In a Mongol court where the great Kublai Khan is fascinated by Biblical stories, the first four episodes of Marco Polo seem to mirror the Genesis story of Joseph, the favored son who was sold into slavery by his own brothers and eventually proved himself a great resource to his foreign master. Marco was bartered away by his father and uncle, who offered him to Kublai in return for the license to navigate the lucrative trade routes in the East. They sold him, they abandoned him in a strange land. And now, in “The Fourth Step,” they’re back.
But will Marco even be alive when they arrive? His obsessive meddling into the mystery of the Blue Princess left him on the brink of death after he unwrapped the buried bag booby-trapped with a poisonous five-step snake. (“Most die before their fifth step,” explains Hundred Eyes.) While wiggling leeches suck the deadly venom coursing through his veins, Marco dreams of making love to the Princess under their secret tree. He’s been bitten, all right.
Kublai is greatly concerned about the ill health of his favorite pet. Or has Marco been demoted to second favorite pet? Since joining the Imperial harem, Mei Lin has become quite comfortable at Kublai’s side—and he waves off concerns of state secrecy when Jingim briefs him in her presence. The speed with which she’s ingratiated herself is slightly dubious. I don’t doubt that she has skills to seduce the greatest of men, but I’ve never taken Kublai for a total fool. There’s no suspicion of treachery or espionage toward the Chinese women who have extreme access to the Mongol power structure? The only charitable explanation is that Kublai already suspects—perhaps, even knows—that she is a spy and that he is using her to provide her brother with misinformation. I’d be very disappointed if the great Kublai can be played so easily. Only the Queen seems to sense the threat—though to her, it may just be a romantic one. Misguided or not in her suspicions, the Queen might be Kublai’s only defense against Mei Lin as she takes the Godfather maxim, “Keep you friends close and your enemies closer” to extremely intimate places.
Kublai’s repeated inquiries into Marco’s recovery continue to wound Jingim’s pride. After reporting to his father that Xiangyiang seeks a parley to discuss peace—an offer he recommends to Kublai—he sulks and whines to his mother that his father is always “tending to his round-eyed pet.” But the peace summit is a new opportunity for Jingim to shine, to achieve the glory that he failed to attain on the battlefield. There are two potential problems: One, Mei Lin immediately dispatches a rider to inform her brother, Jia Sidao, of Kublai’s plans; two, the Chinese peace initiative is directed independently by the Empress, not hardline Jia. Meaning: Jingim and the very reasonable Chinese diplomats are sure to strike a peace deal that will immediately crumble when Jia and Kublai personally take back the controls.
Jingim returns home and declares to a pleased father, “Peace without bloodshed is upon us.” (Thank you, Neville Chamberlain.) Jia acts much more aggressively, slaughtering his own Chinese ambassadors before they can even make their way back to the Walled City and inform the Empress of the peace deal.
Jia is a tough egg to crack. He’s more of a monk that his high-powered adversaries, and he displays mere admiration for his private dancer rather than lust. (A Sith Lord was the comparison I made in episode 3). And his cruelty knows no bounds. When he blames his sister for providing information too late for him to act on the parley summit, he punishes his sweet young niece by binding her feet.
As soon as Marco is back on his own feet, he’s determined to catch the mysterious rider who he assumes left the snake to harm the Blue Princess. Warning her sworn protector that danger lurks, he’s summarily dismissed—but not before learning that the guard is “the third sex,” a eunuch. Marco’s efforts to secure a sword to pursue the rider on his own are thwarted by Hundred Eyes and then fully interrupted by the news that his father and uncle have returned. The Polos haven’t returned to retrieve Marco. In fact, they don’t even mention his name when they bring gifts before Kublai. “Do you have any interest in your son?” Kublai asks, with a trace of incredulousness at their indifference. When they finally see him, no tears are shed nor hugs exchanged. In private, they lash out at each other: Marco wails about being left behind, his uncle grumbles about Marco going native and “forsaking his heritage.” Marco’s father pleads with Marco not to get involved with local romantic entanglements, and when he refuses to lend his son his sword, Marco leaves in a huff, allowing the two Polo brothers to get down to the real purpose of their visit: to smuggle the invaluable Asian silkworm back to Italy.
Unarmed, Marco storms into the shady establishment where his target, Tulga, sold the Blue Princess’s blackmailed jewels. His initial demand for Tulga’s whereabouts is rudely dismissed, but it turns out that his martial-arts lessons are finally paying dividends (after getting his ass kicked during three episodes). He viscously dispatches two foes, raises his voice to Christian Bale Batman level to get the information, and heads off after Tulga. When the two men finally tangle, Tulga proclaims his own willingness to lay down his life for the Blue Princess. These men are two peas in a pod. But Kublai’s soldiers interrupt the brawl to arrest Marco. They tracked him extremely quickly; perhaps Marco really does smell like a dog, as Hundred Eyes said.
Later, the Blue Princess visits Tulga, and she expresses concern and affection for him as he explains that the guards arrested Marco. “You did not need to set the snake,” he says. So she had intended the snake for Marco. That seems a little harsh, after their one real encounter. Question: Did she decide to sic the snake on him before or after she saw Marco’s dalliance with Khutulun? Just asking. Now, she seems flattered by Marco’s noble efforts, and she bats away Tulga’s suggestion that they flee together now. “Patience,” she says. “War is coming. We will find cover for our escape within it.” Do we still have doubts that she’s of royal blood?
The Imperial guards arrested Marco because Kublai’s spymaster uncovered the Polo’s smuggling operation, and Marco joins his greedy and careless father and uncle in jail. The penalty for such thievery, as Marco knows, is death. Once more, the three Polos kneel before Kublai in his palace, but this time, they are shackled in chains. Kublai is not eager to punish Marco, however, and he does his homework to discover that the silkworms the Polos were smuggling are native to a region that Marco has never visited. That will allow Kublai to spare his life. They bond over chess, discussing fathers and grandfathers, and Kublai uses the silkworm’s cocoon to spin a metaphor that is meant to illustrate’s Marco’s transformation. Later, when both men can’t sleep, Kublai gives him some tough medicine: “Amends must be made for your father’s crime,” he says. “You will decide his fate. … Then you will find sleep.”
Clearly, Kublai did not want to punish Marco, and Marco didn’t deserve to be punished. But his decision to spare him could have huge consequences politically, for the same reason that Kublai had to bludgeon that poor palace servant for witnessing Marco’s lies in episode 3. Politics is perception, and Kublai’s mercy will be interpreted as weakness, just as he feared. Moreover, his fascination with the round-eyed foreigner will only breed contempt among those true-blood Mongols who are already unhappy by Kublai’s liberal attitude. Also, assigning Marco the task of sentencing his father as some warped catharsis will only diminish Marco in the eyes of Kublai’s court, since turning on your own kind, whether you be friend or foe, is unforgivable. Sweet dreams, Marco Polo.