Netflix is billing its newest original series, Marco Polo, as one of the most lavish television shows ever produced, at a cost of $90 million for ten episodes. The series is also the streaming service’s first real foray into the world of history. Lapham’s Quarterly asked Polo biographer Laurence Bergreen, author of Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu, to recap and respond to each episode.
“Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot,” wrote Mark Twain in his preface to Huckleberry Finn. Much the same can be said of the second and third episodes of Netflix’s Marco Polo. Ever the diligent biographer of the real Marco Polo, I’ve been trying in vain to find correspondence between this bloated, faux-naughty dramatization of his life for consumption in the global broadcasting marketplace with actual events, which seem to me considerably more remarkable than the fictionalization.
Not everyone feels the way I do about it. I got into a heated, good-natured argument with my Marco Polo researcher Anna, who’s from Genoa, the chief rival of Venice. She’s a stickler for detail and context. But Anna didn’t find the series chaotic and childish at all. She found it beautiful to watch, especially the enormous sky and the magnificent Mongolian steppe. So I’m trying to look at the series in a less demanding way, as entertainment, an adult fairy tale. Part of the problem, I think, was that after seeing a previous Netflix series, the enormously successful House of Cards, my expectations were high. But Marco Polo, after three hours, never seems to find an idiom or theme all its own. Even the most visceral sequence—the climactic battle scene on the steppe involving Kublai Khan and his brother—seems derivative, in this case, a pale copy of Akira Kurosawa’s mesmerizing battle scenes. In those, you feel the agony and the adrenaline; in Marco Polo, the battle looks kind of static, like a lot of movie extras standing around, waiting for lunch.
The varying accents of the actors or those who dub the voices for them exacerbate my problems with the series. Listening carefully to these episodes with some friends, we detected accents as varied as Valley-speak, British, Bronx, and occasionally Mongol. For some strange reason, Kublai’s dialogue is often incomprehensible, and it’s a shame not to be able to understand the words uttered in a ten-hour-long series. About the most eloquent line of dialogue I’ve heard so far is, “Rip their bodies asunder, sire.”
Up First: A Recap of Episodes 2 and 3
When we rejoin Marco Polo, our hero is planning an escape, but in the meantime it becomes clear that the Khan of Khans intends to use him as a spy. Marco is sent with Khan’s son Jingim to investigate why uncle Ariq didn’t join the battle against the Song rebels (Jingim barely escaped with his life and was forced to retreat) and is also asked to shadow a portly tax collector named Sanga, who later invites Marco to dine at his house and teaches him about the financial aspects of the empire. The head of finance asks Marco to report what he had seen on his rounds, and Marco mentions Sanga getting paid in linen, which, as it turns out, hadn’t been reported to the tax authorities. For this infraction the tax collector is wrapped in a blanket and trampled to death by horses.
Khan, however, benefits greatly from having a fresh set of eyes. When Jingim reports Ariq is ready for battle, Marco chimes in that there is not enough grain for the army to ride, which doesn’t sit well with Jingim. He whispers to Marco, “You will not be gaining favor by your charming stories anymore. Not without a tongue.” Marco is right, and so his tongue is safe for now. The news of the food shortage doesn’t sit well with Khan, who plans to exile Ariq, but the empress advises swift retribution. Fearing a rebellion might ensue, Kublai and his army march to meet Ariq and his army. Both armies watch while the brothers cross swords. Ariq is decapitated, and Kublai sends everyone home to prepare for battle.
After the emperor of the Song dynasty finally dies, chancellor Jia decides to boost his army’s morale by giving three captains permission to use his sister Mei Lin in any way they please. This doesn’t sit well with Mei Lin, who distracts the captains with a naked song-and-dance maneuver and throws her hairpin across the room and into the throat of one of the captains. She then fights in the nude, managing to kill the two remaining men without mussing her makeup or hair. Her next mission, direct from her brother: seduce the Great Khan himself.
Later, in episode three, on an evening ride Marco spots the Blue Princess, a beautiful woman of noble birth, and her towering ogre of a bodyguard hiding an object near a tree. When he approaches her, their exchange, like every Marco-female interaction, is terse and drenched with flirtation. She reminds him that she is out of his reach, but when it is time to ride back to the city she leaves him by saying “I hope you can keep up.” Later, Marco goes back and follows a mysterious man who picks up whatever it was that the princess hid. The mystery man takes the parcel, which contains a necklace, to meet a creepy figure in a bar. The creepy figure is also the show’s first gay character—his style of bartering is “Eyeball to eyeball. Now, we can either deal or fuck. Your choice.” The mystery man favors parting with the necklace.
Mei Lin is undergoing initiation at the emperor’s “hall of five desires.” She is, of course, naked, along with a dozen or so other nubile women vying to service the Great Khan. The head of the hall cautions that here lovemaking is a grave matter: “Perform as if your life depends on it. It most likely does.” The women remain nude and take turns pleasuring each other, a task at which Mei Lin acquits herself admirably. However, this isn’t enough for the empress, who does not choose Lin. Not one to obey orders, Mei Lin scares off one of the chosen and mounts the emperor anyway.
Killing your brother is bound to lead to deep philosophical thought. Haven’t you heard of Cain and Abel? Kublai Khan hadn’t, but Marco rectifies this in an attempt to assuage the emperor. He’s feeling better, but is still suffering from gout and so decides to send Marco and Jingim to a celebratory feast in his place. Marco has a wrestling match with a saucy Mongolian princess (clad in a leather bikini) that quickly turns into public fornication. Fortune shines less on Jingim, who has to sit around a bonfire while his cousin and half-brother talk about how a true Mongol would never have retreated from battle. Back at home Jingim throws a tantrum in front of his father for leaving him to the avarice of his family. Khan slaps his son around a bit before going on a rant about his alcoholic father and how his son must act like a Mongol or else face death: “I will kill you,” he threatens. Later, when the Khan is getting Marco’s side of the story, he catches him in a lie. Kublai flies into rage and bludgeons an underling to death with a ceremonial ladle crafted from elephant testicles. He excuses the action by saying if he let Marco off the hook for lying and word got around, it would be disastrous.
The second and third hours have brought with them considerably more sensuality, female nudity, and what one might call girl-on-girl action. The Mongol setting is an excuse for them to get it on. In one scene, borrowed perhaps from a Las Vegas venue, two lesbians interact—no, make that three, and on further inspection, four, by my count. Such ridiculousness does not belong to Marco Polo’s original, which emphatically is not 1,001 Arabian Nights or The Decameron, and I felt slightly soiled watching the sequence. The dialogue surrounding such set pieces doesn’t help much. When Marco begins his extended flirtation with the fetching young Mongol princess clad in her “leather bikini,” although it looked to me like an après-ski outfit, her question for him—“And the women you’re conquering, do they melt in your hand?”—leads to a bout of martial arts foreplay between the couple, which ends in sex. She appears to climax while riding him, even though both are fully clothed. Again, one looks in vain for anything remotely resembling these tableaux in the original Marco Polo. And it just feels incongruous.
While researching my book, Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu, I crisscrossed China and spent a number of nights in ger camps similar to those depicted in the series. (A ger is a Mongol dwelling, essentially a large round frame draped with felt, and comfortably furnished within. They are semi-portable, because the Mongols in Polo’s day were nomadic, and many still are.) But the ger camp in the series looked as if it had been fabricated by Disney’s imagineers: it was cartoonish and bogus, lacking the austere beauty of an actual ger settlement.
While on the subject of authenticity, the series implies, but never really conveys, that the Mongols were a horse-based culture, which fit with their nomadism and warrior culture. They counted their wealth in horses and other livestock, and they seemed almost to live on their horses, which was useful for covering the huge distances of the steppe. And the staple Mongolian drink—their national beverage, if you will—is koumiss, a frothy, pungent brew made from fermented mare’s milk. It’s shown briefly without much explanation in the series. It is an acquired taste, and important to that time. But that’s not coming through, yet. Nor do we see much of China. In fact, we’ve seen practically nothing of China, even though China looms very large in Marco Polo’s own account.
Instead, we get pseudo-history. For instance, the show returns again and again to Marco’s apprenticeship in kung fu. That’s just nonsense. Marco was not a martial arts aficionado; he worked for Kublai Khan. He was an observer, a reporter, endlessly adaptable and resourceful. He was not a kung fu master. That’s a different movie.
At the end of third episode, there is the snake. Marco Polo reaches into a bag to retrieve silk garments, and, despite seeing the creature well in advance, apparently gets snake-bit. I admit, I’m curious to know what happens next. And I’ve almost forgotten that nothing like this shamelessly manipulative device occurs in the actual Travels of Marco Polo.
With Malcolm Nicholson.