Marco Polo: “The Wayfarer”

TV Reviews
Marco Polo: “The Wayfarer”

Period dramas and sweeping historical epics set in the medieval period aren’t uncommon, but the premise of Netflix’s Marco Polo—with a protagonist famed for his merchant abilities—suggests a departure from the usual. There’s a promise of characters who aren’t just swashbuckling knights, and sets that aren’t more gory battlefields.

Netflix’s newest original series comes with a handful of other perks, too: an inaugural season released in full, rather than serialized; and the astonishing budget of $90 million—a price tag second only to HBO’s Game of Thrones. That exorbitant amount is visible in the show’s pilot episode, where stunning overhead shots frame the cast in the cities, deserts and mountain ranges of Kazakhstan and Italy. 

Dramas like these often get off to a slow start: sprawling casts must be introduced, and intricate webs woven, before the intrigue and betrayals can begin. But writer John Fusco is able to set the stage without too much tedium. We meet the titular Marco Polo, played by a Lorenzo Richelmy. (Expectedly, Richelmy is a handsomer Polo than we see in those centuries-old portraits.) We meet his father Niccolò, a calculating merchant who might love coin more than his own kin. And we meet Kublai Khan, the ruthless grandson of Genghis Khan played spectacularly by Benedict Wong. 

One character is a miss, however, and painfully cliché: Hundred Eyes, the blind warrior able to best others in combat, and quarter fruit in midair with his scimitar, and—for no discernible reason—practice martial arts with a cobra. The scenes with Hundred Eyes are clumsy and more at home in a garish kung fu flick, not a pricey Netflix drama.

Narration in “The Wayfarer” leaps back and forth to appraise the viewer of the current state of affairs: Polo, abandoned by his father, is now a ward of Kublai Khan. The gist of the show, it seems, will be the European Polo (colloquially called a “Latin” or “Phoenician” by the locals) stranded in a distant and enigmatic land. Already, Polo has witnessed strange happenings: those fabled Mongolian harems, and a court where horse theft is punishable by death—if you’re lucky.

If the show maintains the flashback/flash forward premise, we’ll be treated to one of the program’s more promising dynamics—the relationship between Polo and his callous father. Niccolò has a kinship with Tywin Lannister: both are willing to trade away progeny for the sake of politics. But unless the show plans to deviate from history, we know Niccolò won’t meet a demise at the hands of his son. 

During one scene in the pilot, Polo admits his greatest fear: It’s not perishing in a remote land, but rather being forced to live a common life. It seems Polo’s fear—and his willingness to avoid it—will be the engine carrying us through this $90 million adventure.

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