The meek might inherit the earth in Christian orthodoxy, but in 13th-century China, where the Mongols are on the brink of continental domination, the mere perception of weakness is enough to cripple a dynasty. Two rival leaders are battling that impression, accused of the unforgivable sin of unmanliness. Kublai’s son, Jingim, foolishly led his troops into a disastrous defeat while trying to prove his manhood and now the chorus that he’s a sheltered pretty boy unfit for leadership is growing. On the other side of the conflict, Jia Sidao, the manipulative Chinese minister, must suppress the whispers that his insect-fighting games make him some sort of dandy, or his treacherous ambitions to seize power from the new child emperor will be thwarted by the army.
Two men. Two different approaches to a similar dilemma. It’s time to man up.
There is little for Kublai to celebrate after his convincing victory over his brother Ariq’s uprising. His battered body is recuperating, but his conscience is lagging further behind. Slaughtering his brother in cold blood has wounded his soul, and he grieves for his personal loss, as well as what his regal position demanded he do. “I loved him as a brother, but I killed him as a traitor,” he tells his court, before challenging them to speak up if they think he did wrong. “That is the last we shall speak of my brother.”
Except he can’t stop talking about it. To Marco, who reluctantly obeys Kublai’s command to recite the Biblical story of Cain and Abel. To his wife, whom he shares his haunted dreams. To Hundred Eyes, who reassures his khan that killing Ariq was necessary; if he’d merely banished him, others would perceive Kublai as weak and rise to challenge him. In fact, Ariq’s death has not extinguished the flame of rebellion from those who detest the Chinese and foreign elements that have been absorbed by the Mongol royal family.
In Xiangyiang, Jia is perturbed by the departing words of his banished sister: that the army laughs at him behind his back and calls him the Cricket Minister. He decides it’s time to demonstrate that he’s not just the power behind the throne. He turns a celebratory review of the Chinese troops into a demonstration of his ruthless power—and, more importantly, manliness. He challenges the army’s most fearsome soldier to an honorable fight, after the mountain-sized soldier confirms that some of his peers think his insect games are a “curious hobby.” In full view of the soldiers, Jia masterfully incapacitates the warrior, taunts him—”Praying mantis kung fu? Curious little hobby?”—and then snaps his neck for good measure. Jia is not only in charge—he is both Sen. Palpatine and Darth Sidious.
Jia is purposely taunting Kublai as well. In the opening moments of the episode, a scar-faced Mongol soldier patiently waits for his execution as the sounds of nearby beheadings grow closer. His head, and presumably the others, are sent to Kublai in a box as a gruesome tribute of sorts. Kublai plans some quid pro quo but all the bloodshed is eating at his mind, and his already weakened body suffers as a result. Ailing from gout, he backs out of a feast in his honor with Kaidu (Olympus Has Fallen‘s Rick Yune), sending Jingim and Marco to celebrate with the powerful lord in his stead. It’s an insult that Kaidu can’t abide, for he shares Ariq’s preference for a pure Mongol culture free of foreign influence. At the banquet, Kaidu humiliates Jingim at every turn—for his failed battlefield leadership and for his Chinese upbringing. “I prefer a pure general, a Mongol-raised Mongol, bathed in the blood spilt by Genghis, steeped in his ways,” he says. “Untainted, a true Mongol—man… or woman.”
Kaidu has a daughter, Khutulun, an impressive warrior in her own right whose virginity is promised to the first man who can defeat her in a wrestling match. Well, that horse has left the barn, so to speak. She already tangled with Marco, and he clearly wasn’t her first conquest—which is what it was. She aggressively sought him out when he arrived, and what began as playful flirtation quickly escalated to a quickie in the sand with Khutulun calling the shots. Marco must’ve done something right; when he ended up being tossed around like a rag-doll by some hulk in the wrestling circle later that night, she rescued him from permanent damage. Her Pale Flower, as she called him, best be careful, though. Even the Blue Princess seemed to notice the sparks between them.
Like Khutulun, the Blue Princess Kokachin is also prized as a potential match for ambitious men. Hundred Eyes tells Marco, who remains infatuated by her, that she is the last of her tribe. Her parents and family were slaughtered by Kublai’s forces, and she survives only to be bartered away in some eventual political arrangement. Despite more warnings, Marco can’t stay away from her, and he follows her again to the tree where she hangs a blue ribbon. But she’s not a spy, sending signals to the enemy. She is leaving buried jewels for the young man, Tulga, who appears to be blackmailing her. He may or may not love her, and her fierce protector, the glowering man who chased away Marco, fears that eventually he will expose her secret. But what secret? Tulga didn’t seem like the sort who traveled in royal circles. Is Kokachin not the princess after all, but a commoner who is cleverly doing what she has to in order to survive?
Women are forced to do much worse things than lie to survive in Mongol-dominated China. Mei Lin’s mission to infiltrate the Kublai court by being selected to the khan’s harem is threatened by her first encounter with the Empress. Mei is proficient in the art of arousal, but perhaps too much so. The Empress supervises the selection of the women who will please her husband, and she recognizes something familiar or threatening in Mei—or perhaps she’s just wise enough to keep a real pro away from her man. At risk of being sold to a regular brothel, Mei takes matters into her own hands, slashing a rival in the face to enhance her chances. The person responsible for Mei’s naked strip search should probably lose his or her job for missing her hair-pin blade, but then we wouldn’t have the royal threesome at the end, with Kublai, Mei, and the tentative Empress.
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When Marco returns from Kaidu’s feast, Kublai summons him for his report. This time, Marco lies—in part to protect Jingim’s honor. But this is a test. Kublai already knows about his son’s humiliation, and he can’t stand deceit from Marco. After all, if Marco isn’t his “fresh eyes,” what good is he to Kublai. “A lie can cost innocence lives,” he rants. “Such lies should be punished!”
Kublai calmly walks over to a servant, the one witness to his exchange with Marco, and beats him to a pulp with his club. (Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead stand up and give Marco Polo a nice slow clap at the depiction of such savagery.) He beats a servant to death because he can’t risk the man casually telling his friends that the great Khan let a lowly foreigner lie to his face. “He is your scapegoat,” Kublai tells Marco.
For at least the third time, Marco begins an attempt to escape. But this time, his ride into the unknown is interrupted by one of the Princess’s blue-ribbons, hanging from the hilltop tree. Marco investigates and digs up the treasure. This time, though, it’s not jewelry that he finds. A deadly snakes lashes at him from the bag. Fade to black.
Who put the snake there, and was it intended for Marco? Or did the Blue Princess’s guardian set it there as a trap for Tulga, the man he doesn’t trust to keep his ward’s secret. Or is the snake just a metaphor for Marco’s romantic obsession, and where it will lead?
Typically, the complaint is that new dramas take too long to get going—that the first few episodes are all set-up and character. But after three episodes, I feel almost the opposite about Marco Polo. So much of Kublai’s ambivalence about killing his brother would have resonated stronger if that conflict had been strung out for more than one episode. Ariq was a loyal—if suspicious—lieutenant in the series premiere, and his entire betrayal and downfall was completely encapsulated by episode 2. Kublai is haunted by his actions, but it’s difficult for the audience to share those emotions when we hardly know anyone on this show yet. There’s been plenty of action, but if I could use the ladies’ lovemaking styles as a metaphor, the show could use a little more of Mei Lin’s finesse rather than Khutulun’s haste.