Doing the Hard Thing: Diving into Marco Polo S2
*Spoiler-infested waters. Swim at your own risk.*
After what felt like a gazillion years, Marco Polo has returned. The binge came and went, and now it’s time to wait once again. There’s a lot to cover in this season, but I’ve left it all in a single post for now. So here you have it, my super-not-short-at-all thematic analysis:
The Opening Act
Season 2 of Marco Polo begins with Genghis Khan himself, accompanied at the trenches by a young Kublai and an infant Kaidu. This is by far the most important scene in the season given that it a) shows the young princes’ relationship to Genghis and b) brings up the theme of loyalty. Both are illustrated in this moment:
As we can see, Genghis explains his tactic to his apparent heir Kaidu while Kublai stares from the sidelines. Yet, it is Kublai who benefits from his grandfather’s words due to his age and strange interest. Then, Genghis sets the nesting birds aflame and with them a whole city. Here’s the breathtaking scene:
The Family Nucleus
“Blood is thicker than water” is something we’ve heard a thousand times. This saying was also a thing in the 1200s as protecting one’s kin was a value upheld by the Mongols, at least in the world of Marco Polo. This is all nice and noble in theory, but in practice it falls apart when family is also what usurps power. And if you’re living in the Mongolian Empire of those days, power is also synonymous with survival.
While the first season of Marco Polo showed a unified Mongolia against the threat of the Chinese, its second season is all about post-conquest division. Kublai’s seemingly incessant need to expand has caused unrest. The people grow doubtful as they aren’t sure if the Khan can even handle the new land he now has, which leaves room for Kaidu to request a kurultai. Tension spreads across the empire since neither is sure to win.
The results of the kurultai obviously imply political repercussions, but the show is smart in also analyzing what either result could mean for both families with an ever-fading Ogodei clan and the ruling family under scrutiny. It also doesn’t help that Jingim, after three wives, has yet to produce an heir. Even after marrying Kokachin, Jingim still has nothing to show for his honeymoons. (Dude, you gotta work on your swimmers).
Loyalty in the Family
The cousins can’t hang, granted. But even the immediate families start quavering under the weight of kurultai. Kublai becomes exasperated early on after Ahmad “forces” him to take the young emperor’s life. Burdened by his actions, he continually dismisses Chabi by telling her that she has never had to do “the hard thing.” This is a constant mantra for Kublai who, in times of doubt, measures his subjects’ loyalty by whether or not they have done the “hard thing” for the empire.
In response, Chabi does the hardest of things. She betrays her husband and only son by impregnating Kokachin with the help of a stable boy. Does that make her unloyal? I’d say it makes her too loyal, for she sacrifices her peace of mind for the good of the family. Kokachin’s loyalty has no play in this since she’s been part of her own game since the beginning. After all, it’s not like she’s even the real Blue Princess (oh, man…).
As for the Khan’s sons, we knew from the first season not to trust Ahmad. His backstory doesn’t do much for redeeming him as his story is less a vengeance arc and more a lost-his-damn-mind arc. You feel bad for the guy because you know it’ll explode in his face, but you also don’t root for him.
Then there’s Byamba, the son who is most like Kublai at heart. Yet, his father easily dismisses him for being the bearer of bad news. (It’s not like he knew what he was marrying into?) To me, Byamba is the most loyal of the three because while Jingim is 100% loyal to his family, it is also always in his best interest (he’s the heir, duh). Byamba could have benefitted from siding with his wife, but never even considers it. He should get some points, and a shower at this point.
Kaidu’s children are a whole different ballgame. Khutulun might be the primary beneficiary from all this madness, but she wants none of that crap. She does not trust her grandmother (who I think is not loyal to anything but her psychotic dreams) and is perfectly content living that second-tier nomad life. Orus is loyal to his family, but his actions are ruled by the status quo rather than by any real instinct or premeditation.
The Ogodei clan does get points for staying united even through the darkest of days. That’s until Khutulun chooses Byamba’s life over Orus’. But then again, the guy just got too much of a kick out of being given allowance to kill his cousin. (In his defense, baby Jingim did sound like an awful kid). In Khutulun’s mind, she had already lost her brother when he became consumed by their grandmother’s orchestration. Was Khutulun’s choice blinded by love? I don’t think so. I think she chose to be loyal to Byamba because he had remained loyal to her, even through the lines, vines, and trying times…
Why Can’t We Be Friends?
The hierarchical system surely makes it hard for friendships to bloom in this show. You can add to that the perceived social responsibilities of the royal family and the unstable integration of foreigners into the court. What you end up with is a resentful Ahmad, a constantly butthurt Marco, and a handful of characters that become so isolated they lose their minds.
But before we get to that, I want to touch briefly on only one of the best power-teams ever: Marco and Mei Lin. I sort of liked Mei Lin in the first season. She was strong and opinionated, but I was definitely not proud of her. The girl stumbled a lot, didn’t know how to play the game, and was ultimately controlled by either the Khan or her brother. For this season Mei Lin must have OD’d on Red Bull, because my God is that woman feisty.
Props to #feminist Marco for standing up for Mei Lin before the Khan. Of course Kublai laughs in her face, but us viewers gave her a mental standing ovation. I loved how the show didn’t saturate us with too much of them, and instead relied on planting things here and there for when the time came. It was this unspoken loyalty between Marco and Mei Lin that allowed for both of them to do “the hard thing” of trusting each other with sensitive information.
Ahmad has no friends, but also wants to pretend he’s friends with all the people. He does get carried away with Mei Lin even if he doesn’t realize it, which didn’t work out for the better. And, yes. Ahmad’s family was obliterated by the Khan. But he did grow up in a welcoming environment. His close relationship with Chabi only becomes clear when he’s delirious and tells Jingim about how it felt to be held in her arms. How did that get lost entirely?
Marco and Byamba have always had a good relationship, and their loyalty is born from empathy. While Byamba might be Kublai’s son, he’s still illegitimate and often feels out of place. The show reiterates this when Byamba falls from his father’s grace and is demoted to the role of bastard. This bond helps them to kind-of-successfully get information out of Niccolo, but mostly allows Marco to do the hard thing of confronting his father while leaning on Byamba for support.
Jingim and Marco have always walked a tightrope. At the beginning Jingim was 0% about having a round-eye in his court. But he calms down after Marco saves his life and helps them win the war (that’ll usually do it).
Their newfound bromance endured for most of the season, until Jingim picked up on the fact that Marco was closer to his wife than he was.
Which brings me to:
Love and Madness
I will admit that I disliked Kokachin the first season. I found her to be super whiny and completely wishy-washy when it came to Marco. In my eyes, the Venetian merchant was head-over-heels in love, and Kokachin was just using him to run away from the life and system she despised. Well, TALK ABOUT CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT. Kokachin surprised me by pulling her heart out of her sleeve and then stabbing it repeatedly in front of me.
Kokachin does the hardest of things this season by allowing (I guess?) the stable boy to impregnate her. Unfortunately, she couldn’t bear the mental toll it took on her and suffers from hallucinations throughout most of the season. The brutal part is that we are brilliantly led to believe her hallucinations are real until we see our understanding and her psyche collapse simultaneously.
The most heartbreaking moment of this season, even more so than Kublai taking the young emperor’s life, was watching Kokachin trying to give birth to the twins. Her desperate call for Marco was so real it literally perforated my soul. Marco, the “only friend she ever really had,” the one person who knew her as Nergui and not as her adopted persona. It was clear that even Chabi knew she wasn’t going to make. I mean, she was willing to take the risk of summoning Marco before her son.
Kokachin tells Marco that it should have been him. That her kids should have had eyes as blue as the sea. To this, Marco can’t even say that he loves her. Marco is not the same lost boy from the first season. He is now a man that has been battered, broken, used, abandoned, and enslaved. He understands the power of his words more than ever as they have delivered him from the arms of death one time too many. Why doesn’t he give Kokachin the confirmation she craves? Because he understands they’ll be forced to live with it once he does. He understands Kokachin has to live her life as empress.
If only he had known… (Okay. Jingim was having such a good time this season. Now he’s just going to be angry and pissed. And Marco’s going to lose his mind. Marco’s jumping off a cliff. Marco Polo Season 3’s going to have one five-second episode. It’s Marco jumping off a cliff. Then they’ll rename the show “Kublai Khan” and keep trying.)
Power and Madness
Regardless of the unfulfilled Marcachin (is that their couple name?) and Kokachin’s unfortunate demise, the Khanate has secured two heirs. But now Marco knows about Chabi’s ploy and is forced to leave for Venice. If I were Marco I would leave too. Think of it: not only does he have to watch the woman he loves marry someone else (his bro, mind you), but he also has to help her with the whole birthing process AND deal with the fact that she’s pregnant with ANOTHER man. Like, that’s too much. And hold the infant heir before either parent? Damn.
Of course, I can’t not mention Kublai himself. I was very empathetic with the fat king this season. He did do things that I didn’t agree with (*cough* killing a child *cough*). But at least we know he didn’t enjoy doing them. There was a lot of sweating involved, as always, accompanied by some tears. Kublai seemed to lose his mind several times throughout the season, but ultimately re-grounded himself by channeling his inner Genghis. We could appreciate Kublai’s smarts during the kurultai. How he navigated through it after having suffered such betrayal was astounding. Simultaneously, we could tell why a weak and maddened Kaidu didn’t make it into history books.
I love the creative licenses Marco Polo takes when narrating this story. While sticking to all political and historical facts, the writers are not afraid to introduce characters and situations that not only enhance the drama, but also better illustrate the days of the Mongolian Empire. This happened so long ago that it is sometimes easy to forget that these people were real humans. Humans with real thoughts and fears. It is quite likely that a person like Chabi would have orchestrated the production of an heir. Many royal families throughout history have done this.
It is also nice to consider the role of women like Kokachin, Mei Lin, and Khutulun. They find themselves in rather unique positions within their time. All three respond differently to their context, but all desire to come out on top somehow. What I like most is that Marco also gets to live out his fantasy. Marco Polo probably exaggerated his own importance given that he wrote his own accounts about his time with Kublai Khan. Yet, we get a very real Marco that still trips and falls as one would expect.
I think many things were done well this season, especially from a cinematographic standpoint. The shots of Lotus and Sifu were gorgeous, as were all the scenes with fire. The parallelism between shots and scenes created a real atmosphere of simultaneity that made you feel as suffocated as the characters were. The character development truly allowed for the actors to do their thing. Especially for the characters of Ahmad and Kokachin. And, is this not the most solid squad ever (missing Marco, though):
The first half of the season does suffer from a slow pace. Yet, the setup time is worth it once it hits speed in episode six. So all in all, I’m giving this season of Marco Polo a solid A. With extra points because Jingim had some real good hair going on.