Netflix’s Marco Polo is a textbook “Don’t Judge a Book by it Cover”   Leave a comment

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I watched the whole series over the course of three days, wrapping it up Thursday afternoon.

I have to admit I wasn’t sure what to think of it when I saw the trailer for it on TV around this time last year. Then I made time to watch the series earlier his year. After finishing the first two episodes, three things were made clear:

  1.  The sexually explicit scenes in almost every episode explained why no cable network picked it up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some things were toned down just so Netflix would carry it.
  2. It is telling a unique story during an interesting point in the Far East’s history. Kublai Khan and Marco Polo were real people though this Marco Polo is clearly fictionalized. Given the historical account of his travels in China is unknown 800 years later, the show does a pretty good job with it in my opinion. More on this in a bit.
  3. I can’t wait to see Season 2 when it is released this summer!

Like I mentioned above, the historical record regarding Marco Polo’s travels in China and Mongolia are disputed. I did some searching on Wikipedia and other websites and the only “proof” we have of Polo’s exploits are his accounts, which are inconsistent. There is no Chinese account of Polo and so his account is generally taken with a grain of salt for this reason. We do know that he was acquainted with Kublai Khan, who was ruler of China and founder of the Yang Dynasty at the time. In short, the real Marco Polo had to have went to China to know some of the things he knew. Historians on both sides of the debate do agree he likely exaggerated his “importance” to the Khan of Khans.

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…Why am I bringing this up? Because Polo’s biggest inconsistency–Polo’s claim of sharing his knowledge of catapaults with the Mongols, allowing them to take Xiangyang–happens according to Polo’s account in the series. I’m willing to excuse it since the series is a fictional account of Marco Polo in general. That said, for those who don’t know the history Kublai took Xiangyang by the time Marco first visited China.

Moving on, Marco is much older in the series–I’d say about 10 years older–and he is by himself. The real Marco traveled with his father and uncle across Asia. The series opens with the three and their merchant group getting ambushed by Mongol soldiers. The Europeans are brought before Kublai Khan. Marco’s father offers his son in exchange for letting him and his brother go, which the Khan of Khan accepts. If you think that’s some messed-up parenting, you’re right and it gets worse: Later in the season when Marco’s father and uncle return to see him, all three are arrested when it is revealed the Polo Brothers were trying to smuggle silkworms out of China.  Marco narrowly escapes punishment though his father and uncle are branded and banished from the realm–by Marco.

Getting back to the siege of Xiangyang. In the series, things get complicated for Marco: After an incursion into the walled city to gather intel backfires, Marco is imprisoned and accused of treason. It is while he is in prison he sketches a Trebuchet on the floor of his cell, offering it as the key to taking the city Kublai has had his eyes on for some time. The series takes alot of creative liberties–let’s be honest, alot of things had to be fictionalized to make it work–but every effort is made to keep the feel of it historically accurate.

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One of the biggest draws for me was easily the character development. Several stories are happening to bring the time period alive. Marco Polo may be the main character but he doesn’t dominate screen time. Hence the above graph. A few things I can’t help but highlight–and be warned, there are MAJOR spoilers–include:

  • Mei Lin’s daughter Ling Ling being revealed as the daughter of the late Emperor Song. His 5 year-old son is crowned Emperor, whose wareabouts after the fall of Xiangyang are presently unknown. Empress Chabi realizes this after asking the girl about her parents and suddenly the Khante is much closer to solidifying its control of its new territory. It also helps said girl is in the care of Empress Chabi. Hmm…
  • Mei Lin herself is at the mercy of the Mongol empress despite knowing her daughter is alive, well and very closeby. She likely doesn’t yet know her brother is dead any less than her brother knew Ling Ling had been smuggled out of the city. She may be the key to the Khanate’s prosperity…if she cooperates, that is.
  • Crown Prince Jingim finally recognizing Marco in the final moments of the season was a powerful moment. He stuck to his beliefs to the very end and that was something I loved about his growth throughout the season.
  • Kaidu suddenly breaking ties with Kublai is clearly setting the stage for conflict in season 2. You can be sure his daughter and future son in law will have their loyalties tested by both sides.
  • “Kokachin” is in a bit of a bind: Not only is she in love with a man she knows won’t be allowed to marry, she may be pregnant as well. If this turns out to be true, she could be killed. Things are made even more perilous given both people who knew her true identity were killed off, one by her own hands.  She is a political pawn but the question is whose?
  • Hundred Eyes–until the final episode, I had no idea he was actually blind. The 30-minute special that takes place 3 years before the start of the series explains how he first met Kublai and why he’s blind. It helps make his character feel less like a Mary Sue as he had to retrain himself to fight without the use of his eyes. It is also revealed he was the one who named the crown prince Jingim, meaning “Golden One”.
  • Kublai Khan is quite an interesting guy. On the one hand, his is portrayed as embracing knowledge and cultures from The West. On the other hand, the brutality and debauchery the Khans were known for during their respectful rule are not glossed over: He has Chinese prisoners maimed the night before the siege of Xiangyang.

Season 2 is sure to be interesting when it is released this summer. No doubt it will pick up where the first season left off. I look forward to seeing how it goes ^_^

 

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