Dave Crewe is a teacher and freelance writer from Brisbane, Australia.
If you’re looking for some holiday binge-watching to satiate your Game of Thrones addiction, Netflix have their fingers crossed you’ll turn to Marco Polo. The series–originally intended for Starz before Netflix and the Weinstein Company swooped in–uses its thirteenth century setting to present a historical drama that’s been widely compared to Game of Thrones. The surface similarities are there: grand political posturing in the court of Kublai Khan (Benedict Wong), fierce medieval battles between the Mongolian and Northern Chinese armies and, perhaps most importantly, comparable production values (Marco Polo reportedly cost $90 million to produce).
Netflix is no doubt hoping to lure Game of Thrones devotees to their new series. They’re also hoping to attract fans of the recently-completed Starz series Spartacus, which is perhaps a greater influence on Marco Polo. Each show centers on a real historical figure that your average audience member knows so little about that they might as well be a fantasy character (Spartacus mostly known for “I am Spartacus!” from the Kubrick film; Polo mostly known for “Marco? Polo!” from the swimming pool game). Combined with a capable cast, this combination of warfare, intrigue, history (and, perhaps unsurprisingly, copious nudity) seems like a winning formula–why then is Marco Polo so disappointing?
To explain the failure of Marco Polo, let’s begin with its eponymous protagonist. Much like Piper in Orange is the New Black, he serves as a familiar, unthreatening (read: white) audience surrogate into an unfamiliar world of feudal Oriental culture (except, unlike Piper, he remains profoundly uninteresting throughout). ‘Gifted’ to the Khan by his father in order to curry favour and safe passage through the legendary Silk Road, Polo’s skills of observation and explanation quickly earn him a vaunted position in the Khan’s court.
This could have been a perfectly engaging introduction to the Mongol Empire…if only there were some substance to our tour guide. Marco is a milquetoast protagonist; he’s honorable, deft with a sword, and incredibly boring. It doesn’t help matters that the actor playing Polo–Lorenzo Richelmy, an Italian actor plucked from relative obscurity–lacks any charisma (though he is ruggedly handsome). It’s not necessarily surprising that he can’t match the spark of Andy Whitfield in Spartacus…but when the lead character lacks the drive of even a Robb Stark or Jon Snow, there are problems.
Looking beyond the leading man only reveals further problems. The two shows influencing Marco Polo take a critical look at the societies they depict. Game of Thrones uses the brutal cruelty of its society to demonstrate the toll of patriarchy while Spartacus – which is about a slave rebellion–has radicalism baked into its very premise. Marco Polo, however, presents a conventional and uncritical portrayal of a society where militaristic masculinity is synonymous with power. Early episodes establish both Khan and his Chinese adversary, Chancellor Jia Sadao (Chin Han) as leaders through their supremacy in one-on-one combat, an approach that’s shared with the show’s broader representations of effective leadership.
To be fair, the show occasionally suggests an interrogation of such systems, but it’s so mawkishly handled to be ineffective. For example, the eighth episode, “Rendering”, has Marco questioning the Khan’s authority after countless Chinese prisoners are murdered and “rendered into a weapon to rain fire on [the Chinese city] Xiangyang.” Yet the Khan’s earlier killing of an innocent servant before Marco went uncommented on, and by series’ end Marco remains by the Khan’s side.
Things are no better when it comes to Marco Polo’s depiction of female characters, which makes Game of Thrones’ problems look better by comparison. It’s rare to find an episode of Marco Polo without seemingly obligatory female nudity (while dongs are avoided altogether, unlike the more equitable Spartacus). Episode two features the show’s most memorable bit of exploitation, and perhaps the apotheosis of such shows’ attempts to balance unnecessary nudity with ‘strong female characters’, by staging a kung fu battle between three Chinese soldiers and an entirely unclothed concubine (Olivia Cheng). The very next episode has its camera track past literally dozens of naked prospective concubines, as though trying to outdo its competitors with sheer quantity.
Nudity doesn’t preclude a nuanced representation of women, necessarily, but Marco Polo has no female character in the same league as Cersei, Daenerys or Arya. There are attempts at important female roles, but the characters included are either underwritten archetypes–Joan Chen as the Khan’s Queen, Zhu Zhu as a meek Mongol Princess–or are simply underused: Claudia Kim delivers an engaging performance as Khutulun, daughter of the Khan’s cousin and a legendary warrior, but she rarely plays a substantial role in the narrative. Presumably aware of these problems, the writers employ Chinese foot binding as a bone-crackingly obvious example of woman’s subjugation, with Jia Sadao roughly snapping a young princess’s feet into position. But it feels like an addendum rather than commentary explicitly woven into the show’s fabric.
All of this–the watery main character, the unthinking embrace of hegemonic society, the disappointing marginalization of women–could be forgiven if the show was actually entertaining. While the plotting isn’t complex enough to equal the impact of Game of Thrones, there’s abundant potential for the series to follow in its footsteps and embrace its baser inclinations. For a series that features a blind kung fu expert and a scene where a concubine does battle in the nude, Marco Polo plays things remarkably straight.
Game of Thrones has Peter fucking Dinklage, Spartacus had its overblown, colorful dialogue, but Marco Polo avoids humor altogether, with a wearying, po-faced self-serious tone (there are exceptions–Amr Waked’s deadpan is sublime as the Vice Regent–but they’re few and far between). Both Spartacus and Game of Thrones embrace their melodramatic tendencies, but those responsible for Marco Polo seem to be under the unfortunate misapprehension that they’re making high art. Ultimately the show feels less like the successor to Game of Thrones, more like something spat out by a computer after crunching Netflix metrics – 10% nudity, 10% kung fu, appeal to Asian audience, attractive Caucasian leading man, etc. I’d recommend spending your holidays rewatching Game of Thrones or Spartacus instead.