“Once more unto the breach, dear friends…” —Henry V
The season finale of Marco Polo recycled all of the best action of the previous nine episodes and amped them up, while tamping down the elements of in-house intrigue. Enough with the Shakespearean subplots of subterfuge, the writers seemed to be saying—let’s wow them with some grand cinematic CG set pieces and balletic martial-arts action sequences. For the third time in 10 episodes, Kublai Khan’s forces descended upon the walled Chinese city of Xiangyang, and this time, they had a secret weapon that finally tipped the balance in their favor.
Marco Polo is the Oppenheimer of Kublai’s Manhattan Project, giant trebuchets that hurl flaming boulders at the enemy’s formidable wall from beyond the range of the enemy’s archers. It was Marco’s idea, and although it saved him from a death sentence, its development and success are now completely on his shoulders. There’s little left of the father-son rapport that made the relationship between the two men so interesting; Marco is just another blunt tool in Kublai’s war machine, and if he fails, an obsessed Kublai tells him, he’ll be left on the battlefield as carrion.
The drums of war are literally pounding in Cambulac, and Kaidu is eager to avenge the previous losses—which cost him two sons—by leading the Mongol charge. Not so fast, says Kublai, who bitterly reminds his cousin who’s the khan of khans. “I lead this assault. You ride with the House of Kublai.” Kaidu insists, though, and gives Kublai an ultimatum: either he leads the charge or he takes his men back to Karakorum “to defend the true Mongol capital.”
Kublai banishes Kaidu from Cambulac, and he and his warrior daughter Khutulun ride north, embittered—putting Byamba in an awkward situation. It’s unclear what Kaidu hoped to accomplish with his power play, challenging Kublai in front of the court. It makes me wonder whether he doubted the success of this third offensive, and he’s already planning to assume the Mongol throne once Kublai’s forces are routed once and for all. A least he doesn’t seem to be conspiring with the enemy: Jia Sidao is mobilizing for war in Xiangyang, but only as a diversionary tactic to prod prideful Kublai to clumsily march into another massacre. He certainly understands his adversary well—”This wall must break before me, or I die trying!” snarls Kublai to Empress Chabi after his priests point to bad omens. And when the war comes to Jia’s walls again, he has his own secret weapon ready to unleash on the Mongols.
Empress Chabi has accelerated her matchmaking efforts between Jingim and Kokachin from the meet-cute-in-the-stables phase to the pigeon-egg-in-the-woohoo phase. In a crude but extremely formal “test of virtue” to see if the prospective bride is pure, a team of observers insert a white pigeon egg in Kokachin’s nest to confirm her virginity and thus qualify her for royal marriage. As we know, Kokachin shouldn’t pass the test, and she doesn’t. But… the Empress wants to make sure the test was applied correctly, so she rolls up her sleeve and tries again personally… with vigor. She draws the blood that is required. Welcome to the family, daughter-in-law. The punchline arrives in the next scene, where Ahmad describes the Empress to Mei Lin: “You will never find a more civilized queen, nor a more compassionate mother,” he says. “When it comes to protecting her Khan and Empire, she will do what needs to be done.” Indeed.
Kokachin figures it’s finally time to get out of Dodge, so she arranges a secret meeting with Marco, tells him she’s to be married to Jingim, and pleads with him to escape with her now. But Marco just wants to hang with the fellas, and why you gotta get all serious, girl? Well, not exactly, but sort of. Marco chooses Kublai and the war over the woman he loves, explaining that they can never really get away from Kublai and it would be a nightmare to live in fear. But maybe, after they win the war, things will be different for them. Um, sure.
A full moon marks the night before the final assault on Xiangyang, and Marco and Byamba have a fireside chat before the battle. Marco is a true believer in the cause, as Hundred Eyes first noted earlier in the season. (The “cause” being… adventure?) Byamba, however, is more circumspect. Either Marco’s war machines will fail to deliver their promise, and the half-strength Mongol army will perish on the field, or the trebuchets will pound the Chinese into submission and Xiangyang will fall. “In truth, I fear what may happened should we win,” says Byamba, gloomily hinting at what will happen to Khutulun and her rebellious father should a suddenly bolstered Kublai turn his attention to the north.
The moment of truth arrives. Marco sets the trebuchets, Kublai gives the order to fire, and the first flaming boulder flies through the air… and lands harmlessly in the field, far from the fortress wall. Beads of sweat run down Kublai’s nose, as the realization of his utter public failure begins to take hold. Desperate, Marco makes some readjustments to the war machines, and tries again. Success! The second boulder dents the wall and its stones slightly crumble. Concentrated bombardment takes its toll, and eventually, a portion of the wall collapses. Kublai orders his troops through the wall, which seems hasty, which is his nature. Why not redirect his trebuchets on other portions of the wall before committing his soldiers, so that his men don’t run into another bottleneck where the enemy can direct all of their firepower?
And it turns out that real firepower awaits them. The brave Mongols who survive the Chinese arrows get to the breach in the wall to face the gunpowder-fueled mini-cannons that Jia used against the Empress. Jingim takes a blast in the chest and clings to life under the body of another downed Mongol. But Kublai’s crude strategy ultimately pays off, as 13th-century guns take time to reload. His horde overpowers the Chinese troops and spill into Xiangyang.
Jia, whose only outward reaction to all the bad news is a slight spill of his tea, sends the Emperor into the tunnels with his pet praying mantis for safety. The boy gives his protector (and puppet master) an earnest hug goodbye, and for the first time, Jia’s blood almost warms to human levels. He then goes to his throne room to wait for the invaders. Marco has the misfortune to find him, and though the “round-eye” held his own against Jingim in their pre-battle grudge match, he’s no match for Jia’s skills. The Chinese Palpatine easily disarms Marco and snaps a few of the boy’s bones with the dexterity of a sadistic surgeon. But his killing blow is blocked by Hundred Eyes, who knows a little bit of his own mantis technique. The two warrior-monks exchange bone-crunching body blows, including one gruesome shot that leaves Hundred Eyes’ ulna poking out of his skin. He tucks it back into place and finishes the dance, incapacitating Jia with some Vulcan death moves and slicing his neck with a sword.
Once victory has been assured, Kublai enters the Chinese city and takes the throne, like some victorious owner of a football team that’s won the Super Bowl. He holds the Song seal, his soldiers chant, but is there joy? Marco had promised him he would feel it once the dream of his forefathers had finally been fulfilled, but now that it was done, he still doesn’t seem satisfied. Is it as Yusuf feared—Kublai will only want more, chasing a hunger that cannot ever be sated?
Jingim is dragged from the battlefield, and he and Marco, who helped save him, make peace. For now. Byamba chooses his path, skipping the victorious celebration to ride north to be with his love, Khutulun. When Kublai eventually turns to settle old scores with Kaidu, he will find his son in the middle. Later, Marco rides home with the army, dressed like a conquering prince, but his hopes to find Kokachin waiting for him are dashed when he finds her quarters empty. The Blue Princess is gone.
Mei Lin and Ahmad’s simmering two-way seduction finally bears fruit when the skilled concubine unleashes her deadly skills on a guard and she pauses her escape to admire the secret mural on Ahmad’s wall that depicts the recent history and planned future, culminating in Ahmad sitting on the throne and holding Kublai’s decapitated head. “I find it… exquisite,” she tells him, as he emerges from the shadows to set the direction for season two. It’s hardly a twist or reveal, since Ahmad has been the most obvious suspect for betrayal since episode six. Jia was a worthy adversary; Ahmad will need plenty of Mei Lin’s wiles to fill those shoes.