“Fathers are destined to disappoint sons; and sons their fathers.” —Byamba
In “The Fourth Step,” the Polo family reunion in Kublai’s city was less than joyous, with Marco’s uncle sneering at the cultural assimilation that his brother’s son had embraced. While their time together was bitter and brief, no one even bothered to raise the subject of whether Marco would leave Kublai’s court with them, rejoining them in the family merchant business. But subsequent events—beginning with the Polos’ arrest for smuggling—proved that Marco was even more “Oriental” then uncle had claimed.
Kublai had assigned Marco a great privilege and burden: he will decide his own father’s punishment, a sentence that otherwise would be death. But just as Kublai and Marco are completing their heart-to-heart, a poison dart strikes the khan in the neck and he collapses as black-masked assassins rush in to finish the job. Marco gets in the way, preventing a death blow and allowing the vigilante Hundred Eyes and the mohawked warrior Byamba to arrive in time to slay the assailants. One is kept alive for interrogation, but while Kublai lingers on the brink of death, the disciplined assassin refuses to spill information about who is behind the attack, sharing only his fervent belief that paradise awaits him for his holy deed.
Thrust into the leadership void, Prince Jingim might not have time to wait for answers from his spymaster—and chief torturer—Yusef. Ahmad, the finance minister, is whipping the khan’s war counsel into a frenzy to exact retribution from the Chinese, the most likely power behind the evil deed. But a still-bloodied Hundred Eyes suspects something even more nefarious. “These demons were trained by the Old Man in the Mountain,” he says, marveling at their stealth and cunning. “They were Hashshashin.”
Murmer, murmer, concerned murmer.
The dreaded Hashshashin (hash + assassin), a secret order of Islamic mercenaries, was snuffed out by the Khan’s army, but rumors persist that the Old Man endures—like Ra’s al-Ghul in the Batman mythology. Marco interrupts to give credence to the whispers; in his travels, he came across a village that may have been a base camp for the Hashshashin, and he volunteers to lead Byamba and a small expedition there in order to determine who’s really responsible for the attempt on Kublai’s life.
The war drums are also growing louder in Xiangyang, too, where Jia ceremoniously presents the mutilated remains of his parley ambassadors—and the Chinese soldiers Jingim had released as a show of good faith—as evidence of the imminent Mongol threat. “This is what happens when we barter with barbarians,” he says. “Cruelty must be met with cruelty. We must lay waste to their cities.”
Jia has outmaneuvered the Empress Dowager, and the rebel army is at his command. He keeps his own counsel, though, with the exception of his new female confidante, who cares for his niece. “You’re the only one I may speak freely to; the only one I can trust,” he tells her. “It makes me happy to know I have this with you.” Yet when she pulls her robe off to consummate their alliance, he gently puts it back on her shoulders. He’s not interested in this particular privilege of power.
Before Marco leaves on his mission, the Blue Princess visits him and sweetly urges him to take this opportunity to escape. She’s beautiful all right, but she’s kinda unstable, no? Didn’t she recently try to kill him with a venomous snake? True, he did nobly try and protect her from perceived danger, so… I suppose he’s back in her good graces? Of course, her renewed affection virtually assures that Marco will not take her advice. He leaves on his mission, with the understanding that Jingim won’t execute his father and uncle until he returns. Ahmad, meanwhile, feeds Jingim’s petty jealousies about Marco and urges the prince to mobilize for war.
It’s a bonding trip for Marco and Byamba, who let slip their reservations about Jingim as the next khan. Byamba is also a son of the khan, but his mother is a consort, so there is a ceiling how high he can rise at the palace. But he thanks Marco for saving his father’s life during the attack, and there is the beginning of something like friendship between the two men, since both have complicated relationships with their fathers.
When they arrive at the mysterious outpost of Kochkor, under the guise of a poppy-dealing jade merchant and his entourage, they are welcomed warmly into a tavern—until Marco names his price: “I wish to speak with the Old Man.” A pall falls over the bar, and the crowd quickly shrinks away in silence. The proprietor sits down with Marco, and before he and Byamba can blink, they are surrounded by unfriendly faces. Yet, they are escorted into the mountain to meet the Old Man, but they can only enter the paradise where he resides through the gates of opium. Marco suffers a series of hallucinations that include an out-of-body experience, a red-tinted kaleidoscope sex orgy, and another tender moment with the Blue Princess under their Tree of Life.
When Marco comes to his senses, he faces the cryptic Old Man. When things turn testy, Marco threatens the man and demands to know who hired his mercenaries. “You are precisely the kind of young man I welcome here,” says the Old Man, who proclaims to be some immortal being. “Clever, spirited, and deserving of paradise.”
To be clear, the creators of Marco Polo are not stealing from Batman Begins, despite echoes of Bruce Wayne’s trek up the blue-flowered mountain to be trained by the mysterious League of Shadows. On the contrary, the comic-book mythology of Ra’s al-Ghul partially cribs from the same ancient tales that brush up against the actual history of Marco Polo. But I love the idea of Marco as Bruce Wayne, an orphan of sorts remolding himself into a weapon after his eyes have been opened to the larger world. (Or maybe I’m still hearing echoes of Marco’s angry Batman-esque whisper-yell at the jewelry merchant from episode 3.)
The Old Man scoffs at Marco’s stubborn assumption that the Song chancellor hired the Hashshashin. “The hand that dropped the purse lives far closer to home, son,” he says with relish, sharing a detailed map of Kublai’s palace. It was an inside job. Someone within the palace wants Kublai dead.
Marco says he recognizes the handwriting of the traitor, but that that person is dead. Who? The tax collector? Or is Marco lying? Doesn’t all the evidence point to Ahmad, the finance minister who’s fomenting for an attack against the Walled City? Remember how he behaved at the parley summit, bullying the Song ambassador with harsh terms that he knew would be rejected? Remember how he lobbied the Empress to whisper war into Kublai’s ear, because war was good business? And the Old Man’s key word may have been “purse.” “I am just a bookkeeper,” Ahmad once said to Jingim. “I tally, I account, I serve.”
But maybe that’s too obvious? Pure-blooded Mongol lord Kaidu bears a grudge against Kublai. He’s a logical suspect. So are the Blue Princess and Tulga, who could’ve been selling jewelry to finance the hit. She did confide to him that war was coming long before she should’ve had that insider information. I don’t believe Prince Jingim has the stones to commit patricide, but I’d consider the Empress a suspect. She has always been smarter and more cunning than she lets on, and killing her husband would secure her son’s ascension now, while she’s still an influence.
But it’s got to be Ahmad, right?
On their return home, Byamba opens the door for Marco to follow the Blue Princess’s advice and escape. He’s willing to look the other way and report that Marco was killed by the Hashshashin. Once upon a time, Marco’s father told him, “If you are ever afraid, if ever you doubt your place in the world, follow the Three Sisters and they will lead you home.” Now, at the campfire, with freedom staring him in the face, Marco looks up at the sky and sees the Three Sisters, or Orion’s Belt.
They lead him home—to his jailed father, to the Blue Princess, to a recuperating Kublai, who assigns Marco and Byamba to pursue their investigation into the map and locate the traitor. But if Marco thought his loyalty and success would win him mercy towards his father, he thought wrong. His request for a complete pardon is briskly dismissed by Kublai. And so it is up to Marco to prescribe the justice that entails shackling his father and uncle while their hands are branded with the mark of a thief. When the deed is done, Marco’s father watches helplessly as his son turns his back on him to join Kublai.