Well it’s a secret for no one, Netflix’s “historical drama” Marco Polo isn’t the most acclaimed TV-show that *Ever Was or Will Be*. Season 1 earned itself a nice 24% on rotten tomatoes, a worse critical score than Terminator Genesis, if you may. So it’s an understatement to say that I wasn’t very eager to start the show when it’s first aired in 2014. If you add what I had heard about it (it’s full of historical inaccuracies and Marco Polo becomes a KUNG FU MASTER!) you will witness a frozen blizzard blowing on my relationship with this show. Yet I have recently decided to give it a try, and I am glad I did because Marco Polo is…well, surprisingly good.
Of course it’s not perfect, but if you like period drama with good acting, beautiful scenery, beautiful actions, beautiful costumes (yes everything is beautiful in this show even the actors, mouah), compelling and coherent characters it’s definitively worth the watch. And according to the same rotten tomatoes most of the people who are not professional critics and watch the show agree with that.
The fundamental dichotomy of our century
Therefore I think it’s time to do Marco Polo justice by highlighting its strengths, without forgetting its weaknesses.
Lets begin with its strengths shall we?
Because after hearing so much unapologetic bullshit about Marco Polo, it will be fresh to start with positivity (and also it will be easier to talk about the weaknesses after introducing the characters).
Tired of all white fantasy? Tired of euro-centric historical-dramas? Tired of only seeing poc as victims in historical-pieces? Marco Polo (or rather everyone except Marco, his absent father, and his angry absent uncle) is made for you. Because we are talking about the birth of the Yuan dynasty by the hand of Kublai Khan, grand-son of Gengis Khan and, contrary to some 1965 movie, the imperial Mongol court get all the none-white diversity it deserves. Oh and they cast an actual Italian to play Marco.
One sample of a good cast! One!
The setting allows breath-taking visuals of course (a lot of diverse costumes and for what I know quite representative of the culture, beautiful landscape and backgrounds with actual light) but also a good ground to let family and political dramas grow. And when I say “political drama” what I mean is that there are actual scenes when characters talk about political matters not directly linked to let’s kill all our enemies. Here a conversation taking place at the beginning of season 2:
Chinese responsible of Wuji province (talking about new currency): But one note is equivalent to 50 Chinese notes. The people of my province has voiced concern.
(…) Chinese responsible out
Kublai to his minister of finance: Fifty to one?
Ahmad: If my Khan and Royal father wishes to look east and west to expand his territories the empire’s coffers must also expand.
It’s not the most complicated political trivia you can conjure, I am sure, but in term of world building it gives you the impression that the Khan and his administration are doing some governing. And it’s refreshing.
So yes let’s give a good point to Marco Polo to actually make this very important historical moment generally interesting, fleshed-out and beautiful.
One of the other strengths of this show is its characters. There are no character that I dislike. I mean there are assholes that I was glad to see die, but none of them made me want to skip a scene. The bad guy of season 1, chancellor Sidao, is not a good person, can be a bit caricatural at times (KUNG FU MASTER FUCK YEAH!), but is given just enough back story for you to actually start discerning what are his motivations. He has weaknesses, is prone to uncalled and counterproductive anger while still being presented as clever and ruthless. By the end of season 1 he is even presented as wanting to use the Song boy emperor as much as wanting to modeled him to his image. And all of it is coherent god damnit.
Nearly all the characters benefit from the same treatment. Even Marco Polo, while not being the most interesting character (petition to rename the show Kublai Khan and Empress Chabi in love), is actually compelling and wanders far away from the white savior complex. He is more or less the opposite of a savior (someone saves that boy before he gets irremediably hurt please).
actual picture of a puppy in great need of rescuing
Speaking of cliché, the show avoid some of them with talent. Hundred Eyes is an old blind kung fu master, but he is not the caricature of the old Chinese sage always having a philosophical story for everything. Quite the contrary. He is an alcoholic completely done with Marco’s whining bullshit.
Comforting the puppy, not One Hundred Eyes’ thing
We are also graced with Kublai Khan “I can’t wait to be emperor of the world” crying, CRYING, with his wife when they realize how terribly they have both fucked everything up in season 2. Speaking of wife, lets talk about female characters.
Women have more than one personality trait, actually embracing normal women of power’s role for the time period. Empress Chabi is a very good archer and horse-rider, skills that were nearly compulsory for Mongol women, but she is, before everything, one of the most trusted advisor of Kublai and in charge of his household. It is also interesting to note that Joan Chen, the actress, has read The Secret History of the Mongol Queens to assure that her performance would be coherent.
She is beauty, she is grace, she will tell Kublai’s politics is shit to his face
In the same way the Empress Dowager of the Song dynasty is the main opponent to Chancellor Sidao’s hegemony, doing everything in her power to avoid a war she rightly know the Song dynasty can’t win. Having women blooming in their feminine role while holding real power is A+ understanding of what a powerful feminine figure should be.
In general dynamics between those characters are nicely handled. The characters come to like each other, call out people they love or hate when their behavior is unacceptable etc. However for length reasons I am not going to develop more because I want to start talking about another positive point.
I really don’t like when people compare Marco Polo to GoT. Yes, it’s true that both a them are political/family dramas in costume in a *medieval setting* and that Marco Polo is the second most expensive TV-show after GoT, but still they don’t tell the same story at all.
When GoT is supposed to criticize wars over power and how they divide us when we should unite to face a common danger, Marco Polo went for a very different theme: legacy. And that’s probably only through that theme that you should try to comprehend the show.
Everyone is struggling with legacy. Should I create my own way or follow the one of my father/ancestor? Am I my father son or I am my own person? How can I guarantee that my family survive without losing its identity? Blood or emotional ties? Can I escape my past? Can I hope for my own legacy?
Everyone in this show has daddy’s issues, everyone. Expect Ahmad, Ahmad has mommy’s issues which evolve into daddy’s issues (the show-watchers reading this piece are probably scandalized by this joke, the author too, she will see herself out).
The beauty is that this theme, which is interesting in itself, get an even more interesting answer: you can never really be free of your past, blood ties aren’t always good but they are indestructible and you have to learn from them, let part of them go in order to grow. Some characters manages to escape fatality (in the classical theater sense of the word), others drowns in it. No black and white way do deal with your legacy, you have to found your own path and it will always be painful.
And that’s how you tell a story.
Positive female interactions:
Okay maybe this section seems a bit flat after the theme one, but even if it’s less intense I think a lot of us are craving for it.
Positive female interaction, in my neighborhood? It’s more likely than you think.
Believe it or not but the women in Marco Polo can have other relations than jealousy translated in catty behavior toward each other. We have women supporting each other, taking care of each other. Of course that doesn’t mean that they all live in a perfect community where everyone is nice to everyone. Chabi abuses Kokachin, knowing she is in no position to defend herself, to get what she wants (while still creating bounds with her, that’s what we call complex character building). But that doesn’t stop those moments to happen:
Empress Dowager talking about one of her husband’s concubine (Mei Lin): You know she was always welcomed here.
Marco to their spy in the Song palace (who happen to be a woman, close to the chancellor, friend of Mei Lin) who is now in great danger: Come with us
Jing Fei (said spy): The Empress needs an ally. I am all that remains.
Oh and Mei Lin and Jing Fei were both concubines to the late Song Emperor but that didn’t stop them from being friends.
So there are women being both close and supportive of each other like rather than becoming mandatory competitors. It’s not something the show insists on to get praised. No. It just is, because women are characters in their own rights. And it feels good.
But perfection is not from this world
Indeed and so it’s time to talk about the things Marco Polo did wrong.
Does that title need any more development? There are too many scenes containing naked women when there are none containing a naked man (not in full frontal any way). And the camera does linger, a lot. Don’t get me wrong, I am not against nudity in media in general, but, just as a costume, nudity is supposed to support a narrative or a character not the viewer want of pompous porn.
That’s why I do like the scene in season 1 where Mei Lin kills the guards while naked, because she is filmed firstly as a competent fighter not as an object of lust. That’s also why I don’t like the scene in Kublai’s harem or Marco’s dream while being with the hashashins; they are awkward to look at.
But to be perfectly honest there is less gratuitous nudity in season 2 as if the show-runner has understood that they have lost the dude-bros to GoT.
Another thing that bothers me is that a certain number of characters have impossible skills. What I mean isn’t that some characters have skills that no human can ever hope to possess (no nobody flies, I am as disappointed as you), it’s that some character possess skills that they can’t reasonably have regarding their position and back-story. That’s particularly visible in Mei Lin and her brother, Chancelor Sidao. They are both poor (where have they learn to read?) and they are both KUNG FU MASTERS (FUCK YEAH)! To the point where Chancelor Sidao can actually compete against One Hundred Eyes, the monk who spend is life training (butyesofcourse).
It’s even more ridiculous with Mei Lin if we take in consideration the foot binding tradition. For the ones among you who don’t know, foot binding was the ultimate form of refinement for women in China from the 10th century until the communist era. It consisted in breaking and twisting the foot of very young girl and then binding them to prevent them from being longer than 4 inches (be very grateful of me using the imperial system of measurement). It resulted in women always in pain while moving and incapable of doing any physical work, the ultimate proof of the economical-wealth of the family. It was compulsory for any girl hoping for a good marriage in Chinese society to the point of seeing peasant women doing it to their daughters to assure them to get out of their social classes. Logically every women found in the harem of a Chinese emperor should have bound feet.
Mei Lin doesn’t, and I understand why. Since Marco Polo is designed to a modern audience it’s a difficult subject to broach. Mei Lin’s child has her foot bind as a punishment to show how horrible this was, but still it’s the easy way to treat that matter. Back to Mei Lin, she raised herself from a child forced into prostitution to sustain herself and her brother to a imperial concubine MASTER OF KUNG FU! She can’t be more far away from the real bound-feet imperial concubine. You think it’s a bit big? Me too.
And I know why they have done that despite the lack a logic. To have people behind their screen say “that’s Badass!”. And yes it is, but it is also stupid. Even more stupid if you add that they have female characters who are logical warriors (Khutulun the historical wrestler princess, Lotus played by Michelle Yeoh). Worse, it actually destroys part of the work they have done with Chabi and the Empress Dowager.
What a badass nonsense
Still, Mei Lin and her brother are interesting characters, thanks to their psychologies and motivations, so it hasn’t make me hate them. Just sometimes I laugh. I am pretty sure that was not the reaction the show-runner was expecting.
Another criticism you probably have heard about Marco Polo is that the show is too slow. It’s not the case but it has a problem with pacing. Some time things go too quickly, some time too slowly. As a result the first episode isn’t very compelling. You will sometimes fell robbed of the payoff of an action. It’s not true, it will come much later but it will not be handled well enough for you to feel comfortable about it.
But once again this problem of rhythm decreases as the show advances. I think part of it is due to actual improvement in the writing between seasons 1 and 2, as well as your [likely] growing attachment to the characters. You want to know what happens to them.
As you can probably tell, I personally advise you to give a try to Marco Polo. I do not guarantee you will like it, but this show has definitively enough quality to be enjoyed by a larger amount of people. And definitely enough quality to rise above all the shit the critics have said about it.
Let us now cross our fingers together in order to get Marco Polo renewed for a third season.
Note that the show-runner and the creative team of Marco Polo received an award from Mongolia’s President, Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, in 2015 to honor their positive portrayal and global presentation of Mongolian subject matter.