’s the goal after all.