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Marco Polo: “White Moon”

Benedict Wong, Joan Chen
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On its own, “White Moon” is an overwhelmingly boring hour of television and, heavy on exposition–not one of Marco Polo’s strengths. It manages to give the viewer the illusion of story without actually advancing too many plots. At the same time, “White Moon” is also a cool down episode, a moment of respite after the action and emotion that made the previous episode, “Hashshashin,” so compelling. Still, cool down episodes need to continue to advance the narrative, and this episode does little to build upon or sustain the momentum created by the previous episode’s assassination attempt and ensuing political tensions.

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“White Moon” spends a lot of time treading water before giving the audience a release in its final 10 minutes. Much of the episode is devoted to Marco and Byamba’s search for who hired the assassins that attempted to kill Kublai Khan. This leads to scene after scene of exposition, of conversation built upon conjecture. In theory, this should be fascinating–just about any mystery is inherently compelling due to the very fact that we don’t know what’s coming. Here though, the investigation is tedious, and there’s no sense of urgency to what Marco and Byamba are doing. Marco even finds some time to casually flirt with a returning Khutulun. Much of the problem boils down to the fact that these characters hardly feel like people, like individuals with their own concerns, motivations, and personality tics. Instead, they feel like empty vessels for contrived dialogue, and putting each of them into a dialogue-heavy scene with the uncharismatic Marco only serves to expose how undercooked the storyline is.

To put it another way, since the narrative thrust of Marco Polo is tied to the potential conflict between Kublai Khan and the walled city of Xiangyang, just about every storyline outside of that feels underserved. The show has yet to figure out how to move its main plot forward while also deepening and expanding upon its other storylines. Devoting the majority of an episode to mild-mannered but slightly accusatory conversations between Marco, Byamba and whoever they come to suspect fails to capitalize on the momentum created in the previous episode. The pacing is all off, and lengthy scenes of stilted dialogue expose that.

It’s not only the dialogue that exposes how belabored the story is. There are performances and scenes within the show that stand head-and-shoulders above the rest, but they don’t elevate Marco Polo; they accentuate its flaws. For instance, the return of Khutulun, the fighter that Marco slept with a few episodes ago, immediately changes the dynamic of the show. Claudia Kim has a natural charisma, and her character is brimming with history. We understand her and her role–as a fighter, as a woman, as Kaidu’s daughter–better than we do most of the characters we are forced to spend time with in this episode. The same can be said for Joan Chen and the wonderful work she’s doing as Empress Chabi. Both Chabi and Khutulun feel like real people; they’re fleshed-out characters who are able to convey and balance a variety of emotions and motivations all at once. The same cannot be said for the majority of the cast and characters here, most of whom stagnate and feel more like puppets than people.

Continuing the episode’s trend of women being the most interesting characters is Mei Lin’s storyline, which involves her battle to save her daughter. A messenger is sent to her with new instructions from Sidao. She is to assassinate Kublai Khan. She notes that there is no mention of her daughter in the letter, and learns from the messenger that Sidao has bound her. The devastation and panic on her face is palpable, and because we know what Sidao is capable of–he killed his own army’s most-skilled guard, after all–we can relate to her plight. Initially, she tries to poison the Khan by using tiger root on her lips, but alas, Empress Chabi won’t allow her to kiss the Khan. Instead, she makes her kiss another one of the consorts who, after an undefined amount of time, dies. With that plan foiled, she makes a last-ditch effort to kill the Khan while the White Moon ceremony takes place. The final scene works on so many levels: it’s visual spectacle anchored by character insight. It gives us reason to care. We care about Mei Lin and her daughter, and we know her plan can’t possibly work, a knowledge that makes watching her try all the more tragic. Visually, it gives us some of the season’s finest achievements, including Mei Lin doing backflips while slaughtering guards, and the image at the tope of this review, with Empress Chabi stoic and in control, taking the shot that brings Mei Lin down. It’s a shame that the women are largely tertiary characters on Marco Polo, because they remain the most captivating and complex aspect of this season.

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Stray observations:

  • Along with nods to Khutulun, Chabi, and Mei Lin, the Empress within the walled city deserves a mention as well, as she powerplays Sidao out of his position as Chancellor.
  • So the Blue Princess is not actually the Blue Princess, something only her friend Tulga knows. Marco is on to her though.
  • Niccolò doesn’t seem too upset to be leaving without the benefit of Imperial pass. Perhaps because we’ll see him again sooner rather than later. Or, as Yusef said, “Did he abandon his son to serve his purse…or his pope?”.
  • That opening scene, where we find out that the real Blue Princess killed herself before Khan’s army could capture her, is beautifully directed. I especially loved the shot where the camera sweeps through the flaps of the tent and rises to reveal our new Blue Princess being taken prisoner.
  • An update on Jingim: he spends the entirety of the episode whining to various people.
  • It’ll be interesting to see how Sidao manoeuvres a new plan into place now that he has been booted out by the Dynastic council.
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