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Marco Polo: “The Wolf And The Deer”

Benedict Wong
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The biggest problem with Marco Polo, at least through its first two episodes, is that the show isn’t really sure what it wants to be. At times, it wants to be a serious historical epic that muses on the nature of power and diplomacy. It wants to execute dialogue about trade routes and tax collection in a way that seems consequential and insightful. At other times, the show wants to be an over-the-top piece of genre television. It wants to deliver a bevy of images devoid of meaning, but that would look totally cool on your Tumblr page. So far, the show’s best moments have come from sticking to the latter, when it unabashedly commits to its frivolity and ridiculousness. Unfortunately, in “The Wolf And The Deer,” too much time is spent on the former.

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“The Wolf And The Deer” seems to be an episode that’s meant to better familiarize the audience with the world of Marco Polo, introducing us to its mercantile system, digging deeper into its political conflicts, and giving us a sense of how isolated Marco Polo feels within it. But just like the first episode, there’s a significant imbalance between the amount of words coming out of these characters’ mouths and what is actually being said. It’s the difference between plot and narrative, where plot is the barebones outline of what happens, and narrative consists of how the story is told; how it interweaves relevant themes, how it goes about characterization and world building. This episode is largely plot, and no narrative.

The issue with the lagging narrative is that so few of these characters feel fleshed out. Compelling characterization is all about giving your characters motivations that the audience can, at the very least, understand, and at best, relate to. If we consider Marco to be the main character (not a stretch, I think, considering that the show is named after him), it’s troubling that we understand very little of what motivates his actions. Yes, we understand that he wants to gain access to the Silk Road in order to meet up with is father again, but what else? He is a shell of a character at the moment. There is one scene that allows us into the mind of Marco, and it’s remarkable in how it stands out from everything around it. When Marco is in the stable, ready to flee before being confronted by Hundred Eyes, he utters “this is not my home,” while the camera lingers outside the stable, framing Marco through the latticework. It’s an on-the-nose image of how trapped Marco feels, and how much he longs to be on the road with his father, searching for his sense of self, but it works to give us insight into the character and his existential struggle. It’s perhaps the first time we feel an emotional connection to Marco, and the show could use many more moments like that.

Over in the walled city, the Emperor has passed, essentially allowing Jia Sidao, also known amongst his more humorous soldiers as The Cricket Minister, to ascend to power–if that pesky little kid doesn’t get in the way first. The impending regime change allows the guards an opportunity to storm into Mei Lin’s bedroom and demand sex–or, “improve diplomatic ties,” if you will. There’s already been a lot of chatter about what happens next. Lin begins to strip down, seducing the three guards. Once nude, she slaughters them all, first by throwing a long hair pin into a guard’s throat, and then using his sword to dispose of the other bewildered gents. The scene is certainly problematic in the way its executed; there’s no real need for Lin to be fully nude, the slow motion letting the viewer’s gaze linger on her body. It’s gratuitous, plain and simple. And yet, it’s a scene that gets back to what I mentioned above: the show committing to its ludicrousness. If the writers want this to be a show that boils down to, “cool slowmo fight scene, bro,” then great, do that, and do that with confidence. But trying to elevate clearly gratuitous material by attaching it to a vague sense of historical legitimacy only serves to accentuate the show’s already troubling orientalism.

It’s a shame that “The Wolf And The Deer” spends so much time spinning its wheels, dabbling in conflicts that have no real tension, because the last 15 minutes of this episode are glorious. Kublai Khan, after realizing (with the help of Marco) that his brother Ariq has betrayed him, goes to meet with his brother, knowing that little can be done to repair their relationship. They meet on neutral ground, gathered in a hut playing a game and discussing their views for what their dynasty can be. Kublai Khan envision a vast empire, controlling all of China and its trade routes. Ariq feels that such a vision is a betrayal of their Mongolian heritage, and insists that Kublai Khan is not the rightful “Khan of Khans.” Understanding that no truce will be called between them, they prepare for battle. The next day, solders on either side meet at a cresting hill. The camera, beginning with a close up of Kublai Khan, does a full 360-degree turn, a staggering bit of directing that lends the scene a sense of scope and stakes. There’s to be no battle though. Instead, Kublai Khan and Ariq fight one-on-one, or “Mongolian versus Mongolian,” assuring finality in the matter. The fight, much like the rest of the show, boasts an overbearing amount of slow motion, but the reason it never fails to compel is because we, the audience, have come to understand what’s at stake here. There are layers of filial, political, and economic stakes, and it lends the scene a certain gravitas that Marco Polo sorely lacks. More of this going forward, please.

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Stray observations:

  • It was nice to see Marco using his merchant skills to contribute to Kublai Khan’s military decisions. It was another moment where we get at least a little more understanding of who Marco Polo is and why we should care about him.
  • That scene where Marco meets the Blue Princess embodies the show as a whole: beautifully shot, but so stilted and meaningless.
  • Benedict Wong is stealing the show so far. I want him in every scene.
  • Kublai Khan was given one of the few great lines of the episode that didn’t feel totally contrived. Seeing that Marco is struggling to find himself, he tells him that he was about his age when he realized “that I had to become the man I wish my father was.”
  • Seriously, we don’t need that much slow motion. It kills the momentum of the final scene, which is staggering as is, but could have been even better.
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