Marco Polo recap: 'The Scholar's Pen'
A blind man and a white guy walk into a walled city...
Jia Sidao is one twisted bastard. The outgoing Song chancellor “crawled up and into the Imperial Court through the wet spot” in his sister’s bed. He used her seductive charms to assassinate rivals, then banished her to Cambulac once he felt ready to seize total control and take on the Mongols. He crippled his niece by binding her feet—and we learn in “The Scholar’s Pen” how his nickname for her, Sunflower, underscores the warped relationship he has with women.
Sunflower originally was his sister’s pet name, but it wasn’t something their parents called her. Rather, it came from one of her first admirers. In the opening flashback, Jia hid under the floorboards and watched as a pre-teen Mei Lin performed her talents on a lecherous customer for coin. Yeah, that’ll leave a psychological mark on both kids. Suddenly, the audience understood the unstated threat behind his grown-up decision to call Mei Lin’s daughter by that same name.
In present-day Cambulac, a bloodied Mei Lin is being interrogated by the Khan’s court immediately after her failed assassination attempt. It turns out Kublai wasn’t her intended target after all, but rather the Empress. This makes some sense if you’re completely on board with Jia being a complete power-hungry lunatic. Behold: rather than use his perfectly positioned assassin to actually kill his greatest enemy, thus possibly winning the war with one preemptive strike, he opts to murder the Empress in order to trigger the vengeful reprisal that would deliver massive battlefield casualties and help him preserve and consolidate his own power. In other words, he’d let thousands of his own people die in order to maintain his rule.
Mei Lin pleads for mercy, and offers her assistance against the Walled City if Kublai promises to save her daughter. She is spared—and entrusted to Ahmad… hmm—while Kublai readies plans for his army’s swift retaliation. The Empress, though, counsels him in private to consider a slightly-restrained response. “Do not use a battering ram when an arrow will do,” she says, suggesting sending an assassin rather than the army. “I deserve revenge,” he huffs. “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” “Oh, Kublai,” she zings him. “You quote whatever holiness suits you at the time.” He may be khan, but she owns him.
Hence, the army will not be marching south. Instead, Kublai orders Hundred Eyes to sneak in to Xiangyang and kill Jia. Marco will escort him. (Because if you want to slip into an impregnable walled city without attracting attention, by all means, send a blind monk and the only white person in all of Asia.) It does seem a little unlikely that Kublai would entrust such an important mission to Hundred Eyes and Marco. But he certainly reveres the Wudang warrior-monk’s deadly martial skills, and perhaps he considers both men expendable and thus ideally suited for a suicide mission.
The Empress is also using her influence behind the scenes to help Jingim in his bitter feud with Marco, though the prince is mostly oblivious to her machinations. She had quickly noted the spark between the Blue Princess and Marco, and now, she is determined to snuff that out and arrange another marriage for her son. The Blue Princess, to her credit, might be up to the task, and if she’s not yet the Empress’s equal, she can at least hold her own. In a private social meeting, the Empress invites the princess to confide her romantic longings, but the younger woman wisely admits that her humble dreams are only supplying her future husband with many sons. That might seem like a gracious side-step, but recall how Kublai crudely disparaged Jingim’s wife for not yet bearing an heir. The Blue Princess knows how to play the game too.
Jingim can’t be bothered with his mother’s meddling right now. He’s too busy trying not to choke on the bile that’s stuck in his throat following his father’s decision to send Marco and Hundred Eyes to do a job he feels entitled to perform. “Open the gates to outsiders and secrets will spill,” he tells Ahmad, quoting his dead uncle’s warning. “Perhaps the wrong brother fell bloody in the dirt all those months ago.” Jingim’s judgment is clouded by his jealousy.
In other romantic maneuverings, Byamba and she-warrior Khutulun are readying the Khan’s troops for whenever Kublai decides to order than south. But a few soldiers don’t want to fight with a girl, so Khutulun volunteers to wrestle their most formidable champion in order to prove her worth. Byamba is selected as her opponent and they square off. If the soldiers don’t know what’s really at stake—her hand in marriage—the contestants seem to be aware. He fights with even greater ferocity; she seems to be pulling her punches. In the end, they get the result that they both desired. I suspect this means one of them will die very soon.
In Xiangyang, Jing Fei returned from Cambulac after Mei Lin’s failed assassination attempt—and lies to Jia Sidao. She tells him that the Empress is dead in order to save herself and poor Sunflower. Over an intimate dinner, Jing Fei offers herself up to her master. “Do you wish to take me?” she asks, after shedding her robe. But Jia has another childhood flashback to his sister and demurs, expressing his interest only in meeting her judgmental parents.
Jia seems to have suspicions about Jing’s honesty, but his mind is presently preoccupied with derailing the imminent handover of power that the Empress Dowager has arranged, banishing him from the palace once the boy Emperor is coronated. He pleads with the Empress to postpone the transition until after the expected Mongol offensive, but she dismisses his overtures. All that remains is the signing of the papers, confirming his removal from office.
Perhaps Jia always intended to go down fighting, but I suspect that Jing Fei indirectly triggered the climactic clash of violence. The night before being deposed, while Jing was out plotting with Marco and Hundred Eyes, Jia came to her residence and waited for her to return. When Jing returns, he lights a spark, announcing his presence. (Think that “peculiar substance” from Quinsai will have a battlefield application, like gunpowder?) He may have doubted her still about the assassination, but I suspect he truly loves her in the only way that he can. And when she lies to him about her whereabouts, saying that she was at the brothel, inquiring about employment for when he falls out of favor, I think that pushes a button in his head. Jia not only has to retain power to save China and the Song dynasty, but to rescue her from returning to a life of sex and abuse. By clinging to power, he can save Jing Fei in a way that he could never have saved his sister when he was a child.
It’s with that mindset that he sits opposite his adversary and successor, Fang Zhen, who awaits for Jia’s signature on his resignation. “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand,” says Jia, quoting Confucius. Fang, who quite unwisely arranged this momentous handover in private, seems to know Jia’s mind. After a long pause, Jia strikes and proves that the pen is mightier than the sword. Fang is a capable warrior, and perhaps if Hundred Eyes hadn’t burst in during their fight to accomplish his own mission, he wouldn’t have taken Jia’s sharp scholar’s pen to the jugular.
Hundred Eyes fails his mission, and he and Marco escape with their lives and Mei Lin’s daughter, Ling. Marco, however, brings Kublai information that will prove valuable to his army’s strategists. Xiangyang’s wall is vulnerable in one place and can be breached. Cry “Havoc,” and let slip the dogs of war! The Mongols are on the march to finish off Jia and the Song dynasty. Kublai rallies his troops and speaks of the glory of dying a noble battlefield death for a greater cause. I suspect a few characters will get that opportunity in episode 8.