Marco’s ingenuity – and loyalty – is put to the ultimate test when Kublai takes a violent and bold step in his quest to become emperor of the world.
Yes, I know, there exists a giant gaping chasm of space and time between my last recap of Marco Polo and this one, but I’m pretty sure I was subconsciously distancing myself in preparation for a cancellation because surprise! I grew to kind of like this show. However, since Marco Polo recently got renewed for a 10-episode second season after all, I figured it was high time I sat down and watched the finale.
After poor Yusuf’s death last episode, a spared Marco Polo and one of the city’s engineers begin building bigger and better trebuchets in preparation for the siege on Xiangyang. Marco has perfected his broody-stare-from-beneath-curly-bangs look throughout this season, and he employs it pretty well here.
Kublai Khan, meanwhile, announces his intention to lead the assault on Xiangyang, despite his cousin Kaidu’s protests. Kaidu wants to lead the army himself, to avenge his fallen warriors, and threatens to take his army and leave if he doesn’t get what he wants. Kublai apparently has zero fucks left to give, even going so far as to mock Kaidu for being king of the nomads. Kaidu then shouts some angry words about Kublai’s predilection with non-Mongolian customs and values, so Kublai banishes him forever.
My knee-jerk reaction to this very serious event is, naturally, “BUT WHAT ABOUT BYAMBA/KHUTULUN?!” The great thing is, Marco Polo shares my concerns. Byamba is immediately shown rushing after Khutulun to give her his vow of undying love, in the form of “I’m gonna go kill a bunch of people in my dad’s war and capture a bunch of cool horses and then I’m gonna come find you and bring all of the honor and all of the horses to your recently embarrassingly disgraced dad.” Khutulun tells him, “Don’t ride back with captured horses. Just ride back,” at which point my heart imploded in my chest from this unexpectedly epic romance I’m witnessing.
Elsewhere, Kokachin has to have an egg placed in her vagina to check if she’s a virgin before she can marry Prince Jingim; if there is blood on the egg, then she is “untouched,” and if there is no blood, she has “been defiled.” Which, considering the whole breaking-of-the-hymen thing is a myth, is a terrible, unreliable, and highly traumatizing thing to be doing. But since a) they probably didn’t know all this and b) Kokachin actually has had sex at least once before, a big hullabaloo is made when the egg comes out clean. Empress Chabi swans into the room, snatches up the egg, and shoves it into Kokachin hard enough for her to bleed on it. Kokachin watches her leave with tears in her eyes, her fate sealed.
Over in the Walled City, Chancellor Jia Sidao is also preparing his troops for war. Marco reports to Kublai that the trebuchets are only sort-of ready. Kublai, still grieving over Yusuf, tells Marco they’ll be marching regardless, and if they fail him he will leave Marco for dead.
Marco rushes off to meet with Kokachin, who tells him that she’s going to run away, and asks him to come with her. Marco refuses to go, planning instead to win the war for the Khan and hoping he will give Kokachin to Marco afterward as some sort of prize (because Marco helping Kublai in order to spare his father and uncle worked out real well last time). Their “epic romance” is significantly less heart-imploding. I hope Kokachin runs far far away from Chabi, Jingim, and Marco, and remains safe and alive and free someplace.
Marco seeks comfort in Hundred Eyes’ nuggets of wisdom but instead finds himself cornered by Jingim, who challenges him to a duel. Win, and Marco can ride with them in the war. Lose, and Marco has to go home to Venice. I’m pretty sure Jingim has no authority in this matter since Kublai seems to want Marco to stick around so he can possibly kill him later, but okay. They duel, and when it comes to a draw, Jingim relents.
The morning they’re supposed to ride, Marco delivers a token to Kokachin, while Kublai gets his fortune read by a Chinese priest that tells him that bringing war to the South will not bring him peace. Chabi urges him to wait, but Kublai doesn’t want to listen — he and his army begin the march to Xiangyang.
The trebuchets don’t work at first, but with some coaxing and heavier counterweights, the flaming rocks begin to assault the Walled City. Sidao scrambles to regroup, arming his soldiers with guns, as the wall finally falls and Kublai’s army attacks. (Sidenote: the look on everyone’s face when the first rock failed was absolutely hilarious. Also, the subtlety of Sidao’s inner turmoil — shown by his shaking hand spilling tea for probably the first time ever — while still trying to put on a calm and unaffected front before his advisor was surprisingly moving.)
Eventually the battle ends as Mongol soldiers successfully make their way into the city. Marco finds Sidao seated on the throne and rather foolishly tries to get him to turn himself in. “Surrender the Song dynasty to a Mongol by the order of a European,” Jia says bemusedly, before kicking the ever-loving shit out of poor Marco. He even calls him “white devil.” I may have cackled a little.
Hundred Eyes shows up to rescue Marco, finally defeating and killing Jia Sidao in a rematch of their earlier duel (and also resetting a broken bone in a badass but disgusting way.) Kublai enters the throne room and sits down. The war is over.
In the aftermath of the battle, a wounded Jingim and Marco make peace with one another, Byamba keeps his promise to Khutulun, and Marco returns to Cambulac to find that Kokachin has run away after all. YES. YOU GO GIRL.
The final scene of the season: Mei Lin finally tries to make her escape from Ahmad’s prison, only to discover that the mural that Ahmad has secretly been commissioning all throughout the show depicts the Mongol empire burning, and Ahmad himself seated on the throne holding Kublai’s decapitated head.
I can now breathe a sigh of relief knowing no one died in this finale that I didn’t already really want dead (or is historically unlikely to be dead). And did I or did I not call Ahmad being the traitor?! TOTALLY CALLED IT. I now want him and Mei Lin to form a badass scheming traitorous duo in season two and take down Chabi and Kublai. I am also rooting for Chabi and Kublai to find out and give them the ol’ smackdown. This is basically my House of Cards Underwoods vs. Reporters dilemma all over again.
Anyway, now that we’re officially done, here are my final thoughts on the show: Marco Polo is a watchable show. It’s not the greatest show in the world, but nor is it the worst (as the current 27% rating on Rotten Tomatoes would have you think – and hey, that figure went up by 5% since I last mentioned this, that’s a good sign right), and if by season’s end I didn’t exactly feel excited about the show, at least I didn’t feel like I’d wasted 10+ hours of my life. It’s alright. It’s watchable.
There were a few excellent moments that I outright loved, like Kublai Khan’s verbal and physical battle with his brother Ariq, Mei Lin’s daring suicide run towards Empress Chabi that turned into a heartbreaking crawl, and Jing Fei’s final dance for Jia Sidao. They showed Marco Polo had potential, being times when the acting (usually pretty good), directing (almost always good), and writing (unfortunately not that good) all clicked – but the rarity of moments like these only highlighted the averageness of the rest of the show.
The diversity in Marco Polo is what’s going to keep bringing me back. A historical epic of this scale with like 90% people of color isn’t often seen in mainstream American television, and a lot of the characters were very interestingly drawn. Though they never really manage to get rid of the orientalism or mysticism, at least they dial it back in later episodes, and Marco manages to dodge the white savior role (for the most part). Benedict Wong was glorious as Kublai Khan and definitely one of the standouts of the season. I do wish there had been more focus on the female characters, who I found to be as compelling, nuanced, and interesting as the show’s male characters (if not more), but more often then not they were put on the back burner and made secondary to the men. I loved Chabi’s shrewdness and her relationship with her husband and emperor, Khutulun is the wild warrior princess of my heart, and Kokachin is fantastic, refusing to be controlled and forging her own fate thrice over (by masquerading as a princess, by choosing to stay in Cambulac over her old lover, and later, choosing to run away alone).
All in all, Marco Polo was a very, very pretty package of unrealized potential, but it was a decent watch, and I’m hoping the show figures out what it’s doing come season 2. Till then, folks!