Four episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
It’s been 18 months since Marco Polo debuted its first season on Netflix, and even though it hit with a bit of a resounding dud, the show had its apologists and I was one of them. A lot didn’t work (it’s hard to overstate that), including thin characterization, thinner world building and clunky, utterly un-bingeable plotting. But it had style, with neat action set pieces and an unpretentious tackling of the medieval-sex-and-gore genre – which feels all but necessitated by every network thanks to Game of Thrones – resulting in a show that was palatable for me, despite being somewhat of an overall mess.
Cut to today, and it’s been a year-and-a-half since I was entrenched in all of the political turmoil between the the great Kublai Khan (Benedict Wong, still fascinating when the script lets him be) and his nemesis chancellor Jia Sidao, or knew the difference between Karakoram and Xiangyang, or remembered what our intrepid hero Marco Polo (Lorenzo Richelmy) is doing with rebel assassin Mei Lin (Olivia Cheng) in his custody. That break hurts the show, momentarily, in its opening season 2 hours, more than any simple recap video could alleviate, especially for a series that relies so heavily on plodding, exposition-laced dialogue to move things forward. It recovers its stride eventually, but anyone who wasn’t already into Marco’s adventures helping raise – and potentially decimate – the Mongol Empire won’t be won over by a second year that’s, by and large, exactly the same as the first. And, unfortunately, with a lot of the same problems.
On the positive side, that means it’s still got style. In season 2’s opening shot, the show flashes back to Kublai’s childhood, where his grandfather guides him in the art of crude yet clever warfare. As shot by Daniel Minahan (who’s handled a few episodes of Game of Thrones and Homeland), the sight of thousands of Chinese Swallows, alight with flames and darting through the night sky to set fire to a nearby village, is wondrously creepy. Minahan keeps dialling up the dread of showrunner John Fusco’s scripts as the premiere chugs along, especially once Marco and Mei Lin pass through a slowly buffeting stream of corpses on their way to secure the heir to the late Jia Sidao’s dynasty, and direct threat to Kublai’s rule. Later we learn the bodies in the stream were all suicides, preferring death over bending knee to the Khan, and it only punctuates the memory of the moment with a disquieting grit.
If only Marco Polo‘s overarching story were so engaging. Like season 1, Fusco finds a few avenues into random, intriguing side plots that are fun to follow (Mei Lin’s quest for her daughter Ling-Ling was a high point last year), but the main wartime drama here is difficult to engage with. The show not only does a poor job of crafting its world in a credible, sensible way, but it fumbles at even definitively drawing lines in the sand to know exactly who wants who dead.
An election serves as the main turmoil early in the season, and Kublai’s direct threat lies in his cousin, Kaidu (Rick Yune), but there isn’t much in the way of scheming, tricking, or backstabbing to make you care about the outcome. Hope for clarity of purpose is snuffed out repeatedly when the show just keeps adding new wrinkles into the fray (Kaidu attempts to sway a Christian group’s vote in one of season 2’s most aggressively benign tangents), instead of cutting the excess.
Even at its most bloated, a few moments and characters pique interest to move things along. Wong still centers the show as a fearful, lovable bad guy that echoes the swashbuckling stories of Robert Louis Stevenson (especially in regards to his mentorship of Marco) far more than any stale reminder of a Tony Soprano-inspired golden age TV anti-hero. But it’s his biting, clever wife, Empress Chabi (Joan Chen) who steals every scene she’s in. It’s largely a familiar role in that cunning Lady Macbeth sort of way, but there’s more of a greater-good mentality Chabi exudes – particularly in the ultimate fate of the child emperor Kublai sees as a threat to his existence – to make Chen’s take on the character one of the few things on Marco Polo that’s all too easy to escape into.
She leads a group of interesting, if a bit more rudimentarily drawn, female characters that make for fun counterpoints to the men, including Kokachin’s (Zhu Zhu) pregnancy troubles with new husband Prince Jingim (Remy Hii), and particularly a morality scuffle between Mei Lin and Marco about the latter’s Stockholm Syndrome in Kublai’s court. A brief Michelle Yeoh appearance is exciting early on, but she spends much of the opening episodes as an invisible boogeyman chasing the heroes, so her full potential for a juicy contribution to the show is yet to be confirmed.
After she pops up for a swords-and-fists scuffle versus Mei Lin and Marco, she helps remind you about Marco Polo‘s fighting choreography, and how genuinely breathless it can be to watch. Since a lot of the first hours are set-up, not much in the way of season 1’s awesome fight sequences take place, but when they do they’re as svelte and entertaining as ever. Marco is largely past his training with fortune-cookie-dialogue-machine Hundred Eyes (Tom Wu), but when the two return to the padded dojo where the displaced Italian learned the ways of kung-fu last season, you can see Fusco aiming to play to the show’s giddy strengths.
It works, until another clunky scene (a befuddling 5 minute sexposition sequence in episode 2 is shot entirely with only the characters’ eyes in the frame) or a hamfisted line of dialogue drags down the show with awkward abandon. “When our days are done, morals are all that stand between reverence, and infamy,” Kaidu tells his mom, in a scene with good actors portraying potentially interesting characters that are utterly undone by leaden dialogue – a.k.a. Marco Polo at its crowd consensus worst. Richelmy’s thick accent doesn’t help when he gets stuck with similarly dud-worthy lines, but the character remains a nice middle ground of reliability in Marco Polo‘s occasionally difficult to decipher world, and Richelmy drums up enough endearment along the way to easily wonder whether or not he could turn his back on the Khan.
And that stirs a lot of season 2’s best drama, far more than the show’s tenuous grasp at wartime politics. Marco’s anti-murder stance on the boy emperor sets off a chain of inner turmoil for the hero – wrangling in another assassination plot against the Khan and an episode 2 cliffhanger that finally pushes Marco Polo closer to Netfllix’s promise for a wee-hours-of-the-morning binge – that hints at a through-line of competent drama for the rest of the 10 episode season.
Whether that potential is mined in a memorable, satisfying way is yet to be seen, but as Kaidu’s intrepid mother reminds him, “Obscurity is a much worse fate after death.” Marco Polo isn’t dead yet, but it’s hard to tell whether the series – no matter how stylish and opulently produced – will ultimately leave a memorable mark when it’s gone. Just as last year, there’s potential yet for it to do so, but I’m starting to wonder how long a show – like a paranoid, fearful Khan – can get by on promised potential before it’s dethroned for good.
The potential for converts isn't even up for discussion as Marco Polo delves into its byzantine, stylish second season, which has just enough nifty set pieces and cool characters to compensate (barely) for a humdrum wartime plot.