Greed, betrayal, sexual intrigue and rivalry are all evident in Series 2 of the Netflix Original television series Marco Polo, which splendidly relates the life and times of Venetian trader and traveller Marco Polo (1254-1324) when he lived in what we know now as China, at the court of the Mongolian conqueror Kublai Khan (1215-1204).
Marco Polo presented Emperor Kublai Kahn as an ideal universal sovereign in his memoir ‘Description of the World’ written in 1298, which covered a surprisingly large part of it, well at least from the Polar Sea to Java, from Zanzibar to Japan. He was the most travelled author since Creation and the trail he blazoned across the mountains and valleys of Cathay had not been trodden for at least 600 years.
‘No other man, Christian or Saracen, Mongol or Pagan, has explored so much of the world as Messer Marco, son of Messer Niccolò Polo. It was God’s will he should come back, so men might know the things that are in the world’*
Marco Polo did not however overlook the Khan’s human weaknesses; his lifestyle of feasting and hunting, his complicated and expensive sexual encounters, his failure to exercise proper supervision over those he was meant to be guiding, as well as those around him dealing with sudden outbursts of cruelty.
Don’t read any more if you don’t want spoilers.
At the beginning of Episode 1 of Season 2, some eighteen months or so after we met all the characters of this dark but compelling series, we are set the task of re-discovering the characters and their interaction. This wasn’t a pretty period of history.
We also discover how birds could become an important military weapon. A symbol of freedom and peace, ten thousand swallows are a gift requested by the Khan of the Mongols from the Chinese general in charge of a fortress city resisting his siege. He hands them over hoping the Khan and his men will go away.
However he unleashes them with cotton wool tufts tied to their tails, which have been set alight. The birds instinctively returning home, perish as they fall from the sky onto the roofs of houses within the fortressed city, setting them all on fire. This ensures its defenders are kept busy putting out fires, while the Khan and his men attack and take the city. This is a valuable lesson being taught to the young Kublai by his grandfather, Genghis Khan.
We encounter the great Kublai Khan, the ‘light of the world’ sitting on his golden throne of heaven, when his Prodigal son Byamba (Uli Ltukefu) a friend of Marco’s, returns home.
Welcomed by his father, at least until he tells him he bears a message from Kublai’s cousin Kaidu (Rick Yune), whose camp is in the old capital of Cathay, he delivers it deliberately on the day of his brother and the Khan’s eldest son Prince Jingim’s wedding, knowing it is offensive.
All the celebratory rituals attached to that event are already in play for Prince Jingim (Remy Hii) Kublai’s eldest son has been raised in the ‘Chinese tradition’.
He is marrying the Blue Princess Kokochin (Zhu Zhu), the secret love interest of Marco Polo in Season 1 who knows she isn’t the real Princess at all, but a slave girl who took her place when her mistress fled in fear of her life.
The Khan has to delay his own attendance, until he hears how Kaidu is formally challenging Kublai’s right to rule in China by demanding a kurultai (assembly or council) because he wants to secure the position for himself.
The Empress Chabi (Joan Chen) arrives and dismisses the Khan’s war council, asking that he does not soil the day of their son’s betrothal with talk of tomorrow, urging him to use compassion as a weapon, not war
While the marriage has been arranged to secure more heirs to the throne, Jingim pledges his loyalty and trust to his new wife, who loses their first heir to a miscarriage
Marco Polo and his wild-card woman friend Mei Lin (Olivia Cheng), former consort to the Song Emperor, are out and about looking for the boy heir to the former Song Dynasty while the wedding is happening.
They must together defeat the warrior former Empress, who guards the boy Emperor, keeping him hidden under the floorboards of an isolated house in the jungle.
Back in the old capital Kaidu is seeking the help of Kublai’s Christian uncle Nayan (Ron Yuan) who is torn between two worlds. He needs to know what his grand nephew will concede in a diplomatic negotiation, which is about compromise after all.
Offering him wine, Kaidu refuses to drink as it’s ironically against his religion and principles.
In the new capital of Cambulac, Kublai is taking advice from his wife who wants him to accept the challenge to his throne. They know Kaidu is operating within Mongolian law, and any other approach would suggest weakness or deceit.
The best day of granting favours is the day they are returned to you, and to challenge a sitting Khan is a serious event.
As we progress Kaidu is pushing forward with his plans and Marco Polo and Mei Lin arrive to deliver the last boy Emperor of the south to the Khan.
When Marco learns the Khan may have the boy killed he pleads a case for having him live.
Morals are all that stand between reverence and infamy when our days are done after all. The little boy stands before the great Khan who tells him there are a lot of people who want him to die.
The tiny child relates how he has already seen a bad man die and asks the Khan innocently is that why you want me to die… tears streaming down his cheeks. I don’t want to he says, suddenly throwing himself into the conflicted Kublai Khan’s arms to be comforted. Instead he is smothered to death.
Kublai has the body of the child hung from the walls of the city for a week to crush any thought of rebellion. However it doesn’t have the desired impact of fear Kublai hoped for, as the Chinese people riot for weeks.
The Khan doesn’t want to understand what Marco has tried to tell him, that the locals don’t see his presence in their country as liberating, but instead as occupation.
Kill children with impunity – who will you ask, his Empress says, as she chastises him for killing the child and Kublai tells her that ‘I do what must be done for our Empire’ and then bars her from giving him council again.
Diplomacy is strength and it is certainly needed now. Kublai orders Polo who is also very distressed by what has happened to accompany him, and they leave to climb a rocky mountain together.
There is just the two of them without guards or minders, revealing the ruler’s trust in his Venetian companion. The Khan is contemplating whether or not Prince Jingim, who is renowned for his diplomatic skills, should talk to the heads of the other Mongol tribes and present Kublai’s case about his remaining Khan over all China and Mongolia.
The Blue Princess is under pressure to produce an heir before Kaidu’s claim comes to pass. As she has already lost one foetus, the Prince’s Mother Empress Chabi enters her bedroom in the middle of one night to hold her down, while a stable boy is ordered to impregnate her.
“The baby will have no royal blood,” she says seeing the act as some sort of revenge against the Khan for setting her advice aside in favour of others.
Prince Jingim and Ahmed (Mahesh Jadu) Kublai Khan’s Indian born financial advisor, who seemingly cannot do any wrong in the Khan’s eyes, are on their way to the old capital of Karakorum.
They have been instructed to persuade the other heads of various Mongolian tribes to vote for Kublai Khan at the coming kurultai (like a summit of leaders).
While Prince Jingim earns respect in a wrestling match against a much bigger opponent whom he defeats, Kaidu’s children Khutulun (Claudia Kim) and her brother Orus (Leonard Wu) attack he and Ahmed on their way home, killing their horses from underneath them and wounding Ahmed.
While all this is going down the Khan and Marco Polo on their trip up the mountain are kept busy discussing death, responsibility, and the fates. They come face-to-face with a wolf several times, with Kublai seeing its presence as a sign, ordering Marco Polo to stare it down as he will Kaidu.
Marco Polo’s father arrives at the Pope’s court at Acre in Jerusalem with Kublai Khan’s Christian Uncle in tow. The Pope (Gabriel Byrne) expresses his desire to see Kublai Khan gone.
The Pope is clearly unhappy Kublai Kahn is acting like a Christian should, being accepting of many religions. So he vows to confront his forces should they move west. Kublai’s cousin Nayan proves his value to the Pope and can be found washing away his sins through baptism while preparing for battle.
Meanwhile, Kaidu rebukes his son Orus whose actions have brought Kublai Khan to his doorstep looking for his missing sons.
Stranded on the Mongol steppes where nature can be very harsh, they are battling the elements, which threaten to end both their lives with only Prince Jingim’s care helping them to survive.
Along the way Kaidu and Kublai connect with memories from their childhood although they remain divided on the prospects for the Mongol Empire in China.
Things get very heated and insults fly with Kaidu pulling a sword on Kublai, just as it is announced Jingim and Ahmad are found, defusing the situation.
Back in the ‘city of light’ the Blue Princess discovers the stable boy who impregnated her has been killed for his trouble. She goes to see the body for herself and stumbles upon his wife, afterwards spending the day with her and her baby, which affects her very deeply.
With Jingim lost, it looks like she may opt back out of being a member of royalty, but then the news comes through the Prince has been found, after bonding with Ahmad, who almost reveals his own plans to overthrow the Khan in his delirium.
We are now halfway through the series with the old Empress of China spreading dissent sending emissaries with bombs to inflict damage on the Khan’s troops with five rebels killed over three Mongols.
Things are hotting up and we are given Ahmad’s backstory. When he first became “Financial Advisor” to Kublai Khan, he took a short leave from the palace to polish his skills and meet important people within the Khan’s territory. He meets the mistress of a brothel who offers him the choice of one of three of her cleanest whores in lieu of payment of debts owed.
Ahmad chooses a woman the mistress points out he matches. Of Indian blood too, one day after spending the afternoon in bed together, she begins singing a song he knows from his childhood.
He asks where she heard it and she says she wrote it for her tiny son whom she lost when he was little many moons ago.
Shocked by what he has discovered, Ahmad strangles his mother to death, and she unwittingly becomes a catalyst for the beginning of his descent into darkness.
Marco Polo is becoming a nuisance, sticking his nose into decisions the Khan is making and Ahmad now filled with hate and rage wants him gone.
He tells his current mistress Mai Ling, who caters to his sadistic sexual appetite, to get rid of the Latin for him, not knowing they have a special bond.
The soldier who escorted the stable hand into the blue princess’s bedroom also comes to Ahmad to give him information about the way the new heir has been conceived.
On top of all that, the inexplicable happens, the former lady Kokochin returns… wanting her life back.
Marco Polo himself can seem like an after thought in all that is going down in this series sometimes, but he’s not far from every frame, quietly continuing his own lessons in martial arts taught by the blind monk Hundred Eyes (Tom Wu).
It’s an extraordinary world the Venetian trader Marco Polo has landed in.
He confides in his old teacher about his fears for the Khan’s life at the hands of Ahmed, just before Lotus (Michelle Yeoh) a major new character who has some kind of history with Hundred Eyes, arrives.
Who will be the strongest survivors of the Yuan dynasty (1206-1368)?
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2016
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*Marco Polo, Travels