Previously on Marco Polo, ‘The Wayfarer’
*Spoiler Alert: do not read this review if you haven’t seen S1E2 of “Marco Poło.”
After watching this episode I can’t help but recall the opening line of Anna Karenina: “Happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” It is the bonds that occur between family members, though good or ill, that are the heart of this episode amidst all the action (and there’s quite a lot of it), political intrigue, and world-building.
Crown Prince Jinggim returns wounded and ashamed from his crushing defeat at Wu Chen, which turned out to be a trap by the mustache-twirling “Cricket Minister” Jia Sidao. Kublai chastises him for his defeat while Empress Chabi counsels her husband to avoid being too harsh towards “THEIR son,” as she quietly but sternly reminds him. While Kublai glares disappointingly at his wounded son, Chabi quitely takes him away to get his injuries treated. The dynamic between Benedict Wong and Joan Chen is amazing to behold in this episode because there truly is believable chemistry between these two as a long-established married couple that work together to achieve their goals. While Kublai glares disappointingly at his wounded son, Chabi quitely takes him away to get his injuries treated.
You’re compelled to feel sorry for Jinggim even though he’s been quite spiteful and arrogant towards Marco since the pilot. Jinggim has been groomed since birth to take his father’s place as Great Khan and, ultimately Emperor of China, once they defeat the Song Dynasty and unite China under their rule. Kublai even gave him a Chinese name and made sure he was tutored in the ways of Chinese culture to prepare him for the throne he is sure to inherit one day. Interestingly enough, this is a measure that Jinggim’s uncle Ariq considers an offense to their pride as Mongols. Ultimately it is the desire to make his father proud of him that drives Jinggim to act the way he does throughout the episode and is arguably his driving motivation in the series.
In stark contrast to Jinggim and Kublai’s relationship is the budding relationship between Kublai and Marco. While Kublai is weary of Jinggim’s failure, he grows fond of “the Latin.” And pardon me if I find it amusing that Kublai often regards Marco in the same manner a person treats a new pet. Jinggim realizes this and directs his frustrations at Marco every chance he gets. The burgeoning Stockholm Syndrome-esque bond between Kublai and Marco does not deter our main character from making efforts to plan an escape. A seemingly minor incident that occurs involving Marco, the tax collector Sanga, and a pile of linens that ends tragically is what leads him to reassess whether or not he truly wants to escape from Kublai’s court and thus incur the wrath of the Great Khan.
The meat of the episode lies in the nature of sibling relationships as seen through the conflict between Kublai and his younger brother Ariq and, to a lesser extent, Jia Sidao and Mei Lin.
As the Song Emperor lies dying, Sidao begins making his move to seize more power. He even goes so far as to offer his sister as meat to cement the loyalty of his troops. And when that plan goes awry thanks to Mei Lin’s martial prowess, he threatens to hurt her daughter Ling Ling if she doesn’t agree to infiltrate the Great Khan’s court and spy on him on behalf of her brother. Mei agrees though not before telling her brother how his men snicker behind his back and mockingly refer to him as “the Cricket Minister.” Ouch.
The conflict between Kublai and Ariq on the other hand is surprisingly not very dissimilar. While Sidao actively manipulates his sister to achieve his goals, Ariq has been secretly working against his older brother.
We learn that Jinggim’s defeat at Wu Chen could have been avoided if Ariq had shown up with his men but he intentionally chose not to join the fight and instead remained at his home in the Mongol ancestral capital. Ariq has also been minting his own coins and started negotiations with the Song Dynasty about opening the Silk Road to them unbeknownst to Kublai. Ultimately Kublai’s doubts regarding his younger brother are confirmed after Marco is sent to spy on Ariq’s camp and learns that he has been preparing his forces to assault Cambulac and ultimately depose Kublai as Great Khan.
In a brief exchange between the two brothers at where they drink and reminisce, Ariq voices his distaste against his older brother’s campaign to unite China under one rule. He ask Kublai if he wants to be Great Khan of Mongolia or Emperor of China. Kublai wants to be both. And why not? Doing so would be a fulfillment of their grandfather Genghis Khan’s lifelong dream. Understanding that there is a profound disagreement between them about what their kingdom is and can be, the brothers part ways knowing that they have travelled way past the point of no return.
The next day soldiers from both sides meet in a grand and epic scene that conveys the depth of what is at stake here. Instead of an epic battle between two armies however the future of the Mongol Empire is decided by a one-one-one fight between brothers. The choreography of this fight is spectacular to behold, then again so are most of the fights in this show. What makes this particular scene stand out from the other fights that we’ve seen at this point is that we fully understand what is at stake here: the future of an entire culture as well as the lives of the people we’ve soon grown fond of. Kublai wins of course (the history books spoiled this bit 800 years ago) and with Ariq death he further cements his place as Khan of Khans and soon… Emperor of China. Jia Sidao and the walled city of Xianjiang is next.