Netflix has produced a new television show chronicling the tale of a young westerner who finds himself the ‘guest’ of the Khan of Khans, Kublai Khan. Marco Polo is less the tale of one man, and more the story of many.
Anyone with any sort of finger on the pulse of contemporary entertainment will be aware of HBO’s hugely successful Game of Thrones (2011), and perhaps even the History Channel’s Vikings (2013). Marco Polo has overt similarities with both of those shows but it is also something else entirely. With a grandiose aura and a reliance on the internal workings of the Mongolian regal courts, it is a narrative with huge potential.
That potential is however squandered slightly by the use of a western gaze from our titular hero. Instead of a show about Marco Polo and his experiences in the far (and clearly alien) east, the story follows many men as they vie for power and recognition from Kublai Kan. Yes, this may immediately smack of other more well known television shows but that would be reductive entirely. Everything borrows, reuses, and finds originality in what has come before – the court of Kublai Khan being no exception either.
Mongolian cosmopolitan society
In Marco Polo Kublai (Benedict Wong) is portrayed as a man open to the ideas and customs of other cultures. This is actually what brings Marco Polo (Lorenzo Richelmy) to him in the first place. Marco, alongside his newly met father and uncle, leaves the safety of Venice with goods, Catholic priests, and the hope of wealth to be found in the far corners of the world. On arrival however the Khan is angered to find that none of the priests have survived the journey. In exchange for trade options on the newly opened silk road, Marco’s father abandons him to the ‘care’ of the great Khan.
So begins our introduction into the life of the Mongols at the height of their power. It is however a familiar trope and Marco becomes our western eyes and ears as we explore a foreign land – both in terms of time and customs. It is an apparently brutal land and one on the brink of conflict. The Mongol horde has it’s eyes on the remnants of the Sung Dynasty.
Marco Polo then is a television show all about otherness and the way that a society changes as it embraces more cultures, or simply as it grows. Khublai’s son is an interesting mix of Mongolian warrior, and Chinese intellectual. Every part of the television show is imbued with this sense of transition. Right in the middle of this mix is Marco himself. This mismatch, this cosmopolitan society, is met with some disdain from the more traditional Mongols and this ensures that the Khan has to always fight to retain his place at the head of the pack.
Marco’s silver tongue
Marco brings with him western customs, a silver tongue, and slowly he finds that he has the ear of the Khan himself. He is taught to fight, both as a Mongol and in the style of Chinese Kung Fu martial arts. He becomes a product of many different societies but unfortunately a member of none. This is the danger that the Khan faces with the ideas of the past becoming less and less relevant. For a society that embraces secrecy and doesn’t appreciate outsiders this could be seen as a threat with Marco being the very visual reminder of the change that’s occurring.
The narrative then in Marco Polo is good, if a touch unimaginative. But this is the first season and it has set up some good plot lines for its second run. It’s not quite at the standard of HBO television but Netflix is still a newcomer to high brow drama. It has achieved some notable success already with House of Cards (2013), Orange is the New Black (2013), and for more niche audiences with Hemlock Grove (2013). Television is something that Netflix is doing well and Marco Polo is no exception.
Slow start, exposition heavy
However it is slow to get going and there are a number of episodes that are overly wordy. This wouldn’t be such a problem is the dialogue wasn’t so stilted. There is also a lack of clearly depicted characters. Vikings and Game of Thrones are good at using stereotypes subtly to develop their characters and ensure that we’re onboard and understand their motivations. This is something that Marco Polo lacks. But this could be argued to be a narrative choice. The fact that Marco Polo himself is a fish out of water and that we see the world from his eyes ensures that we never can get quite close enough. The Khan is an enigma, racked by gout and self doubt, and his sycophantic followers are not easily trusted either.
Marco Polo was originally slated to be on the Stars network, a company that put out the successful (and bloody) Spartacus (2010). However Netflix has definitely added its own stylistic touches to the show. It has spent a huge amount of money ($9 million) per episode and it has lavished the set and costume design with opulent interiors and clothing. The exterior shots of the vast Mongolian plains are almost Biblical in scope. The interesting thing however is that Marco Polo never feels like a TV show.
Mix of sex, violence, and political machinations
Instead it feels like an epic from the fifties. It’s grand in scope and heavy on the exposition but it’s also imbued with a heady mix of sex, violence, and poetic imagery. There’s colour added via the Chinese empire that the Mongols are fighting with its charismatic (if twisted) antihero leader (Chin Han) who unfortunately is portrayed as far more brutal than the Mongols. This may well be true however it does infuse what should be an eastern narrative with a very western sense of binary opposition.
For most of the men in Marco Polo legacy is something that they place huge stock in. They needs sons and they needs sons that will carry their name forward and add to what they themselves have done. This actually is a fitting thought for the TV show itself. It’s legacy isn’t clear yet, it’s characters are a touch faceless, and there is a distinct lack of charisma from most involved.
But there is something; a spark that makes it enjoyable, watchable, and perhaps even exciting television and Marco Polo is certainly worth exploring. It’s not as binge worthy as some of its competition but it’s not designed to be. Most TV ends with a cliff hanger, a call to watch it next week. Marco Polo needs no such fanfare. Like the Khan himself it’s self assured, arrogant, and egotistical – only time will tell if it deserves to be.