Kublai Khan is the grandson of the Great Genghis Khan, the Emperor who conquered and ravaged Northern China. Kublai Khan’s vision consists in taking the Chinese Song Dynasty, which had ruled over a divided China for over 100 years, and unite the Oriental world under one banner. Kublai is haunted by the shadow of his grandfather Genghis and dreams of conquering the whole world, including the Western Vatican, no matter what the cost.
Marco is a clever and resourceful boy who takes the opportunity of working in the Khan’s court to do what he loves most: go on adventures. The real Marco Polo is the original Indiana Jones, and Netflix’s Marco Polo feels like what it is, a historical adventure piece.
Some critics have accused this show of trying to be the next Game of Thrones, but to me it feels much more like watching Vikings, History Channels hit saga. Game of Thrones is fantasy, but both Marco Polo and Vikings are historical pieces. The show’s real lure is the character of Marco. He is a Christian from Venice, a european thrown into this Oriental World of strange customs and cruel ways of life, and seeing him learn to navigate and master the traditions of the Imperial Court as he grows into his talents is the most gratifying theme of the show. For all of those viewers who are into martial arts and oriental philosophy, the character of Hundred Eyes is especially intriguing. Hundred Eyes is a blind Taoist Monk who trains Marco and becomes his friend. Needless to say this lends itself for some really cool fighting coreography.
The show’s best storylines happen around the middle of the season, when Marco is sent to the barren desert lands to find an old Initiate and gather information. His competence helps him gain the trust of the Khan, and he is then sent on another mission with Hundred Eyes to assasinate the Ruling Chinese Minister.
There is a scene where Marco smoked opium and really cool mind-bendy psychedelics ensue. Overall, these adventures are the highlight of the season. Marco Polo is at its best when it focuses on the development of the main character. The show’s dialogue is interesting. Every word feels meaningful and weighty.
There are also some satisfying witticisms. Take, for example, when the Khan asks Marco if the Europeans build their towers to get closer to God. Marco answers, ‘Or further from our demons’. Or when Marco tells him that the West is not weak and that he must be prepared for the resistance of the lionhearted. All of these are good lines. They reverberate. For all that there are good lines, sometimes there are moments when it feels like it could be sharper. Other times it feels too purplish-prosey. There is a middle ground and the show thankfully manages to stay within it most of the time.
The asian actors speak english very eloquently. For some of them it is obvious english is their native tongue, but this adds to the environment of elegance to the show, rather than detract from its authenticity.
The last episodes of season 1 set up the new plots and villains for season 2. These last episodes were sort of weak compared to the preceding ones. At one time Marco was sentenced to death and the way he was saved from it felt too contrived for me. Also, new character traits are introduced too suddenly later in the show, like Yusuf’s ideals. Smoother transitions make for more character consistency and less confusion. Also, everyone healed ‘fully’ all the time, in an unrealistic way.
The positive thing about the last episodes of the season was Marco’s internal moral shift after he witnesses the Khan’s barbaric war tactics. It is at this point that he seemingly reconnects with his christian faith, which sets up good conflict for future episodes and also serves as a bridge for the viewers with western sensibilities. As for favorite characters, I like Lady Chabi, the Khan’s first wife and Empress of Mongolia. She is complicated, not all bad and not all good, but she is also wise and a good counselor to the Khan. Overall a lady to admire.
The Blue Princess was fine but her storyline was annoying. I didn’t care for her enough and mostly felt like it was a distraction for Marco, rather than genuine romance. I actually hoped Marco would stop pursuing her so he could focus on his tasks at hand.
Introducing a warrioress was also interesting, kind of in the same vein as Viking‘s Lagertha. She’s fun, but I never really understood if she let herself be beat by Byamba while they were wrestling or not. And then the domestic issue of two warriors learning to deal with marriage was also slightly…yawn.
There are some cultural shockers in the show. The ancient chinese practice of foot-binding was especially squirm inducing, for one. As was the brutal mongolian practice of brewing enemy soup. All in all, It was a very watchable show and a good production. I finished the entire first season in under a week. No news yet on whether there will be a second, but if there is, I will tune in.