The stakes of “The Heavenly And Primal” are presented early on. With its opening two scenes, the show lets us know that the lives of Marco Polo and Kublai Khan are in imminent danger. The pre-credits scene shows Marco working with the Mongolian engineers to build a working trebuchet that will allow them to hurl flaming rocks at the walled city from a distance that keeps them safe from archers. The trebuchets are working, but they are not firing far enough. They need to be bigger, Marco demands. His life depends on it.
Back in the court, Kublai Khan understands that Jia Sidao is already moving warriors north. His cousin, Kaidu, suggests attacking now and offers up his men and horses. Khan accepts, but says that he and his men will be leading the charge. Kaidu bristles at the idea. He states that too many of his warriors, including two sons, have died under raids led by the Mongolians–a clear shot at Prince Jingim and his failed march on Wuchang. This leads to an explosive argument, one clearly filled with years of competition and tension. It works to re-establish Kublai Khan as a dominating force within his empire after the battle at Xiangyang left him deflated. He’s now decisive and forceful, ready to take Marco’s designs to the battlefield and boot his cousin out of the court is he stands in his way.
Marco’s trebuchet experiment holds great consequences for both the Mongolian empire and his own standing within it–those are the stakes of the storyline, and they’re perfectly concise, which is integral to delivering a meaningful and engaging season finale. By contrast, “The Heavenly And Primal,” and Marco Polo in general, seems to think that the “relationship” (I’m honestly not even sure it’s worthy of such a title) between the Blue Princess and Marco is a substantial and evocative love story, one which provides an emotional counterbalance to the more political and historical leanings of the show. Throughout its first season though, Marco Polo has proven time and again that it doesn’t know how to balance its emotional storylines (and the character development necessary to those types of narratives) with its political. The show continuously mistakes tedious exposition for meaningful banter, and the result is an emptiness to character interactions that leave the viewer with little to feel invested in.
That’s never more true than in the scenes between Marco and the Blue Princess in the season finale. All the signifiers of emotional weight are there: Marco is pouty and teary-eyed, torn between leaving for the battlefield and seeing his trebuchet experiment through, or fleeing with his love; the Blue Princess looks forlorn and desperate, as if any moment without Marco may permanently break her heart. If those are the signifiers of emotional investment, there is a complete absence of the signified, or the meaning and concept behind those words and actions. When, after successfully taking Xiangyang and witnessing Kublai Khan upon the throne, Marco returns to an empty stable where the Blue Princess is meant to be. It’s meant to be a heartbreaking end to Marco’s storyline; he chose battle over love. For the audience to be heartbroken though, there needs to be an emotional, significant interest in the outcome of these two characters, and it’s appalling how misguided Marco Polo is in presenting this storyline, ignoring any of the nuance (heck, I’d even settle for blunt details at this point) that comes with developing such an integral character connection.
If there’s a bright spot here, it’s that the finale does pull off a gorgeous and affecting raid on Xiangyang. The visuals in particular are stunning, whether it’s the rocks covered in Song-body oil, aflame and flying towards the wall, or the intimate close-ups of sword combat on the field. Marco Polo certainly knows how to compose images. That’s especially true in Sidao’s final moments, as he fights Hundred Eyes. After his failed assassination attempt a few episodes ago, the Taoist monk once again gets his shot at taking out Sidao. Like many of the kung fu scenes throughout the first season, it’s beautifully shot and surprisingly patient. There aren’t a ton of quick cuts or visual misdirections. Instead, the camera keeps its distance, allowing Hundred Eyes and Sidao to be the center of attention and provide the action. Marco, incapacitated by Sidao, looks on as Hundred Eyes shows Sidao that he too knows the ways of the mantis. Finally, Sidao has met his match. No more weaselling out of of tight spots. With Sidao on his knees, Hundred Eyes decapitates him, leaving the throne ready for Kublai Khan’s taking.
“The Heavenly And Primal” doesn’t end on that triumphant note though. Instead, it provides one final ludicrous beat to set up the next season’s (if there is one) villains. Back at Kublai Khan’s court, Mei Lin stages an escape attempt and finds herself wandering around the empty, dark halls, torch in hand. She stumbles into what seems to be Ahmad’s quarters, and begins looking at the mural that was being painted not so long ago. It’s complete now, and part of the mural sees Ahmad sitting atop the Khan’s thrown, the Khan’s severed and bleeding head hanging from his hand. “Do you like it?” he whispers to Mei Lin as he creeps up behind her. “I find it…exquisite” she replies, before cutting to black. It’s one of the more preposterous and laughable (I, for one, laughed out loud when the camera reveals that section of the painting) moments that Marco Polo has produced. It’s a twist (and such a word is being used generously here) for the sake of it, a final moment that’s meant to stoke the fires of anticipation for the next season. All it does though is underline the identity crisis this show has had since its first episode. Across ten episodes, Marco Polo never really found itself, dipping its toes haphazardly in a number of genres and types of storytelling, but never committing to its characters or its world.
Season grade: C
- Jingim and Marco share a nice moment at the end of the battle. “Peace to you, brother”, Jingim says as he locks arms with Marco.
- I got a little excited when Hundred Eyes went into the mantis pose. That’s been Sidao’s wild card all along, and it was futile against Hundred Eyes. Chin Han plays it perfectly too, allowing a brief moment of shock to creep across Sidao’s face.
- Seriously though, Ahmad just has evidence of treason lying around the Khan’s court?
- If Marco Polo does get a second season, it could be interesting to see how the introduction of gunpowder starts to change the dynamics of battle and diplomacy.
- Nice visual call-back to Marco’s training with Hundred Eyes when he wrapped the linen on the sword around his arm before facing off against Sidao.
- I’ll take a whole show about a petulant boy Emperor who just keeps demanding his people give him more and more things. Will you ever be sated, boy Emperor?
- That’s it, folks! If you made it this far, good on you, and thanks for reading along. I hope you enjoyed the show more than I did. I’m going to go drink a lot of eggnog now.