Previously on Marco Polo, ‘Rendering’
The cold open of this week’s episode of Marco Polo is a close-up shot of Kublai Khan screaming before cutting to Marco languishing within a dark cell in the palace dungeons. This is totally how the game of “Marco Polo” was created. Totally.
Our story resumes with Kublai and his men licking their wounds within the safety of Cambulac after their crushing defeat at the gates of Xinjiang. The mood in Cambulac is sombre as the mournful sound of gongs echoes throughout empty chambers throughout the palace. Vice-Regent Yussif delivers an extensive report of their status of their army in the aftermath of their retreat. The soldiers they lost in the battle have been given proper burials and their army’s numbed are being replenished by newly conscripted troops. Kublai, though his face is obscured by the shadows, is clearly vexed by the situation as it stands.
A chained Marco is later presented before the Khan’s court while Yussif formally presents the charges against him. He is given the opportunity of one final audience with the Khan in order to plead for mercy. Kublai is so disgusted with how badly the plans went that he cannot even so much as look at Marco.
Yet Marco does not beg.
Ahmed and Jingim, on the other hand, relish this opportunity to disparage Marco before the Khan perhaps hoping to sway his final judgment over the Venetian’s life.
Yet Marco does not beg.
When given the chance to speak, Marco defends his innocence against the charges of treason with dignity and even goes so far as to offer a stern warning to the Khan of an even greater failure should he set his sights on conquering the West.
Meanwhile back in Xinjiang, Sidao relishes his victory over the Mongol horde. News of the startling upset at the gates of the Walled City have reached other cities in the Song Empire and they have pledged their support by sending warriors to bolster Sidao’s army. I suppose that it also helps that he’s seized their lands for his own and holds the Boy Emperor hostage. He pays a visit to the Dowager Empress and asks her for her support as he further consolidates his power. She refuses, of course, and remains as defiant as ever before the Cricket Minister. Unable to bend her to his will, Sidao murders his long-time rival and the single obstacle to his regime with a point-blank shot from what appears to be a medieval Chinese revolver (Oh yeah! The Chinese invented gunpowder).
While there’s a subplot involving Empress Chabi’s plans to make Kokachin the second wife of Jingim, that plot thread (like most plot threads involving the Blue Princess) isn’t compelling enough to hold our interests. Another subplot involves Chabi slowly gaining Ling Ling’s trust and discovering that Mei Lin was a concubine of the late Song Emperor. She later takes Mei Lin out of her prison and reveals that Ling Ling is safely in her custody, a quiet warning to ensure Mei Lin’s good behavior. Both these subplots seem uninteresting, they most certainly at least showcase Joan Chen’s acting chops and illustrate why Empress Chabi is one of the best characters on this show.
The rest of “Prisoners” focuses on the impending execution of our eponymous protagonist. This is actually one of the best performances from Lorenzo Richelmy. Throwing Marco in prison and sentencing him to death gives the actor so much to work since he becomes the center of the plot as opposed to being the audience stand-in since the beginning of the series. Not to be outdone, Benedict Wong delivers another stellar performance as a Khan burdened by the responsibilities leadership. His scenes with Marco are some of the best in the series.
Back in Khan’s palace, Yussif counsels Kublai to spare Marco’s life stating that his personal investigation of the Venetian’s possessions (his journal in particular) reveal that Marco is a well-intentioned servant of the Khan despite the catastrophic results of his initial plans to invade Xinjiang. Kublai stubbornly declares that he has made up his mind: Marco Polo dies at dawn. After paying a visit to Marco in his cell where it is revealed that he has been tirelessly working on blueprints for trebuchets to aid the Khan in his next attempt to attack the walled city, Yussif is convinced that he must save Marco from death. He pens a false confession wherein the claims that it was he who hired the Hashshahins and that he has been plotting the Khan’s downfall since the very beginning.
To ensure that Kublai will have to certainly spare Marco’s life and sentence him to death, Yussif has sent copies of his confession to every part of the Mongol Empire. Yussif’s plan succeeds and he is executed at dawn in the same manner as Senga: trampled to death by horses. Marco is released from captivity and informed of Yussif’s sacrifice to ensure that his new plan involving trebuchets sees the light of day. Weighed down by the gravity of knowing that an innocent man died so that he may leave, Marco feels obligated to lead the Khan to victory so that Yussif’s death was not in vain.