marco polo kublai khan

Marco Polo fails to be Game of Thrones, but improves as it finds itself.

The newest Netflix original series, Marco Polo is loosely based on the early life of the historical traveler and merchant. Set in Asia in the late 13th century, a young Marco Polo is offered by his father to the Mongol ruler, Kublai Khan, in exchange for the freedom to trade along the Silk Road. Over the course of the first season, Polo adapts to Mongolian and Chinese cultures while politics and deception play out around him.

Marco Polo is a disappointment, especially when compared to other recent Netflix series like House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black. The show doesn’t really do anything exceptional outside of a stellar soundtrack and a consistently brilliant performance by Benedict Wong as Kublai Khan. Otherwise the show is simply acceptable, but is held back by an uninteresting lead and delusions of Game of Thrones.

Luckily, about halfway through its inaugural season, Marco Polo stops trying to be something it isn’t and starts letting its (mostly) intriguing cast of characters carry the show. It helps that the title character doesn’t seem to take up as much screen time, because nearly every other character is more interesting and has a bigger impact on the story. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely viewers will make it to the much better second half.

Netflix has seen success with most of its original series, thanks in part to the company’s wealth of data on its users and insight into what they watch and why. This information informed the company’s decision to pick up David Fincher’s House of Cards, but Marco Polo seems conceptualized on getting in on the Game of Thrones audience. However, the show fails to capture the spirit of what makes Game of Thrones work and fails to establish its own voice until the later episodes.

The streaming giant spent $90 million producing the first season’s ten episodes, which is double the cost per episode the company put into its other drama series. Given Marco Polo’s lackluster first season, there may likely not be a second, which is disappointing because by the end, I was rather invested in many of the characters. Just not Marco Polo himself.

marco polo on a horse

Finding Focus

Marco Polo is heavily dependent on two things: daddy issues and sex. There’s nothing inherently wrong with using these things to motivate your characters, but it’s all about presentation. Marco’s early obsession with a father who was absent most of his life is questionable, but luckily it doesn’t take up too much time. Rather, his relationship with his surrogate father, Kublai Khan, is much more important to the show. In turn, Kublai is constantly struggling with the legacy of his grandfather, Gengis, and his own sons. The show actually handles all these dynamics brilliantly.

Conversely, sex is not given anywhere near as much attention, even if it dominates the screen for the first half of the season. Women’s bodies are displayed for the viewer’s pleasure rather than the visuals and settings supporting the narrative: Marco Polo isn’t trying to convey the debauchery of a brothel so much as it’s trying to grab audiences’ attention with nudity.

Once Marco Polo stops trying so hard, though, it becomes a much better show. Granted, it isn’t groundbreaking or anything, but the last half of the season is consistently enjoyable once it decides to just be Marco Polo. It becomes easier to see all the show does right. There are interesting characters, exciting fight sequences, gorgeous landscapes (there’s a surprising amount of variety in “desolate”), and some amazing music (even if you don’t watch the series, you should check out the score).

Not a History Lesson

Not surprisingly, Marco Polo does not get hung up on being true to history, but the source material actually allows for that. Much of the history and lore about Polo is based on manuscripts of varying length, detail, and content, and many details are unconfirmed. The character in the series is a blend of history and myth with the big budget demands giving him a the skills of a warrior.

The rest of the cast is also modified to fit the epic setting (everybody was kung fu fighting) but many of the characters are significant players from Kublai Khan’s history. Some are shifted around chronologically to bring them into the story and some events are modified for drama. For instance, a duel early in the season was actually a four year civil war which occurred before Polo’s arrival.

kublai khan with advisors in court marco polo

The Wrath of Khan

The characters of Marco Polo are the reason you’ll want a second season.

Marco Polo (Lorenzo Richelmy) is the exception to that. He just isn’t interesting or relatable. Polo mostly runs around, working with more colorful characters and staring blankly at them (sometimes he looks a little scared). The only times he actively does anything is when he is defending himself or pursuing a woman he became interested in because they looked at each other. Maybe it’s the script, maybe it’s because Richelmy doesn’t bring anything to the character, but it’s probably both. Too bad his name is in the title, because this would be a much better show without him taking up so much screen time.

Kublai Khan (Benedict Wong) is another story entirely. You may remember Wong from The IT Crowd or Sunshine, but this role is completely different. Not only is the character written as a complex, compelling figure of power and compassion bearing enourmous responsibility, Wong brings so much wisdom, nuance, and passion to the character that upsets everything you may expect from his position and appearance. Simply put, this character and his actor is wasted on this show.

Kublai struggles with maintaining the image of Mongolian strength while he recognizes the value of Chinese wisdom as he attempts to conquer all of China. The walled city of Xianyang stands in his way, just as it did his grandfather, Gengis. Xianyang is Kublai’s white whale.

His relationships with his family and advisors are similarly complex and fleshed out and Wong gives so much to the rest of the cast, and all of their characters are better for it. Hell, even the “whiny rich son” of his is a great character whose internal struggle feels valid and his story intimate. Pretty much everyone in this show except the title character is fantastic and their actors deserve attention. There are a few to mention here:

  • Hundred Eyes (Tom Wu) is a wise, blind monk and martial arts master (unlike his real life counterpart) assigned to train Marco Polo to defend himself. It’s an easy archetype to make awesome and one we’ve seen done a hundred times, but hey, this guy is great.
  • Jia Sidao (Chin Han) serves as the primary antagonist for most of the season. The chancellor of the Song Empire based in Xianyang, Sidao is wicked and vile, but he has moments that humanize him without breaking character. It’s a difficult balance, but Han does so quite well. The character is, however, an inexplicably amazing warrior, but I guess we’ll let go of that illogical leap.
  • Khutulun (Claudia Kim) is the Ygritte of this show, and is apparently the most realistic fictional interpretation of the historical woman. A warrior woman, Khutulun is a niece of Kublai Khan who challenges suitors to wrestling matches for her hand in marriage. Her father, Kaidu (Rick Yune) is also a fantastic character that should play a major role in the unlikely event a second season occurs.

Bottom Line: The first half of Marco Polo is plagued with identity issues and wich is unfortunate, because once the show gains focus, it’s actually enjoyable to watch. Also: great music, great characters, and Benedict Wong.

Recommendation: Skip it, unfortunately, unless you have the free time, an interest in the setting, and are willing to push through the poor first half.

[rating=2.5]

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