Marco Polo Season Two arrived without a lot of fanfare for me. It popped up in Netflix about a week before the entire season was available, and I was excited for it. Netflix doesn’t release their viewing numbers, but the show was renewed after the first season quickly despite mostly negative professional reviews and the budget of an on location costume drama. And I’m hoping for a Season Three.
Below will be some spoilers for season one and two as my alter ego and I chat. Ye have been warned.
Hanna: MARCO POLO IS BACK AND HAS BEAUTIFUL COSTUMES!
Theresa: The costuming is lovely and even occasionally accurate. Those headdresses!
Hanna: Those headdresses indeed!
Theresa: Now, we have a whole season of tv to talk about. So we should probably get into it.
Hanna: Yes! Okay. This season History seems to have been sacrificed for Shakespearean style family drama.
Theresa: Not that the first season was terribly historically accurate in the first place.
Hanna: No, but the main thrust of the first season — the fall of the Song Dynasty at the siege of Xiangyang did at least happen. The main thread this season was the conflict between Kublai and Kaidu — who did fight each other off and on for thirty odd years — but I believe that 1) a kurultai does not function like vote of no confidence 2) Kaidu outlived Kublai. Anyway, it was weaker historically speaking.
Theresa: And did this bother us?
Hanna: It did not.
Theresa: You’re usually a bit more of a stickler for these things. Why the pass?
Hanna: Because — weirdly — the history they reference is surprisingly accurate. The story about Genghis’ eldest son’s legitimacy, the story about Genghis being born with a blood clot in his hand, etc… Those nods to the actual history assure me that the writers have actually done their research, even if it’s not in evidence in the plotting this season.
Theresa: Mongolian history is intense.
Hanna: It is. And I strongly recommend Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History to those of you interested in the subject. Unfortunately, he stops right as Kublai is taking the reigns, but it’s fascinating.
Theresa: So, history aside. Shakespearean family drama?
Hanna: We’ve got Empress Chabi machinating like a maternal Lady Macbeth, Kublai pulling a bit of a King Lear by listening to Ahmad and while Khutulun is doing a Cordelia bit with her dad, star-crossed love for Hundred Eyes, poor Kokachin pulling an Ophelia, and Ahmad doing an excellent Iago impression.
Theresa: Which leaves the titular Marco Polo?
Hanna: As… umm… around?
Theresa: Not exactly what you expect from a protagonist.
Hanna: And yet, I love that about the show. Master Polo bobs in and out for important and less important moments, and is our observer. He’s gotten better at the hand to hand combat, but he’s still no match for the local masters1. By keeping him peripheral the show avoids certain tropes.2
Theresa: I’d have been sad if we didn’t get to see Hundred Eyes knock him over at least once.
Hanna: Here, here. Speaking of Hundred Eyes.
Hanna: I did not love his subplot with Michelle Yeoh — mostly because I did not love Michelle Yeoh in this. Maybe it’s because I recently watched the sequel to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, maybe it’s that they insisted on some slow motion in her fights or maybe it’s just that she plays the same two expressions the whole time, but I was not a fan.
Theresa: Sigh for the slow motion in the battle scenes.
Hanna: *grumpy face* Just let the choreography do the work, friends. The choreography was good — when you could see it.
Theresa: And distinct. The characters all fought differently — Jingim, Byamba, Marco, Hundred Eyes, Marco’s Father, Mei Lin and Khutulun — which is both reasonable and approval worthy.
Hanna: Let’s see… Although the first battle with Mei Lin, Lotus (Michelle Yeoh) and Marco is fun, and Marco’s brief bout with Hundred Eyes is also entertaining, I think I have to go with the enormous battle between the crusaders and the Mongols as being my favorite. From the terrifying inception of the battle to the small dramas in the midst of the bloodletting, it was an impressive bit of work. Props to Marco and Byamba teaming up. With Kokachin pregnant, I was actually worried about Jingim and Khutulun not making it through the battle.
Theresa: Expected more of a reaction from Khutulun when her brother’s face was smashed in.
Hanna: Yes — though her slow disillusionment with her family was good. I was surprised she ended up on Kaidu’s side when it came to the bitter end, but I don’t feel like that was particularly weak or strong in the story department.
Theresa: I think we need to get Ahmad.
Hanna: Ah, yes. Our villain for the season.
Theresa: End of season one told us that.
Hanna: And they followed through. Pros: He’s subtle. He’s been a bit of a warmonger and bloodthirsty for both seasons and as he pushes the Khan towards bad decisions he makes sense AND he admits when he was ‘wrong’. He bails at the right time — bless him — and his last moment with Chabi broke my heart. For the most part, he’s smart. He gets a magnificent cape. His motivation takes us from the realm of Shakespeare to full on Greek tragedy.3 Cons: Can we please not use BDSM as an indicator of evil? Like seriously.
Theresa: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a healthy BDSM relationship depicted between non-evil characters in a mainstream tv show or film?
Hanna: If you haven’t, then I haven’t.
Theresa: Any other negatives for Ahmad?
Hanna: I don’t love that the only Middle Eastern character is the villain, which brings us to race and representation in Marco Polo.
Theresa: Yes. We’d be remiss if we didn’t point out that there are a handful of Asian stereotypes that get perpetuated in the show.
Hanna: Namely in the form of harems, courtesans and blind monks who can kick everybody’s ass.
Theresa: You can read about that here.
Hanna: On the other hand, this is a mainstream American show with a big budget staring almost all actors of Asian descent. Take a look here for thoughts on that.
Theresa: Did you have anything you’d like to say further on that topic?
Hanna: I fall on the side of thinking that one of the best ways we can improve diversity is by avoiding the “one of each” theory — one girl, one POC, etc… — so that the burden of being the face of your group is spread out4. I’m much more willing to go with a whiny damsel in distress or an over-the-top punch-your-problems Strong Female badass if they are not the only women in a story. So while I could get into picking through the problems in representation in Marco Polo, I think it’s more constructive to say: “We’ve a ways to go, but it’s a great cast. More and better, please and thank you.” I’m also quite open to correction on this. What do you think?
Theresa: I think that we’ve got Dr. Strange and Iron Fist on the way.
Hanna: Irrelevant — we ought to stay specific. But ouch.
Theresa: Possibly relevant, but let’s move on.
Hanna: Yes, lets. Hmmm… What’s left to talk about?
Theresa: A quick character run down?
Hanna: Sure. Marco?
Theresa: Polo!5 Interested to see how he reacts to Kokachin’s death, continue to be pleased with him and his slightly off center place in the show. Kublai?
Hanna: Ah! Morally ambiguous heroic figure. A good chunk of Marco Polo’s role in the show is demonstrating Kublai’s charisma, and it weirdly pays off. Kublai continues scary and imposing. I am pleased he was haunted by his murder of the young Song Emperor — bringing that back with the revelation of Ahmad’s betrayal was a good touch. Hundred Eyes?
Theresa: He got an expanded character and good fight scenes which we will watch on repeat. Huzzah! Next! Empress Chabi?
Hanna: Love the role. She spends a significant portion of the season in the you’re-not-right-but-you’re-not-wrong box. What she does to Kokachin is terrible. But Jingim is infertile and without heirs things get messy. And by the way — historically Jingam dies before Kublai, and his son inherits the khanate next. Mei Lin?
Theresa: I don’t buy her abandoning her daughter after all that trouble and love, but the comments about anger spoken to Ahmad at the end were nice. Byamba?
Hanna: Adore him and hope he and Khutulun figure it out. Love his fighting style, the friction with Ahmad and his general. Glad he survived another season. Khutulun?
Theresa: Got a little same-y. She was conflicted the whole time, but I didn’t see anything that meaningfully pushed her into the dirtier side of family politics aside from plot necessity. Kaidu?
Hanna: Same? He struggled, knew it wasn’t a good way to go for power and then followed along anyway. Nayan?
Theresa: Eh? Depends on 1) if we get a third season and 2) how interesting Prester John becomes. I didn’t find him particularly compelling, but it was a solid job with the role. I guess one of the things that is most interesting to me is that there was a generation of Crusaders who thought that the Mongols were Prester John’s army. This was earlier than Marco Polo’s timeline — when the Mongols were conquering the middle east. The Crusaders did better when the empires they faced were dealing with a Mongol threat out of the east. Ummm… Jingim?
Hanna: Poor Jingim. He got interesting fight work this season and a little mustache and a crazy wife and twins. I like him. Kokachin?
Theresa: For a solid second we thought that the real Blue Princess had actually survived.
Hanna: Embarrassed to say that this is true. Kokachin’s descent into madness was bloody well done. Husband and I called the Ophelia parallel relatively early, but it’s heartbreaking to watch and justified by the various traumas she has survived. Ahmad we’ve talked about…and Lotus. Niccolo?
Theresa: That has to be Marco’s father?
Theresa: He’s the worst. Great to see him back again.
Hanna: And that’s all the main crew? I think?
Theresa: If not, then it’s close.
Hanna: Well, let’s call it and go with a closing thought or two.
Theresa: Marco Polo is visually lovely and has epic family drama.
Hanna: It’s got a handful of accents, some stilted writing and they better not have harmed any horses or sparrows in the making of this season!
Theresa: It’s got good fight work.
Hanna: It’s fun.
Theresa: It’s not Game of Thrones. And I mean that in a good way.
Hanna: Go watch the damn thing so we can talk about it. This is Hanna and Theresa signing off. G’night!
- I was worried that he was going to be able to hold his own against Michelle Yeoh’s character when they get into fisticuffs in the first episode of this season. Their engage/disengage/throat punch sequence brought such joy to my heart. This Marco Polo has been practicing his martial arts for a year or two now, so I’m fine with him showing some skills, but he’s nowhere near the best and that’s a good thing.
- I laughed at Mei Lin’s White Savior joke. Anyone? Anyone?
- To be fair, I think you could actually read the Oedipal situation as his having misremembered the song as being specific to him and that the inability to be certain if he had slept with his mother or not was enough to push him into destroying the Khan. And yes, it was clearly intended to be his mother, I just find the coincidence a bit much.
- Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s two Latinas and two black men in positions of authority are a great example of how this works.