After the first season of Marco Polo, Wendy and I talked at length about it and agreed it was a show we both loved. Now with the second season available on Netflix, the WWAC crew gathered to voice our opinions on the first three episodes.
It’s a new season! What are your general thoughts of it so far?
Jo: “Marco Polo, Season 2: this time, it’s personal.” I binge-watched the whole season, and the biggest difference I found was that Season 1 featured a lot of actions and dialogue that were justified with “this is our culture.” Season 2 took a look at characters’ backgrounds, and gave a lot of personal justifications for their words and deeds.
Ardo: I’m loving it! I really enjoy watching the characters getting pushed into corners and seeing how they react to/grow from it. Speaking of growth, I forgot that there has been a lot of it since the start of season one and you can see it in characters like Jingim. I’m also really enjoying the performances. Benedict Wong needs an Emmy nom along with most of the cast!
Megan: I binged the whole show this season and loved it up so vociferously on Twitter that I won it several new fans. Like the first season there are a few regrettable plot threads, but the rest earn it enough credit that I’m willing to suffer through them. I also appreciate how tightly written the season is overall, with plenty of callbacks to season one and within the season itself, and how quickly it moves. There is not one episode that doesn’t give the audience movement and development. Its comparatively short run of ten episodes (each for seasons one and two) is such a blessing in this respect — by the third episode the show’s already given us at least three shocking moments.
Kat: Okay, I haven’t binged the whole season, but I am up to episode three and it has been a really great dive back in. Season 1 set up a grand political chessboard, and now we’re learning about how the personal is political is personal. I’m enjoying how this season opened right in the thick of the action — while I grew to appreciate the pacing of the first season, the story for this season seems much more frenetic.
This season so far is exploring hard choices in the name of leadership and survival. There have been quite a few in the first three episodes alone with Kublai Khan, Empress Chabi and Kaidu. Did you agree with any of their choices?
Jo: Honestly, it’s a little hard to reconcile the Chabi and Kublai of season 1 with the surrogate parents who get real upset about the Boy Emperor in S2. These are people who have destroyed whole villages and done a bunch of terrible stuff in the name of empire. Remember “Rendering,” from Season 1?
Ardo: I think it’s easier for them to take lives of adults and/or during the heat of war. However the war is over and they’ve been asked to kill a child despite that fact. I totally get the optics of that decision but it kills something in you to do that to a CHILD based on what ifs. In the end, the Chinese people still rioted so it was all for nothing. Kublai is ruthless but his style of governing requires a level of compassion that makes decisions like the one he made hard. I was really upset with what the Empress did to Kokachin and it was hard watching Kaidu having to choose between his morals and winning but it feel like this is just the kind of world that’s being set up for us this season.
Megan: I agree, Ardo. Kublai was especially affected by killing the boy emperor because he was a boy. As in season one there’s a lot of time spent meditating on legacy, leadership and ethics — Kublai wants to believe that he is the best and only possible leader of the Mongol empire, Ghengis’ true heir. He wants to be a leader who is both fierce and compassionate, feared and respected — and loved unreservedly by his family, if not all his subjects. He finds Chabi’s criticisms particularly hard to take and new protege Marco’s minor “betrayals” infuriate him. Kublai needs hugs, guys. No, seriously, I think he wants Chabi to hug him more.
But as for the choices Kublai, Chabi and Kaidu have made, I think it’s telling that they all involve a heavy dose of cruelty and ethical compromise for what they imagine to be the greater good, but which is also self-serving. There were harder roads each of these characters could have walked but they chose to do what they imagine to be “the hard thing.” The difficulty is just their personal guilt — and whatever unintended consequences come of their decisions.
Ardo: There a lot of daddy issues in Marco Polo and Kublai’s hugging needs stem from that. He needs to let Chabi hug him.
Kat: I also think the personal connection is what makes this the hard choice for Kublai and Chabi — the season opens with Kublai as a child, contrasted with the small emperor we already know. He isn’t a respected adversary or personally a threat — yet. He’s utterly defenseless, where we already saw growing political resentments in young Kublai. He is innocent in a way that the Khan was just not ready to confront face-to-face.
There are new faces like Kaidu’s mother who he seeks counsel from and Michelle Yeoh’s bad ass fighter, Lotus. So many women of power but there have also been women stripped of their power even by other women! What are thoughts on the women of Marco Polo?
Jo: There’s something that I love about Marco Polo, and I didn’t put my finger on it until this question: it makes women in power very accessible. Lotus is very easy to empathize with, and Kaidu’s mother gives a very reasonable explanation for her hatred of Kublai and Chabi. Even at her worst, Chabi’s motivations are comprehensible.
Megan: While Marco Polo has lots of wonderful female characters of different ages and positions, I think the show has consistently bungled Kokachin/Nergui’s story. Unlike Mei Lin, who consistently has agency even in the most limited circumstances, Kokachin is, well, entrapped and the chains keep getting tighter and tighter. It’s stands out so much because every other female character exerts so much will on the direction of the story. Kaidu’s mother, Shabkana, and Empress Chabi are playing their own game of thrones and heirs, mirror to Kaidu and Kublai’s. Khutulun, Mei Lin and Lotus are all fiercely powerful on a personal level — intelligent and great fighters — but they’re also politically astute, driven and don’t hesitate to act.
I love the women of Marco Polo and I love that they’re more than heroines, villains and victims. They’re complex: not one of them is wholly admirable, but neither are any of them wholly monstrous.
Ardo: I totally agree. I also wonder if Kokachin’s lack of agency stems from not being royalty and how that lie has painted her into a corner. Does it means she lacks the skills that these women of varying degrees of power have to do anything beyond surviving?
Kat: I don’t know that I agree that Kokachin’s story is necessarily a misstep — not that I like seeing her stripped of agency, but because I think it’s yet another facet of the life these women are leading. Not every woman is going to be strong or in control at all times in their story. One of the things that’s so refreshing about Marco Polo is that it presents a wide array of ways women can be strong or powerful — it’s not just fighting prowess that brings a woman power in this world. Beyond that, men are written to acknowledge different strengths in the women characters — women aren’t left in the backroom shadows with hidden political strength. That makes me think of Kokachin’s story as a contrast, and her lack of agency feels authentic, rather than exploitative to me. Ardo, I think she does lack a lot of the skills those who were brought up in the court have, and it shows in how she doesn’t have the arsenal to protect herself yet.
Megan: What’s interesting though is that Chabi was not born royal. She had to learn all those skills — but as of the start of the season, she’s not particularly sympathetic toward Kokachin’s struggles.
Marco has been upgraded to Mongol Knight and has become the Khan’s most trusted confidant. What does this status increase mean for Marco in this world especially with the other characters being pushed farther and farther away from the Khan’s good graces? How do you feel about Marco this season so far and has it changed from last season?
Jo: Oh, Marco. These episodes (and this season) are a challenge to Marco’s dedication to his surrogate dad. With Kokachin spoken for and Jingim fully on team Marco, he seems to be in the thrall of Kublai’s decisiveness more than anything else. What does Marco want? What is he working for? At episode three, it was kind of a mystery, and by the end of season 2, I had no idea anymore.
Megan: Marco is still Marco, I think. Not quite in charge of his own fate and confused when he’s given too many choices. Jo, I like that you say he’s in thrall with Kublai’s decisiveness — because he really does find Kublai compelling. Even when he disagrees with his choices, forces Marco to do unpleasant things, or outright turns on him, Marco still finds Kublai kind of… irresistible. Kublai is of course a great leader and story teller and a powerful man who holds sway directly over Marco’s life and successes, but he’s also a father figure for a man who was ignored and then sold by his birth father. Because Marco had to work so hard for the Khan’s esteem, to become more than his pet, Marco is even more tightly bound to him.
The problem for Marco, though, is that he’s still an outsider. That’s great for us because it makes for a better story, one that’s thoroughly crushed any hints of Mighty Whitey or White Saviour tropes. Marco is one of our protagonists and while he’ll go on to tell his story in The Travels of Marco Polo, he’s never, not there or on Marco Polo, the hero. Was he a “knight” in real life? Prrrobably not, but if The Travels of Marco Polo are at all accurate, he certainly did have a role in the court and was close to the Khan. I guess I’m ok with his knighting as a symbol of the growing trust between Marco and Kublai, and because it provides a convenient excuse for Marco to get involved in all sorts of plots he wouldn’t likely be part of otherwise.
Ardo: Yup. So far, I like that Marco isn’t taking up more space than is required and it feels like his presence as an outsider offers great conflict FOR the other characters. Like Megan said, we know that he’ll go back to write The Travels of Marco Polo but this is a story about a Khan trying to outdo but also honour the legacy of his famous grandfather. I think Mongol Knight Marco means more ways for his presence to cause agitation for members of the court. *cough* Chabi *cough*
Kat: I am pretty intrigued at Marco basically existing so characters can talk at him in the first three episodes. He makes a great sounding board for the Khan, but he could also be a manifestation of the Khan’s conscience in the third episode. I think I feel more sympathetic to him this season — he just wants to be loved! Or drunk. Either/or. I think being made knight is something the Khan feels very sincerely about, but also another way for Marco’s head to be done in, just a little. But I’m also the least invested in his character, and I enjoy that the show directly has Mei Lin call him out as someone who might imagine themselves a white savior. His big dumb feelings for Kokachin are definitely going to cause trouble, and I wonder if that’s going to be a little too much for that one plotline to handle. But I will have to finish up the season to find out!