Kublai and Jia meet face-to-face, and Byamba has to choose sides between blood and friendship.

By Jeff Labrecque
Updated June 21, 2016 at 09:15 PM EDT
Credit: Phil Bray/Netflix
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War has come again, and even though Jia Sidao nearly was a casualty before the fighting even began, all his nefarious plotting paid off: he’s arranged exactly the war that he wanted, exactly when he wanted, and exactly where he wanted it to occur. Riled up to defend his wife’s honor, Kublai Khan has taken the bait and marched his troops to Xiangyang, the Chinese walled-city stronghold that has eluded the Mongols for 80 years.

For Kublai, the spirit is willing when it comes to battle but the flesh is weak—or at least flabby. Just months after dispatching his treasonous brother, but still recovering from an assassination attempt, Kublai is not in fighting shape. (He insists to his wife that his battle armor has shrunk.) And an adversary as skilled and cunning as Jia requires someone whose personal battlefield strategy is more daring and ambitious than just surrounding himself with brave soldiers willing to absorb enemy arrows.

Marco’s intelligence about the incomplete section of Xiangyang’s wall has fired up the Khan’s war hawks, and Marco himself urges Kublai to strike immediately. For the first time, I felt that Jingim had a point: how in hell did this total stranger get in here and what has he done to hypnotize my father into hanging on his every word? In Jingim’s eyes, Marco must seem like a handsome Rasputin. Kublai ignores Jingim’s recommendation for caution and sends Yusuf to represent him in a parlay summit with Jia. Meanwhile, the army marches on the farming village of Wuchang, the same strategic target that Jingim had failed to conquer months earlier. This time, Kaidu’s troops finish the job—though perhaps that victory had more to do with Jia’s decision to withdraw the rebel army once the village could no longer be defended.

Inside the Walled City, Jia is back in charge. He slew his one rival and the Empress Dowager is his prisoner in the palace. “I feel as if I may have sprained my wrist,” he coolly tells her. “That’s what your champion took out of me.” (His insulting dig is the 13th-century version of this.) There’s something intrinsically malignant about Jia, and it’s thematically captured in the opening shot from the episode: his reflection is blurred in a dented mirror, obscuring his skewed face with what almost seemed like a surreal tumor. There is a cancer in him that warps everything he thinks and does, and it cannot be dislodged without killing him.

Byamba and Khutulun are riding into battle as a couple, since he technically won her as a romantic prize when he bested her in wrestling. Her father, Kaidu, has mixed feelings when he discovers that she’s no longer pure and unconquered, but she explains that she did it all for him. “I surrounded [my honor] to serve yours,” she says. “You wanted me close to the Khan’s court, yes?” Recall that Kaidu—who sneers as Jingim and the Khan’s embrace of non-Mongol cultures—is still a potential suspect in the hashshashin attack on Kublai. Khutulun seems sincere in her passion for Byamba—and their 20th century offspring would eventually make amazing American Gladiators—but Kaidu perhaps half-wishes his daughter didn’t follow this particular order of his so enthusiastically. But she’s chosen well, and Kaidu already sees the opportunity that might fall into his lap. While sizing up his future son-in-law, he wonders aloud whether Kublai has the vision and good sense to recognize Byamba’s potential as Khutulun had.

The war also presents an opportunity for another forbidden romance. But while Byamba and Khutulun are blossoming, Tulga and Kokachin (AKA the Blue Princess) are dead on the vine. Tulga wants to use the chaos of war to carry out their long-held promise to each other and escape, but Kokachin, who’s maybe gotten use to a life of luxury, her regular horse rides with the Empress, a potential match with a prince, and the attention of the exotic Latin, finally tells him it’s over. Beat it, street-rat. Tulga takes it hard and tried to stab her, but Za Bing, her eunuch protector arrives in time to throttle the ruffian—momentarily. Tulga stabs Za Bing in the back and during his panicked escape out the window, an arrow rips though his chest. Kokachin shot him. It’s tough to tell if the arrow actually punctured his heart, but let’s say it did.

Negotiations between Jia and Yusuf are dead on arrival, with the chancellor insulting the slightly crippled minister from the moment he arrives till Jia bids him farewell with “Limp away now, messenger.” Of course, Jia isn’t there to make peace, and any hatred that Yusuf walks away with only helps Jia attain the battlefield clash he craves. But both men make crucial mistakes: too-clever Jia flaunts that he’s still under the impression that Kublai’s wife is dead, while Yusuf’s long silence about his dedication to his master speaks volumes. As Jia later taunts Kublai in their face-to-face, trying to seed discord: “When an honest man says nothing, you see his heart.”

When the two leaders finally meet in person, it’s practically a staring contest to see who can remain silent the longest. Jia breaks the stalemate, and judging Kublai to be a narcissist, he flatters his looks on one hand while disparaging his Christian mother with the other. Jia listens to Kublai’s unacceptable terms for peace and reconciliation before jabbing with his dead-Empress remarks. But the joke is on him when the two men exit the tent and Kublai introduces Jia to the Mongol Empress, alive and well. Jia is not an honest man, but you could almost see his heart stop beating as he realized he’d been betrayed by the one person he’d come to trust. (A heartbroken Jia kindly allowed Jing Fei the honor of committing ritual suicide after an elegant and threatening dance with a sabre.)

Marco is completely committed to the Mongol cause, and not just because he helped plan the attack. Conversing with a friendly Chinese prisoner of war, he doesn’t have to feign enthusiasm for his station in life. Marco makes it sound like serving Kublai in Cambulac is a privilege. And maybe it is. But his life is in constant danger from all sides—especially when the fighting starts. His future partner on Law & Order: Harem Investigative Unit, Byamba, pulls him aside to urge him once again to escape before the first arrow flies. Byamba knows Jingim’s mind—”Our strategy turns on a foreigner’s secret,” said the petulant prince. “I do not trust the Latin and neither does Amhad.”—and worries for Marco’s safety, as well as his own, since he might soon have to choose between his favored half-brother and his alienated blonde friend.

In the first episode, Marco confided his life’s ambitions for an extraordinary adventure, and his days at Kublai’s court presented everything he had dreamed of. But all that was a mirage; the splendor, the excitement, the decadence were all a mask that obscured the dirty engine that provided that lifestyle. So it wasn’t until Marco saw—and smelled—how Kublai treated the Chinese prisoners that his eyes were opened. One by one, prisoners were dragged from their cage, tied to a slab, hacked into bits, and dumped into a brew—to be rendered into a weapon for the assault. There was a reason, after all, that the Mongols were referred to as barbarians.

Disillusioned, Marco finally decides to escape. But guess who gets in his way? A few hints: she’s pretty… she’s blue… she likes Marco… she tried to kill him with a snake… Kokachin! Conveniently, she has decided that now is the time to unburden herself of her secret and bare her soul and body to the foreign guy that most everyone wants dead. Lacking her eunuch bodyguard, perhaps she felt desperate to ally herself with another protector, but Marco is hardly the person to provide that service for more than a quickie in the tent. Well, a quickie in the tent will have to do. Marco’s not going anywhere now. He’s totally cool with boiling the enemy as long as the Blue Princess who tried to kill him with a snake loves him. Am I being too cynical?

At dawn, Marco declines Kublai’s invitation to observe the battle from relative safety and kisses his father’s crucifix as he marches with the army towards the weakened wall. But alas, Kublai’s astrologers were correct. They’ve marched into Jia’s trap: the in-repair wall is a noose and once the Mongols put their necks through it, the rebels pulled it tight. It’s another fiasco, and Kublai is shellshocked after failing to fulfill his grandfather’s destiny. The recriminations begin immediately, with Jingim making Marco not just the scapegoat, but a traitor who lured the Mongols into a trap. “Father, he has brought us nothing but ruin,” Jingim says, echoing the prophecy not of his uncle, but Marco’s, who once said, “Mark my words, he will gut the foundation of everything we have labored to build.”

Marco tearfully protests and pledges his loyalty to Kublai, further enraging Jingim who raises his sword to end the matter. But his killing blow is blocked by another blade—by Byamba. In just eight episodes, we’ve already had Cain and Abel. We’ve had Joseph. And not we might have a variation on the Biblical story of the house of Abraham, with Byamba and Jingim at odds like Isaac and Ishmael. At least Byamba can count on the support of his father-in-law to-be, Kaidu… or can he?

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Marco Polo

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