“May you live in interesting times.”
No doubt you’ve heard this phrase, the so-called ‘Chinese curse.’ It’s a saying that was a favourite of the late and great Sir Terry Pratchett. In its most literal meaning, the phrase sounds positive. ‘Interesting,’ of course, implies interest, meaning a lack of boredom. ‘Activity’. Maybe even ‘fun.’
But that’s not what the phrase really means. Far from being the call for good luck that quick close read implies, the phrase actually means: “May you live in tumultuous times” – times of war and strife. Certainly not fun. And, in actual fact, the phrase isn’t Chinese at all. The phrase originated in the speeches of late 19th-century politician Joseph Chamberlain. The closest phrase phrase in Chinese is “宁為太平犬，莫做亂离人” which means “It is better to be a dog in a peaceful time than a human in a warring period,” which itself originates in the short story anthology Stories to Awaken the World by Feng Menglong. It’s important to understand this phrase, its history and its true meaning because it’s a pretty good comparison to the general reaction to Marco Polo (2014).
Marco Polo’s first season was often compared negatively to HBO’s Game of Thrones (2012), with the general consensus being that, while the first season was alright, there wasn’t really anything to write home about. Much in the same way that there’s some truth in the history of the phrase, there’s truth in the comparison between Marco Polo and Game of Thrones. It’s true that its storyline pales in comparison to HBO’s juggernaut, but then again so does everything else on television at the moment. And it’s certainly true that the show has jumped the deep end when it comes to being historically accurate, but it would be wrong to misjudge Marco Polo based on its historical authenticity. After all, what is 100% historically accurate?
So, yes, I agree that Marco Polo is “just” okay when compared to Game of Thrones. But let’s not kid ourselves, compared to most other television shows at the moment, it’s a damned good show.
Let’s look at Marco Polo’s strong points. First of all, the show has an amazingly strong cast, with the best actor no doubt being the Khan himself – Benedict Wong playing Kublai Khan. Wong imbues the khan with a human quality that is so often missing from interpretations of powerful leaders from history. He’s a man who seeks to maintain the culture which has made him who he is and yet at the same time struggles to modernise it and prepare it for imperialism, a man who struggles between doing what he believes that he must do for the good of his people and what he believes to be right. Wong absolutely dominates every scene that he’s in and it is a joy to watch his performance, particularly later on in the series when his human side is allowed to show itself a little more all the while maintaining the commanding presence that made him the khan. Likewise, Uli Latukefu gives an excellent performance as his bastard son, Byamba, as does Rick Yune as Kaidu, the khan of the Chagatai Khanate, and Tom Wu still brings an excellent performance and oceans of talent to the role of the blind Tao monk Hundred Eyes. I could go on and on about the cast, so I’ll just say that on the whole, they’re all excellent. With one exception…
Lorenzo Richelmy is the weakest link in this chain of great actors – a surprising fact considering he’s playing what logically should be the lead character. It’s not that he’s bad, he just doesn’t seem to have much chemistry with anyone else on screen – even when they’re supposed to be related to him or close relations such as Kokachin (Zhu Zhu). You could say that’s intentional, a means of portraying Polo’s alienation in that part of the world, but if so, it doesn’t work. For one, that would have worked in the first season but that shouldn’t be the case now. Secondly, it doesn’t translate well on screen. The show makes up for that, though, by placing a greater emphasis on the ensemble nature of the show in its second season.
But acting alone cannot make or break a show. It needs something else. In Marco Polo, that something else is the music as well as its costuming and sets. The music is well researched and extremely well-executed. I can’t say that I have much experience in dealing with Mongolian Throat Singing but from what little experience I do have, I can say that this is an authentic portrayal of the art. Peter Nashel and Eric V. Hachikian, as well as Altan Urag, deserve all the praise that they get and more because Marco Polo‘s score is very impressive. Likewise, the sets and costumes are up to, if not exceeding those used in Game of Thrones. The sets aren’t quite as ‘epic’ as those seen in Game of Thrones, but considering the time period and the nature of the Khanate, they don’t need to be.
Let’s get to the negatives, shall we? Marco Polo’s biggest problem is its story. Sometimes in its first season, the show wasn’t sure if it wanted to tell a made up story in a historical setting or if it wanted to stick to the historical truth. Much of the time, it met half-way between the two extremes, and in a way that didn’t make the historical facts more interesting or the drama more enticing. It just… didn’t work.
Season 2, to its credit, is slightly better at maintaining historical accuracy than its predecessor, but it’s still far more concentrated on drama. Instead of the actual civil war that was touched upon in the first season – which itself could have provided a dozen seasons of material – the second season introduces a theological crisis between the Mongolian multi-theological society and Christianity and an unnecessary complication to a second civil war that was complicated enough in our timeline. At the same time, the show packs the thirty-year war between the Khan and his cousin Kaidu into less than a series’ worth of material… For some reaon. I understand that historical authenticity has to come second to actual drama, but there is a lot of wasted material here that is being sacrificed for… I’m not sure. There comes a point when ‘drama’ is starting to come before logic and Marco Polo‘s second season goes far, far beyond that point.
I might be wrong, I don’t know, but I for one don’t remember Christian knights launching a crusade against Kublai Khan. It’s an interesting idea, sure, but what really happened – the various wars between the descendants of Genghis Khan – is so much more interesting. At least I think so. I do have to give the show praise where it’s worth, though. Once again I was impressed with the level of research that went into the creation of the show and its incorporation of local and Nestorian mythology into the storyline.
Ultimately, while Marco Polo is a good television program, it’s not perfect. It can’t compete with Game of Thrones. The acting is top notch, sure, and the sets and costuming are amazing, but that’s not enough to make the show truly great. The show’s confused stance in terms of historical authenticity and drama ruins what could have been a truly remarkable experience. With that said, Marco Polo isn’t competing with Game of Thrones – not in ratings at least – and it’s certainly possible to enjoy both, especially while Game of Thrones is off the air. I did.
So I’m going to recommend that you take a look at Marco Polo. At the very least, you’ll have an interesting time.
- Marco Polo has an excellent cast and production values, as well as a brilliant soundtrack.
- But it's leading man leaves a lot to be desired. He's not a bad actor, but he doesn't have the chemistry required for the role. Likewise, the overarching narrative loses its historical authenticity in the name of 'drama.'