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Marco Polo: “The Scholar’s Pen”

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When discussing the previous episode of Marco Polo, I mentioned that dialogue is not the show’s strong suit. When the characters, most of whom are egregiously underdeveloped, are sitting around chatting with one another, it exposes the show’s lack of insight or intrigue. I posited that the best moments of this season have seen the characters in action, rather than conversation. “Action” doesn’t necessarily mean fighting or violence, but rather movement. “The Scholar’s Pen” is by far the best episode of the season precisely because it never stops moving. Marco Polo is too often complacent, boring even. “The Scholar’s Pen” is a vision of what the show can (and, though this is subjective, probably should) be.

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If “White Moon” suffered greatly from a complete lack of pacing, “The Scholar’s Pen” is a lesson in how to create tension through action. It’s perhaps no coincidence that two of the season’s best episode, including this one and “Hashshashin,” boast centralized storylines that revolve around an assassination attempt. In “Hashshashin,” the attempted assassination of Kublai Khan and the immediate fallout leaves little room for the dull dialogue to move in. ”The Scholar’s Pen” is even more assured in that it not only presents some of the show’s best fight scenes, but it also plumbs the emotional depths of a handful of characters with a pointed insight that’s all too rare on this show.

“The Scholar’s Pen” picks up with Mei Lin kneeling before the Khan, a decision needing to be made about her punishment. Once Empress Chabi decides (and convinces Kublai) that Mei Lin would be a worthwhile bartering piece should war come, Kublai recruits Hundred Eyes to travel to Xiangyang and kill Jia Sidao. The hope is that with Sidao dead, not only will Mei Lin’s crime be punished, but war will be averted. Along with Marco and the golden tablet that allows them free passage, Hundred Eyes sets forth for the walled city. Unlike the stilted investigation undertaken by Byamba and Marco in the previous episode, the journey of Hundred Eyes and Marco feels much more loose; they seem to share a natural chemistry, perhaps because they are both outsiders within the Mongolian empire.

Once they arrive in the city, on the eve of the new Emperor’s coronation, they set about executing their plan. Marco is to sketch what he can of the city as strategic planning in case of war, while Hundred Eyes finds and kills Sidao. The outcome is another astonishing fight scene. It begins with Sidao taking on the man who is destined to take over for him as Chancellor at the Coronation, which is already underway. The timing gives the whole scene a sense of urgency. There’s a great shot where, after dispensing of a few guards with little effort, Hundred Eyes stops at the corner of the room where Sidao is fighting. The camera doesn’t linger, but it’s clear that Hundred Eyes has been assessing the situation. There’s a very brief look of confusion on his face; this isn’t how the assassination was supposed to happen. He breaks into the fight and begins attacking Sidao. What little slow motion there is here is used to much better effect than in previous episodes, never once becoming overbearing. Instead, the camera keeps its distance and allows the fight to play out. Sidao stabs his potential replacement in the neck while Hundred Eyes is distracted by more guards. Then something curious happens: the camera cuts away before we get any confrontation between Hundred Eyes and Sidao. The next we see of Sidao, he’s walking into the coronation with blood on his face, still occupying his role as Chancellor. It’s unclear whether the camera cut is just an effect, or rather meant to suggest that Hundred Eyes chose not to kill Sidao for some reason. When Hundred Eyes meets up with Marco, who has secured Mei Lin’s daughter for passage with the help of Jing Fei, he can only tell him that the mission was not completed. It’s a vague ending to the episode’s storyline that leaves the audience curious about what else happened in that room once the camera cut away.

For all the excitement of the assasination/rescue mission, “The Scholar’s Pen” truly belongs to Chin Han, who is remarkable as Jia Sidao in this episode. The episode opens with a flashback to Sidao and Mei Lin as children, seemingly without parents. The two of them are struggling to survive, Mei Lin already whoring at a shockingly young age. What’s most interesting though is their dynamic. Up to this point, Sidao has been the intimidating force in their relationship, but in the flashbacks, Mei Lin consistently cuts him down verbally, calling him stupid for not understanding how to ration their coins. It gives us context for the Sidao we see in the present, the overcompensating, vengeful man who finds great pleasure in violence. It also adds depth to his character, and Han brings that to the surface beautifully. In one scene, when the Empress Dowager inquires whether he thinks that Mei Lin has made it out of Kublai Khan’s court alive, Han allows a moment of sadness to appear on his face and in his eyes before switching back to being the steely, closed-off man he assumes he needs to be. It’s the type of subtle, but poignant, character insight that’s mostly been missing from Marco Polo thus far. It’s the kind of nuanced storytelling that shows what type of show this could be if only it stitched more of those moments together.

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Stray observations:

  • War is coming. Beautiful shots of the Mongolian army riding out as the episode comes to a close.
  • Seeing Byamba and Khutulun team up, in more ways than one, was great because they’re two of the series’ most interesting yet under-utilized characters.
  • Empress Chabi and the Blue Princess seem to be developing a relationship. It’ll be interesting to see if Chabi is catching on (or has already caught on) to the fact that the Blue Princess is not who she seems.
  • There’s a wonderful patience to the way the fight scenes are shot in this episode. Nothing feels too chaotic; every movement counts.
  • Empress Chabi, dropping some truth on Kublai Khan: “You quote whatever holiness suits you at the time.”
  • “Some may question the wisdom of sending a blind monk to assassinate the prime minister.”
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