In the series premiere of Marco Polo, the viewer is dropped into an alien setting and culture and forced to spend the rest of the episode putting the pieces together. In a way, it’s an apt introduction to the famed 13th-century traveler, who himself is very much a stranger in a strange land when we catch up to him on his path to what is now modern-day China.
We know from the opening prologue that Kublai Khan and his Mongol empire dominate the continent—except for the rebel Chinese stronghold at Xiangyiang—and run roughshod over the Silk Road, the sole trade route connecting the West. Enter the Polos, whose journey across a still-smoldering battlefield is interrupted by Kublai’s soldiers. They quickly kill the frightened priest in their party, and then skewer the native guides that accompany them with arrows. Only the three Europeans—or “Latins”—are spared and brought before Kublai: handsome Marco, his father, and his uncle.
The Polos aren’t treated as prisoners, though—more like escaped pets. They’re brought on their knees before Kublai, whose presence in the royal court is equal parts Jabba the Hutt and Paul Sorvino in Goodfellas. (“Paulie may have moved slow, but it was only because Paulie didn’t have to move for anybody.”—Henry Hill) For all intents and purposes, he is a ruthless and omnipotent God, a man whose only real rival is the distant Pope, for whom he holds an odd fixation. Oddly, though, he invites Christianity to his realm, and in fact, the elder Polo brothers had been specifically ordered to bring priests and holy oil back to Kublai with them. In the 13th century, the priests were the rare educated and artistically skilled scholars, so perhaps that was behind Kublai’s request—knowledge and technology.
Perhaps there’s already intrigue brewing in his court: His soldiers had quickly killed the valuable priest, and when called on by Kublai to account for his failure, Polo’s father tells a half-truth, “Our priests could not bear the rigors of the journey.” Does the army have a different agenda than its commander-in-chief? The Polos opt to bend the truth and risk the wrath of “the barbarian devil king” rather than point a finger at his soldiers.
Italian newcomer Lorenzo Richelmy—a slightly more rugged Adrian Grenier?—plays Marco, and he stands silently as his father and uncle are humbled. But he sees an opportunity when Kublai asks about the wastelands they passed through. Where the older Polos saw only a sea of death, Marco takes great poetic license in describing a beauty in the vast desolation. Marco is a clever and charming storyteller in a severe world that lacks those qualities, and Kublai is flattered and entertained, as are the royal women who size up the handsome Latin. When Kublai banishes the Polos from his lands forever for their failure to bring him priests, Marco’s father makes his only play to stay in the game: Kublai may keep Marco as his servant in exchange for the Polos’ right to continue to trade along the Silk Road. Deal and deal. Marco is to be a privileged guest, or a pet, or a slave. For Kublai, they’re all one and the same.
Of course, this is dramatic license. In reality, Marco was never traded into servitude by his father. His father and uncle remained with him in China during his many adventures. But that’s okay, especially since so much of Polo’s life, as we know it, might be myth anyway.
The subsequent flashback to Marco’s adolescence in Venice was valuable to understand his relationship with his father and uncle—men willing to sell their own blood for treasure. Marco was essentially an orphan when he met his father for the first time as a teenager. Marco insists on joining them on their return to China, but his father replies with a line he’ll repeat later to Kublai when he’s explaining the missing priests: “You’re not prepared for the rigors of the journey ahead.” Marco stows away on their ship anyway, but even as his father begins to soften toward his presence during their three-year trek east, his uncle remains skeptical. “Mark my words,” he says bitterly, “he will gut the foundation of everything we have labored to build.” For the uncle, at least, selling Marco to Kublai was win-win.
Marco, who’d been abandoned before, is heartbroken. Thrown in a jail cell, he etches chalk outlines of his father’s ship. In short order, however, he’s promoted from inmate to court pet, and Kublai’s ministers are assigned to teach him the skills to survive, from horseback riding to arts to martial arts. Guess which one gets the most screen time? Yes, Marco gets to play Marco-san for a blind martial-arts expert nicknamed Hundred Eyes. (I look forward to episode 6 where the origins of the children’s swim game, Marco Polo, are explained as Hundred Eyes can’t locate his apprentice.) Hundred Eyes can anticipate any attack with his super-senses, and he duels with cobras in his spare time to keep his skills sharp. He urges Marco to let his father go—because only if he truly gives up on the idea of returning home can he survive in China and get to hang with all the frolicking naked women that Netflix hired. (Though it’s a Netflix show, Marco Polo was developed by Starz and fans of Spartacus will recognize and appreciate the ample flesh and sex.)
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Marco keeps climbing the ladder, and before you know it, he’s been invited to Kublai’s Eyes Wide Shut party. Unfortunately, he’s not yet permitted to participate. “I have a test for you,” says Kublai. “You will walk back down the Hall of Five Desires. A man who proves his loyalty to me, can take whatever he wishes. You may not. Not yet. Look, but do not touch.” Marco manages to control his hormonal urges as women throw themselves in his path—but he already has his eye on another distinguished-looking girl in the village.
When Kublai isn’t playing Caligula, he and his advisors are plotting their next move against Emperor Song in the Chinese rebel city. The Emperor is old and ailing, but his kingdom is being kept afloat by thick, tall city walls, and two clever siblings who might be called Machiavellian if they didn’t live 200 years before the Italian statesman was born. The brother, Jia Sidao (The Dark Knight‘s Chin Han) is clearly on the rise while the Emperor fades, and his greatest weapon is his sexy concubine sister, Mei Lin (Olivia Cheng). He pimps her out to powerful adversaries who he wants to kill while they have the best sex of their lives. She clearly loves her work, and gives every amorous contract killing a happy ending.
Together, they seem well versed in Sun-Tzu’s Art of War—though she seems open to the idea of negotiating with Kublai’s amassing army. Her brother has grander plans.
Kublai’s military advisors are divided on what to do, but Kublai wants all of Asia. His bright and slightly sheltered son leads an army to the defenseless farming village outside the prized city of Xiangyiang, and Kublai’s brother promises to join him on the battlefield with his cavalry. But when the moment of truth arrives, brother and his reinforcements are nowhere to be found and the farming village sounds like an armed camp awaiting an attack. Did Kublai’s brother have a date with Mei Lin? Have the Mongols walked into a trap?
For a premiere, Marco Polo was only half effective. I was fascinated by the political intrigue in the two different courts, and I hope to see more of what goes on behind the scenes—and I don’t necessarily mean in the sex dens. But they failed to establish Marco as the most compelling character in the story of his own life. Marco is invaluable to Kublai because he has the fresh eyes of a foreign observer. Time will tell if simply observing turns out to be his greatest attribute.