Original Airdate: December 12th, 2014 on Netflix
Ah, yes, here’s another genre that’s mostly new for us–the historical drama. I say mostly because Hindsight is technically a period piece, but it’s depressing for me to think that 1995 now counts as a “period.” Unlike Hindsight, most of these shows are big-budget, prestigious affairs–all those costumes, period appropriate props, sets and location shoots get pricey, so you’re more likely to see them on pay cable, although there are occasional outliers like Mad Men on AMC or Downton Abbey on PBS. Since Netflix is clearly trying to position themselves as an outlet for the kind of prestige content usually found on pay cable, it was inevitable that they’d throw their hat into this ring, and the outcome is Marco Polo. It’s also worth noting that they’ve chosen to include period pieces like Peaky Blinders and Borgia in the slate of shows aired overseas that they distribute in the States.
It’s also come in for an intense and unilateral critical drubbing, which I find somewhat puzzling. The capsule summary tends to be “a pale imitation of Game of Thrones,” which is both unfair and inaccurate. The cynical part of me wonders if this is something like what you traditionally see played out in video game “criticism.” The hot new title in the tired old franchise that’s guaranteed to sell millions of copies to millions of slavering manchildren receives universal acclaim because the critics are afraid to a) step outside the zeitgeist b) anger their corporate overlords c) get SWATted by the aforementioned slavering hordes or d) all of the above. So even if it’s tired, bland and lazy, Gears of Duty: Destiny Effect Syndicate 19 gets 10/10 across the board, and when some other thing that’s an unknown property but is as tired, bland and lazy as the big ticket items gets eviscerated in a form of cathartic release. Thrones is not the hot shit that people seem to think it is. Like most things in life, it is flawed, and in some ways those flaws are critical. Of course, that also applies to Polo–see below–but it’s really about on par with Thrones. In some ways Thrones is better, in some ways it’s worse, but it’s also somewhat different seeing as how it’s fantasy and there are magic and dragons and Polo is allegedly based on actual history. Thrones is slightly above average; it’s entertaining but not groundbreaking with occasional transcendent, spellbinding moments. And not to spoil my final judgment or anything, but Polo is much the same. For this review, I watched both this episode and the pilot. Let’s take a look.
- Transporting. This is what a period piece banks on, and Polo executes it well. I felt like I had opened a window onto the 13th century. The imagery of Marco (Lorenzo Richelmy) traipsing in a caravan across a vast desert, hiding from bandits in fear for his life, contracting deathly illness in an unforgiving tundra, walking the streets of Khanbaliq, witnessing a standoff between two great armies–it casts an undeniable spell, and in this respect at least Polo’s big budget pays off.
- Kublai & Marco. Hands down, the best scenes in this show involve conversations between Marco and Kublai Khan (Benedict Wong, Prometheus.) That makes sense, because this is the beating heart of the Marco Polo story–a chronicling adventurer meets one of the most powerful man in the world and tries to make sense of what he finds despite a gaping cultural gulf. In the world of the show, Marco and Kublai peer at each other across that gulf, and on opposite sides of a huge power differential–Marco and his party literally enter the court of the Khan crawling on hands and knees. Despite all this, the show makes the case that they’re essentially the same kind of person. They’re both attuned to diplomacy, curious, fearless and eager to reach across cultural divides. They yearn for adventure–Marco never would have wound up in Khanbaliq otherwise, and Kublai lives vicariously through Marco’s gift with words and language. He summons Marco so he can regale the Khan with detailed and keenly observed stories of his travels. The art direction on this show is fabulous and there are many visually striking moments, but the scenes in the court do a great job at conveying Kublai’s larger-than-life status and the hushed magic of a seat of global power. The remarkable symmetries between Marco and Kublai and the tensions caused by their differences as Marco teeters between survival, flourishment or escape from his servitude to the Khan are this show’s greatest strength.
- Thematic cohesiveness. This brings us to the subject of why Marco’s in servitude in the first place. One of the many liberties Polo takes with history (see below) has Marco’s father Niccolo (Pierfrancesco Favino, Rush) bargaining with a displeased Khan. He exchanges Marco’s enslavement for Silk Road trading rights. In real life, Marco stayed voluntarily and was treated as a guest of honor, holding prestigious positions in the Khan’s court. Of course, the dramatic stakes are raised if Marco starts from the inside of a prison cell and rises to a position as a trusted confidante of the Khan. Regardless of the cheerful disposal of actual facts, it works well for the story. Marco is stung by his father’s move, and feels deeply betrayed by him–for the second time. In the show, Niccolo was a stranger to Marco. He didn’t marry his now dead mother and spent his time as an itinerant merchant, and when he returns from his grand journey to the east, Marco wants a chance to adventure, to satisfy his wanderlust, and to get to know his father and find some way to forgive him. At one point during their journey east, Niccolo advises Marco that he can stave off fear and uncertainty by remembering where his home is, and that if he follows the stars in Orion’s belt they’ll always lead him home. Marco gazes longingly up at those stars early in this episode, and he’s clearly conflicted because with a dead mom and a dad who literally sold him out, he may not have a home there any longer. The main plot of this episode deals with the fallout of a failed strike on Wuchang, the key supplier of food for Xiangyang, the defensive bulwark of the Southern Song dynasty. The strike failed because a key contingent sent by Ariq Böke (Baljinnyamyn Amarsaikhan, Thief of the Mind,) Kublai’s younger brother, did not arrive. The entire Ariq plotline is another aggressive digression from history–instead of Ariq seizing power in Karakorum and inciting all-out civil war, Kublai appears to have granted Ariq control of the Mongolian homeland willingly. The end result remains the same, though–Ariq dies after the failed attack on Wuchang when Kublai’s army arrives to confront him for his treachery. The two face off in a very dramatic duel while their armies look on, but the night before the brothers sit with one another last time to say goodbye. They reminisce about their childhood, they explore their differences and they make peace with what’s about to come. The bounds of family and political obligation constrict them as they do Marco. Rounding out the hour, we have a subplot involving another fantastic character, Mei Lin (Olivia Cheng.) She’s a concubine in an awkward and tenuous position in the Southern Song dynasty–she has no official power, but she has favor with the emperor and other well-placed politicians because of her sexual prowess. She’s also deeply devoted to her small child, the bastard product of her union with the emperor. Of course, the emperor is very old and sick and promptly dies. Seeing as his successor is a toddler, a power struggle is inevitable, but Mei Lin has been deprived of her patron. Her brother Jia Sidao (Chin Han) is the arrogant chancellor, and he takes the opportunity to get her out of the way while possibly gaining valuable intelligence–he sends her to infiltrate Kublai’s harem and spy on his court. Thus Mei Lin’s worst nightmare comes to pass–she’s separated from her daughter and may never see her again. Once again, the interplay between family and politics leads to a toxic brew, and much like Marco, Mei Lin will be trapped in a foreign culture with ample danger and no easy means of escape.
- Historical inaccuracy in service of racist tropes. I don’t penalize this kind of show for being historically inaccurate in general–it’s meant to be entertainment, not a documentary, and dramatic license is often necessary to tell a well-crafted story. It’s more fun to watch Marco claw his way up from the bottom. It’s exciting to watch Kublai decapitate his brother in one-on-one combat. It’s intriguing to watch Mei Lin attempt to infiltrate the court, although in actuality an unknown foreigner being admitted as a concubine into the Khan’s harem was laughably impossible. But when you start distorting history in the service of racist tropes, it gets tired very quickly. Not only because racism is corrosive, but because these tropes are incredibly lazy and don’t make for very good television. Oh, look, here comes a white guy we can “identify” with–even though 13th century Venice is just as baffling to me as 13th century Mongolia. Oh, and here he is immediately enmeshed in danger and sinister intrigue, when in reality he was a welcomed guest. Oh, and here he is being the real driving force behind all of Kublai’s remarkable accomplishments, because someone as exceptional as Kublai couldn’t have existed without a brainy white guy in his corner. This all reaches the apogee of ridiculousness when Marco is introduced to his kung fu tutor. Are you fucking kidding me. I can only imagine TV and movie producers hearing about any drama set anywhere in Asia or featuring Asians in any major aspect and then immediately asking what the martial arts angle is going to be. Marco Polo doesn’t need to know kung fu! He’s a charismatic diplomat! Aren’t the power games enough? The show explains this away by rationalizing that Marco needs to know these skills to survive, but once again, he was venerated and respected in the court in real life, and even within the show’s twisted logic, this doesn’t make any sense. When Marco contradicts Kublai’s heir Jingim (Remy Hii, Neighbours) in open court and comes to confront Marco, Marco’s tutor Hundred Eyes (Tom Wu) remarks that Jingim is the Prince and is welcome to kill Marco where he stands. Oh, and let’s talk about Hundred Eyes for a minute. Not only is he a Wise Old Kung Fu Master, he’s also blind. Jesus. In real life, Marco Polo’s writings did speak of an actual person named Hundred Eyes. Of course, the real Hundred Eyes wasn’t a blind kung fu master because that’s ridiculous racist nonsense. Instead, he was a major general in Kublai’s army, and a sighted one to boot. So he totally could have played a major role in this series, as Hundred Eyes does. Alas, it was not to be. This show also takes Thrones’ lead in indulging in constant gratuitous naked women, best demonstrated in the laughably bad orgy scene at the end of the pilot. You know we’d never get through a drama set in Asia without a literal heap of writhing, naked, objectified Asian women serving some muddied metaphorical purpose. This episode wasn’t as bad about the wildly unnecessary nudity–there is a nude scene, which for once I won’t spoil except to say that Polo earned the hell out of that one.
- Dumb romance plotline. Isn’t a pivotal moment in the unification of China enough!? What about a historic meeting between the East and the West?! Nope. We have to have an idiotic, moon-eyed love story thrown in for some godforsaken reason. And even in the annals of stupid tacked on romance plots, this one’s a doozy because of course it’s love at first sight. As soon as Marco locks eyes on Kokachin (Zhu Zhu,) there are little pink cartoon hearts everywhere. Of course, she’s a kept woman in the service of a powerful man. Of course, this is all completely ahistorical. There was a real Kokachin, and the real Polo describes the circumstances behind her arrival in the court with bland neutrality in one paragraph, a paragraph that’s as boring to read as this subplot is to watch. Boo.
Motivation: Like many well-thought out television shows, Polo touches on many different motivations–as I mentioned, family is of particular thematic relevance for this installment–but each episode of this show is so overwhelmingly concerned with power struggles that it’s hard for anything else to take precedence over that.
Final Episode Judgment: Despite the thorough critical beating that Polo’s received and some undeniably major flaws, fans of political intrigue and soapy historical drama will enjoy this. 8/10. The pilot only merits a 6/10, but hopefully that’s bad pilot syndrome and not a sign of deep inconsistency.
NEXT TIME: Barring technical difficulties, I check into Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew.