Marco Polo: “The Wolf and the Deer”

TV Reviews
Marco Polo: “The Wolf and the Deer”

Fairly early into Marco Polo’s second episode, we learn an important lesson: Marco Polo will not quite be the show’s protagonist, a plucky hero able to outwit and outfight his Mongol foes. Instead, it becomes apparent that Polo will serve as our window into the world of 13th century Mongolia. He’s a spectator whose experience in east Asia is nearly as foreign as ours. 

Clever, though, Polo retains some agency. It’s he who first realizes Kublai Khan’s brother, Ariq, is a traitor. When visiting Ariq’s tract of land, Polo—adept in quantities of grain, from his merchant pedigree—realizes Ariq’s army doesn’t have the required wares to trek across Mongolia and aid Prince Jingham, Kublai Khan’s son, in battle. Polo’s discovery helps prevent Kublai’s defeat and wins him accolades with the Khan. (But no good deed goes unpunished —Jingham, outclassed by a foreigner, threatens to cut out Polo’s tongue.) 

A troupe of capable female characters also make an appearance in Marco Polo’s sophomore episode: We meet Kokachin, a surly Mongol princess and Polo’s likely paramour; and Mei Lin, a major player in the court of the Song Dynasty. Mei Lin offers us a glimpse into the fractured China that Kublai Khan so dearly hopes to conqueror. She’s spirited, too; in a melee in her bedroom, Mei Lin dispatches a small cadre of lecherous soldiers with just a hairpin. 

The episode’s climax —the confrontation between brothers Kublai Khan and Ariq—is deftly executed. The dialogue plays emotional rather than expository, and when the two meet on the battlefield, the skirmish is refreshingly realistic. There’s little posturing or acrobatics; instead, encumbered by armor, the two lurch at one another clumsily until Ariq is impaled, then beheaded. 

The fratricide quells this episode’s conflict, and also unites a divided Mongolia, now ready to march south on to Mei Lin’s China. Polo, of course, will be along for the ride —and bringing us with him.

Kevin Zawacki is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast and other publications. You can follow him on Twitter.

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