I recently finished watching the first season of Netflix’s Marco Polo. The show has been getting some pretty heinous critical reviews, but despite all that it has a 93% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s definitely a crowd-pleaser, replete with sex and violence, and is obviously an attempt on Netflix’s part to capture some of that sweet, sweet Game of Thrones audience. It’s not a completely successful show, nor a historically accurate one, but I thoroughly enjoyed it all the same.
Minor spoilers ahoy!
First and foremost, Lorenzo Richelmy is pretty damn good. I’ve never seen this Italian actor in anything before, but I thought he was great. Maybe it’s just the accent, but I love listening to this guy talk. A good lead actor makes or breaks a show, and I don’t think the show would have worked as well if they hired a known American or British actor for the part. Richelmy really pulls you in with his idealistic naivete, and I found myself identifying closely with young Polo.
I also have to give a lot of credit to Tom Wu as Hundred Eyes the blind monk. He started out as a generic enlightened martial arts master, but over the course of the series he became my favorite character. He and Marco have great rapport immediately. In many ways Marco’s arc in the show is about devotion to father figures, and Hundred Eyes is the coolest of the surrogate dads. Hundred Eyes’ arc takes an unexpected turn halfway through when Kublai starts using him as a hitman. The blind monk’s mission becomes personally murdering Jia Sidao, and in the process he proves himself to be the raddest dude on the show.
Speaking of Sidao, he’s a worthy villain. Played by Chin Han, Sidao is evil, vindictive, and capable, a fitting antagonist for the Khan of Khans. As the leader of the Southern Song Dynasty, the last holdout against Kublai’s dominion of China, Sidao has to be ruthless to hold onto power in the walled city of Xiangyang as well as stave off Mongol attacks. He’d be sympathetic if he wasn’t a total tool who binds the feet of his own niece.
All the sets and location shots on Marco Polo are gorgeous. Netflix went all out to get Game of Thrones-level visuals, and it shows. But while the HBO show goes for the violence and sex with lurid glee, Netflix approaches it with a bit more tasteful restraint. Marco Polo is full of violence and nudity, but it’s more concerned with shot composition than gratuity. I very much appreciate its artistic approach to everything, even if at times the visuals seem to get more focus than the plot. The backdrops and cinematography establish the mystical and otherworldly nature of Mongolian China more than words ever could.
Marco Polo does suffer from strange and occasionally bad writing, unfortunately, and this is nowhere more evident than in the character of Kublai Khan, played by Benedict Wong. The Great Khan is a mercurial character, but we’re apparently supposed to respect and revere him the way Marco does. Kublai can be compassionate and wise at times, but senselessly brutal at others. His sudden mood swings are hard to predict, and by the end of the season I was weary with the character. Maybe that’s the point, though. Maybe the audience is supposed to love Kublai at first but grow disenchanted with him as time goes on, much like Marco himself.
One of my favorite plots in the first season is the assassination attempt on Kublai’s life halfway through (perpetrated by none other than the hashashin), and Marco’s quest to uncover the man behind it. Marco is joined by Kublai’s illegitimate son, Byamba, played by Uli Latukefu, and his and Marco’s relationship becomes one of the most compelling parts of the show. They’re like buddy cops who dislike each other at first, but it turns into mutual respect and eventually friendship. Unfortunately, the hashashin plot doesn’t get resolved in season one, even though it’s painfully obvious who the villain is the entire time. A heavy-handed final scene reveals the culprit (if you hadn’t guessed already), but we’re left without a resolution.
Marco Polo is about as historically accurate as The Tudors, which got the names of Henry VIII’s wives correct but very little else. A lot of the broad stuff in Marco Polo is true. For example, Kublai really did go to war with Jia Sidao and the Southern Song Dynasty. But there’s doubt if Marco and his family ever made it to China at all. I asked my friend John Barnard, a historian and all-around smart guy, about it, and he had this to say:
Whether or not Marco Polo made it to China is a matter of some historiographical debate. Historians and literary scholars have argued fairly convincingly that omissions in his narrative demonstrate that he was not very familiar with Chinese culture or geography. Frances Wood argued that he may have never traveled any further than Constantinople.
Even if we assume the Polos were really at Kublai’s court, the show still takes some other odd liberties. In the second episode, Kublai personally duels and decapitates his rebellious brother Ariq. In real life, Kublai certainly didn’t duel Ariq, and even spared his life. Then there’s the fact that Jia Sidao is an unsurpassed martial arts master. I wish they had at least tried to explain where Sidao learned all that fancy kung-fu. I guess these are nitpicks, though. You can’t spend too much time worrying about historical accuracy on a show like this.
Despite the often goofy plot, I still really enjoyed Marco Polo, and I can’t wait for season two. There’s something compelling about the characters, even when they don’t behave like humans or act totally ignorant of obvious facts. The show’s story problems are more than made up for by its art direction and style. It’s not a perfect show, but it’s still better than most TV out there (and certainly better than House of Cards Season 3). If you like this period of history, if you like high-budget shows full of sex and violence, or if you just want a decent show to watch over a long weekend, then I can definitely recommend Marco Polo.