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Marco Polo: “Rendering”

Benedict Wong
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With war on the horizon following the previous episode’s events, Jia Sidao has, in essence, taken control of Xiangyang. He’s locked away the Empress Dowager (for her protection from potential assassins, obviously), the boy Emperor is nowhere to be found, and Sidao walks around with an air of confidence that’s somewhat out of place for a man whose city is mere moments away from being invaded. None of this worries Sidao, at least on the outside. After all, he’s spent his life wearing a mask, projecting confidence when there was only fear–something he picked up from Mei Lin long ago. By the episode’s end though, Sidao’s swagger makes sense; he’s had a plan all along, and at least part of it is revealed.

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The Khan’s army is swiftly moving south, having already taken Wuchang, a mission previously failed by Jingim back in the first episode, here completed by Kaidu. Kaidu has dedicated his warriors and horses to the Khan’s battles, but his intentions are perhaps more questionable than they seem. When he returns from battle, he learns that Byamba, the Khan’s bastard son, has bested Khutulun in a wrestling match. Therefore, she is now dedicated to him. When Kaidu asks if she willingly lost the match, she affirms that she did, for him and his cause, in order to get closer to Khan’s court. It’s the first of many scenes that will underscore that despite Kublai Khan’s empirical dominance, there are many rifts within the court itself. In a way, it’s a symptom of the Khan’s sympathy. He allows outsiders into his court and generally allows them to hold on to any religious beliefs that suit them. Any empire has disagreements within its ranks, but Khan’s is perhaps even more prone to treason and abandonment.

Sidao and Mei Lin spend much of the episode attempting to expose those rifts and use them to their separate advantages. For Sidao, he wants to destabilize the Khan’s control over his people. For Mei Lin, she wants to break Ahmad in an attempt to save herself, and maybe her daughter, who she learns, through a vicious threat from Ahmad that involves wearing skin as a cloak, is right next door to her. The split storylines of Mei Lin and Jia Sidao comprise some of the episode’s best material, mainly because it’s built upon a foundation of mistrust and misinformation that gives the otherwise redundant proceedings a sense of intrigue. After all, the show has spent every single episode this season building to a potential conflict between Sidao and Kublai Khan. More often than not, that lengthy build has suggested narrative hesitancy, not tension. The introduction of unforeseen circumstances into the plans of Khan and Sidao–namely, that Sidao doesn’t know that Empress Chabi is alive, and Khan doesn’t know Sidao’s strategy–momentarily elevates the stakes.

That momentary elevation is all for naught though; “Rendering” spends its entire runtime cranking up the tension–showing that there are outliers within the Khan’s empire and that those outliers are potentially combustible–only to gloss over what should be the season’s most significant narrative and emotional turning point. Marco has drawn a detailed map of the city–if we’re being picky, a ludicrously detailed map–and notices that one section of the wall is under construction. He suggests that it’s one of the few weaknesses the city has, and therefore should be their target for entry. Jingim isn’t convinced that they should attack so quickly; he thinks they should hold back and wait. Marco insists that because of the construction, this may be their only opportunity and therefore must act fast.

Kublai Khan trusts Marco and deploys his army, the season-long buildup finally coming to a head. Then what happens? A montage. With voiceover. Quick shots of the battle are spliced with footage of Ahmad back at the court, watching as a mural is painted. Jingim’s voiceover tells us that the break in the wall was a trap (explaining Sidao’s cool and collected nature throughout this episode), and that the Mongolians were slaughtered, easily beaten back by the Song warriors. Then we cut to Marco, covered in blood and mud, kneeling before Kublai Khan, Jingim’s voiceover now becoming part of the scene, accusing Marco of treason. Jingim posits that Marco has been trying to destroy the empire all along. This should be a monumental moment in the first season, but there’s no weight to it because we didn’t experience any of the battle. One minute they’re preparing to rush the wall, and the next we’re situated post-battle, Marco looking afraid and regretful. By shooting and presenting the scene in this way, it robs it of all potential power. To Lorenzo Richelmy’s credit, this final scene is some of his most emotive work, his face a mess of desperation and confusion. But those emotions should hold even more power over the viewer than they do. By denying us the climactic battle scene (and, sure, we’ll probably get the real confrontation later), Marco Polo neutered what should have been a significant moment of character development and narrative poignancy.

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Stray observations:

  • Chin Han doing more wonderful work as Sidao in this episode. Not only does he bring an unmatchable presence every time he’s on screen, but he shows real depth. The scene where he explains to Jing Fei how betrayed he feels, and how in love with her he was, is haunting and beautiful.
  • I’m in no way sold on the Blue Princess and Marco Polo caring for each other in any romantic way. There has been no development of this relationship throughout the season.
  • How about that vat of Song limbs being rendered to use as weaponized oil? Was it a little much, or necessary to show us, and Marco, that Kublai Khan is not a good guy?
  • Can we get Benedict Wong and Chin Han in more scenes together, please?
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