The third episode of Marco Polo benefitted from a narrative focus that has so far eluded the series. “Feast” brought the political conflicts at the show’s center to the forefront, giving them room to breathe and allowing the viewer deeper insight into what’s driving the potentially violent actions of the leaders within the Song dynasty and those under the rule of Kublai Khan. The goodwill that episode earned is wasted in “The Fourth Step,” another messy episode that fails to capitalize on the momentum created by “Feast” by choosing to lean on emotional storylines, something that wouldn’t be a problem if the show had spent any time in the first three episodes developing its character relationships.
“The Fourth Step” largely revolves around two main storylines: one sees the return of Marco’s father, Niccolò, to Kublai Khan’s court, and the other involves Prince Jingim attempting to form a truce with Xiangyang. The latter is the more compelling story, but both are spinning their wheels. Sure, a lot of pieces are being moved around: Niccolò and Maffeo Polo are reintroduced; the Blue Princess is back to being an object of affection for Marco; Prince Jingim and Finance Minster Ahmad clash; Sidao and the Emperor’s widow are at each other’s throats. Yet despite all of these pairings and potential conflicts, very little actually happens in this episode. You would think that a show four episodes into a ten-episode season would be closer to setting up its larger narrative arc and grinding out the finer details of its central conflicts. Marco Polo is stuck in a strange purgatory, juggling so many storylines at once that even its strongest moments feel wholly diluted by the end of “The Fourth Step.”
Marco’s father returning to Kublai Khan’s court inititally boasts some interesting possibilities, but they’re quickly squandered. Having returned from a long trading journey, Niccolò and Maffeo exploit Marco’s good standing with Kublai Khan, gaining access to his quarters in order to hide the goods that they’re attempting to smuggle. It’s clear that the writers are using the return of Niccolò to establish an emotional arc for Marco. The problem is, none of this feels personal or consequential, which is just downright ridiculous considering that the emotional crux of Marco’s potential arc is meant to be his father’s consistent abandonment. When Niccolò essentially ruins Marco’s life within Kublai Khan’s court by associating him with a crime punishable by death, we, as viewers, should feel devastated. I couldn’t manage more than a shrug.
The other part of Marco’s emotional journey seems to involve the Blue Princess, whose role within the empire remains mysterious. In theory, it’s great that the show is holding back on revealing too much about her–it makes her a more intriguing character, and gives us a narrative mystery to engage with from one episode to the next. The problem is that the story is structured in a way that suggests the audience is expected to empathize with Marco’s romantic pursuit of her, to cheer on his noble intentions to protect her from some vague harm; and yet, the show has given us no reason to feel emotionally invested. That’s partly because the Blue Princess is an enigma, but it’s also because Lorenzo Richelmy seems incapable of selling emotion and the writers don’t have a clue about what to do with Marco. The show is telling us that Marco is romantically interested in the Blue Princess, but it never gives us insight into why. Is it because they shared a moonlight horse ride? Is it because poisonous snake bites really get Marco’s motor running? There’s absolutely no story here, nothing for us to latch on to.
Elsewhere, Prince Jingim is sent to a parley organized by the remainder of the Song dynasty in order to come to some sort of truce. Here, there are some emotional stakes that give the storyline heft. Jingim has fallen out of favor as Kublai Khan’s heir ever since his failed battle charge, so he’s eager to prove that he has diplomatic skills that would prove useful to the empire. His skills prove to be ample, as he ratifies a truce that staves off any future bloodshed. But alas, not everything is as it seems. Sidao, the man who, while not technically in power, is focused on defending the Song dynasty, didn’t call for the parley. Instead, it was the widowed Empress, currently holding power because the Emperor’s heir is a five-year-old who eats flowers. Sidao is not impressed, and in a final montage that badly wants to echo the chaotic visual and emotional frenzy of the climax in “The Rains of Castamere,” it’s revealed that he has sent warriors to slaughter his own returning diplomats, a move spurred on by his sister Mei Lin, currently the Khan’s chosen concubine. The montage does set up the impending conflict, but so did last episode’s dealings, so this is nothing new. Again, the story is spinning its wheels. All we really learn is that Sidao is malicious; the entire montage is underscored by him telling a brutal story about dancers before he crushes his niece’s foot. But why? It’s a question that looms large over every storyline here.
- The fact that Kublai Khan waves off any worries about the Chinese women in his presence being privy to political and military secrets seems a little ridiculous. Nobody builds an empire while being that careless.
- I wish we had more insight into why Sidao wants to hold on to the walled city and the Song dynasty so badly. Is it pride in his heritage? Is he just power hungry? Give us something!
- Marco’s revenge quest only serves to deepen the mystery of the Blue Princess…and continue to make Marco look like an buffoon when he’s not bromancing with Kublai Khan.
- The final scene is another instance where we could use a lot more character development. Marco’s conflicted feelings about how to punish his father for his crimes should feel emotionally significant. Here, it feels like a cheap plot device masquerading as a significant moment of moral anguish for our protagonist.
- So I was kind of happy for Jingim and his successful diplomacy. He’s not the most likeable character, but at this point, I’ll root for any character that has a reason for what they’re doing within the story.