Marco Polo | Netflix (2014)Marco Polo is an epic adventure that follows the early years of the famous explorer as he travels the exotic Silk Road to the great Kublai Khan’s court. But Marco soon finds that navigating the Khan’s world of greed, betrayal, sexual intrigue, and rivalry will be his greatest challenge yet, even as he becomes a trusted companion to the Khan in his violent quest to become the Emperor of the World.

Netflix

Ardo

I’m joined by my fellow WWAC writer, Wendy, to discuss Netflix’s new original series: Marco Polo. As you can see above in the synopsis provided by Netflix, it’s a show that takes place during the rule of the Mongol Khan of Khans, Kublai Khan, who is the grandson of the famous Genghis Khan. It’s almost entirely made up of non-white characters and our window into this part of the world is the young Venetian, Marco Polo.

I’m going to put a slight spoiler warning right up front for those who haven’t seen the show. It’s only minor stuff but if you want zero spoilers then I suggest returning to this post after you’ve seen the first season.

So Wendy, what are your overall thoughts on the series and, most importantly, would you say it’s binge-able?

Wendy

Absolutely binge-able! In fact, I liked it so much that I told my husband about it and rewatched the first episode with him that same night, continuing on together for the rest. I have recommended it to all of my like-minded friends and have enjoyed the conversations it has sparked. That’s not to say it does not have its flaws, but there were also many things it does right. I stayed up several nights to watch just one more episode when I should have gone to bed. The final episode definitely left me wanting more.

One of the things that annoyed me when I began watching it was the comparison to Game of Thrones that has been floating around the internet. I suppose it’s a typical reaction to compare an epic period piece to the previous popular epic period piece, but I feel that Marco Polo stands well on its own without that comparison, and does many things a lot better. Not the least of which is the portrayal of women, despite it being set within a patriarchal society. I am frustrated with critiques that complain about the female nudity and brothels and seem to only address the first few episodes. I have no issues with female sexuality when portrayed well and contextually. While there are some elements that are unsurprisingly played up somewhat for entertainment value, it is nowhere near the level of titillation that appears right out of the gates in Game of Thrones. Most importantly, rape is not a major plot device. And the women hold power well beyond the bedroom. Empress Chabi (Joan Chen) is particularly impressive as the woman who holds the Great Khan’s ear and heart. The Great Khan may rule, but everyone knows that he does not do so alone. Empress Chabi’s role in major decisions, from war to which women are selected for her husband’s harem, is impossible to ignore.

Joan Chen, Zhu Zhu, Marco Polo, Netflix, Empress Chabi, Kokachin, 2014. Photo by Phil Bray.

Empress Chabi and Kokachin, the Blue Princess

Ardo

I completely agree. You’ve brought up a few good points. I really enjoyed this show and the negatives were small. You touched on the response of the TV critics and I have to say that this is the first time where my views and theirs are night and day. It’s mind boggling because the critics have unanimously written this show off as awful, while myself and many other viewers have thoroughly enjoyed the series. “Binge-proof” was what some of the critics called it, which was NOT the case for me. I watched that first season in a few days and would have done it in one if I didn’t have a life getting in the way.

The comparisons to Game of Thrones need to stop. It seems like if a show is set in the past with a horse and some swords, it’s automatically a Game of Thrones look alike. Marco Polo is a character-driven show that spends more time on relationships than battles. The major difference between this show and Game of Thrones is that it’s based on real people and historical events. You won’t be getting supernatural elements as a threat or the thrill of “anyone can die!” in Marco Polo.

It also has two great advantages over Game of Thrones: the role of women and diversity. I agree with you in regards to the use of nudity and  brothels. As seen in the trailers, there’s a fight scene where the female character is nude which I’m sure would turn off many viewers but the context is important. Nudity is shown throughout the series to be a means to an end: as a mechanism of survival and as a way of reclaiming and exerting power. Rape is not used as a plot device! You have no idea how happy that makes me. Lastly, as you’ve mentioned, Empress Chabi and Mei Lin are examples of complex women and I’d also throw in Kokachin, Khutulun, Jing Fei and the Empress Dowager as part of a full spectrum of three dimensional, nuanced, fascinating women who elevate the series.

Wendy

Some of the statistical criticisms have been based on the poor initial Twitter response of only 2400 tweets when the show was released, comparing it to other shows that have significant livetweet mentions well into the tens of thousands. I find this comparison, as with many other comparisons, to be unfair. Netflix is not readily available to everyone, and by its very nature, is a medium that people will watch at their leisure. To compare it to a show that has a scheduled air date that people are more likely to watch at the moment of its airing is ridiculous.

Ardo

I didn’t know this show existed until you told me about it and I have a Netflix subscription! Also, you can’t livetweet every show. Some aren’t built for that and basing the success of a show on that is ridiculous. Honestly, livetweeting can make you miss things sometimes so it was a blessing in disguise, personally, because I could just sit and watch. I was sucked into this world and what a beautiful world it is.

Wendy

I  didn’t know about the show either until someone else told me about it. Isn’t that how Netflix works? 😉

I agree in regard to livetweeting. I enjoy doing it, but certain shows require attention and this is one of them because it relies more on subtlety than flashy moments — which is, perhaps, why some critics find it boring. It’s a show that respects its audience by assuming they are willing and able to pay attention to both what is said and what is unsaid, without having to spell everything out for them. The moment that truly sold me was one shared by Kublai Khan and his brother the night before a pivotal battle. The level of emotion portrayed within just a few minutes, much of which was filled with silence, was so incredibly moving.

Kublai Khan and Ariq Böke

Kublai Khan and Ariq Böke

Ardo

I agree. I think what Hundred Eyes says in episode three mirrors that: “In Kung Fu we say, ‘one hand lies, the other hand tells the truth’.” Words are a vehicle for misdirection and the silence of what isn’t being said is usually is where truth lies. There are plenty of vipers in this show, which is unsurprising where power is concerned, so it’s interesting to watch what the characters aren’t saying as much as what they are saying. Of course, power can mean everything from ruling over others to retrieving or maintaining the limited, everyday power you have.

I have to say that Hundred Eyes is one of my top faves in this series and he’s a blind kung fu master which is just awesome. The show is filled with many Middle Eastern and Asian philosophies which lends to fantastic moments like the one where Hundred Eyes asks what Marco Polo will tell his fellow Westerners about the word “kung fu” if he makes it back home. Will he tell them the ill informed definition of “to fight”? Will he dress it up with technical terms? Or will he define it in terms of the culture that created it?

Wendy
Marco Polo | Netflix (2014)

Marco Polo and Hundred Eyes

Hundred Eyes. So perfect. But there is another place where the critics befuddle me because they seem to think that having a Kung Fu master train Marco Polo is playing on Asian stereotypes. Based on the trailer alone, I can understand the concern, however, I’ve learned that it is unwise to judge a show, movie, or video game by a trailer alone. It may present what appears to be ham-fisted cliches, but the series truly must be watched in its entirety before making this the final judgment.

Princess Khutulan.

Princess Khutulan.

Marco Polo presents Kublai Khan as a man who values knowledge in its many forms, of which martial arts is one. It is not something that he expects everyone in his court to learn, but he does expect Polo to be capable of defending himself. Though not as prominent as the time spent with Hundred Eyes, Polo is also trained in horse mastery, which is a significant element of Mongolian culture, as is, Bökh, Mongolia’s style of fighting.

 

Ardo

Personally, I don’t like to say whether or not a racial and/or ethnic group, which is not my own, is correct in their protest of how they’re depicted in the media. On your point regarding martial arts, I completely agree with you. Stereotypes rely on oversimplification of a person or a people, and this show is far more complex than it’s being given credit for. What you said about Kublai’s value of knowledge is spot on, but he also values culture, which I found fascinating. Kublai is a ruler who allows those he conquers to maintain their culture and religion and goes as far as to learn more about them. He makes sure to educate Marco on kung fu as not only a form of a defence but also as a way of life. He also informs him of the Mongol laws and culture, because ignorance is a fantastic way to get killed. I also think it’s more than just equipping Marco in this world. It ensures that he gets a non-simplified version of his experience with the Mongols. This approach is likely to combat stereotypes rather than create them. It’s one of the reasons why Kublai is a way more interesting ruler than the European rulers we’re so often exposed to. That’s also where the diversity of the show comes to play.

Wendy

It was such a pleasant surprise to see a show that features actual Asian (and Middle Eastern) people in Asia. While I understand that not everyone playing Mongolian characters are actually Mongolian actors. I don’t excuse the creators for their poor efforts in this area, and can certainly understand why many Asian viewers would take issue with it. While Marco Polo might bring Mongolian culture into greater light for a wider audience, it is doing so falsely by including so few Mongolian representatives, and many may view this is a further silencing of other Asian cultures. Ironically, the issue of heavy Chinese influence over Mongolian culture is constantly addressed, particularly through Khan’s son, Jingim, who has been educated in Chinese politics and philosophy, and struggles to earn the respect of his people because of it. Still, this is such a far cry from Hollywood’s typical whitewashing. Even Polo himself is not your basic blond and blue eyed American. Lorenzo Richelmy is an Italian actor, largely unknown to North American audiences until now.

Marco Polo. Netflix. 2014. Lorenzo Richelmy.

Ardo

Fun Fact! Lorenzo Richelmy didn’t actually know any English when he got cast for the show and was taught the language alongside getting training for the role.

Wendy

In fact, despite him being the titular character, Polo is not the focus of the show. It was not until episode five, “Hashshashin,” that Polo gets to truly play the lead. When Kublai Khan (Benedict Wong) is on screen, there is room for little else. He owns the character and the screen, as only a Khan of Khans could. Still, all the characters are well defined and intriguing in their own unique ways.

There is concern that Polo will be the “great white messiah,” here to save the Khan from himself. Toward the end, I was somewhat concerned about this, yet, because of how deeply the other characters and machinations have been developed, I feel that “the Latin’s” role as a hero to the people still teeters on the edge, and, more importantly, is overshadowed by the greater themes that have been presented.

Ardo

I was afraid that Marco was going to be the “great white messiah”as well but I think Lorenzo explained it best: his character is more of an observer than an active player. This makes sense, given the role of the real life individual but that’s not to say that Marco doesn’t offer anything to the show.

There are multiple themes here but the two big ones are father/son relationships and legacy. Marco seeks a father figure in Kublai after his own abandons him. Kublai sees a son in Marco that he doesn’t see in his actual son, Prince Jingim, while Prince Jingim struggles with gaining his father’s approval due to his Chinese upbringing being at odds with his Mongol heritage. Even Ahmed and Byamba have their own complicated father/son relationships with the Kublai as adopted and bastard sons. Of course, Kublai has his own issues with his father as someone who got drunk rather than follow in his father, Genghis Kahn’s, footsteps. This fundamental relationship seems to be the drive for many of the characters on the show and it influences their decisions throughout.

Marco Polo | Netflix (2014)

Kublai Khan’s son, Byamba.

Legacy is another big one as well, where you have Kublai’s obsession with conquering the walled Chinese capital as an overarching purpose for him in season one. What pushes that obsession is the need to surpass his grandfather’s legacy finally and cementing his own since the wall was the one thing Genghis couldn’t get through before he did. You can also read it as a way to make up for his own father’s laziness in creating his own legacy. You have characters with similar drives such as Chancellor Jia Sidao and Ahmed who want overcome their stations in life while someone like Mei Lin has succeeded in becoming well known but ultimately desires anonymity for the sake of raising her daughter.

Mei Lin. Marco Polo. 2014. Olivia Cheng.

Mei Lin

Wendy

I am by no means a history buff, and as I understand it, this story strays in many ways for the sake of entertainment. I will not fault it for that, and my friends who do know far more about the history have been pleased thus far with the historical references it does touch on. One friend mentioned The Secret History of The Mongol Queens, which actress Joan Chen apparently read in preparation for her role.

Ardo

I’m not surprised nor do I expect the show to follow the history to its details. It’s nice to know that the creator, John Fusco, is so passionate and knowledgeable of not just this point in history but with that area of the world as well. I want to check out that book because Empress Chabi is another one of my favourites and Joan Chen is fantastic in the role. What are your last thoughts on the show, Wendy? We’re talked about the good but do you have anything not so great about the show that stands out?

Wendy

Frankly, I find many of the complaints from critics to be simplistic and based on just a few episodes, or even just the trailer and have therefore not given the show a chance to prove itself to be more than just a boring Game of Thrones or a mishmash of tropes. Perhaps the fault lies in the level of programming that currently exists, which does rely too heavily on stereotypes, titillation, and shock value. Perhaps, even as the comparisons to Game of Thrones are made, the critics have been jaded by such shows, and thereby fail to appreciate the subtlety and depth of Marco Polo.

Overall, I am very pleased and, considering where this season ended for some of my favourite characters, I cannot wait to find out what happens next. As I said, it has its flaws, but they are not the ones listed by critics that I feel have glossed over the show, or seen one or two elements that other shows portray poorly and decided to lump Marco Polo in with the rest. It is a series that I will continue to recommend in hopes that people will overlook the negativity and try it out for themselves. Television needs more of the kind of depth and diversity Marco Polo offers.

Ardo

I agree. I don’t know what the critics are smoking because I don’t see the issues they’ve pointed out. In fact, I don’t see any real flaws that I can write down to be honest. No show is perfect and I’m sure that I can nitpick things the second viewing but I’m really happy with the show. Diversity has been a huge discussion in terms of the media we digest and I’d love to see more shows like this on the major networks and cable companies. Not just diversity of the people on the screen or the story being told but diverse approach to storytelling as well. Maybe we can explore past our western aesthetics.

To end this chat, I’ll leave you with Hundred Eyes played wonderfully by Tom Wu.

Hundred Eyes. Tom Wu. Marco Polo. 2014. From tripstapix.com.