This Friday, Netflix will release its newest show, Marco Polo. The company is gambling on the big-budget drama series to cater to both the Game of Thrones fanboys as well as the international markets. The show is a good gamble, because the source material offers Netflix access to rich material that has been captivating audiences since around 1300. The Game of Thrones camp will get their fill of complex court intrigue and sexual debauchery, but there's also plenty for fans of kung-fu historical romance—a popular genre around the world, and one that Netflix is also mining through its plan to exclusively release the sequel to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Marco Polo has all the makings of a great series. There's intrigue, politics, battles, betrayals, assassins in the night, discussions of tax policy, executions, angst, torture, and gorgeous male and female bodies thrown at each other in epic martial arts battles and sex—sometimes simultaneously. Unfortunately, it also has a scrawny white guy named Marco Polo wandering through the scenes, often moping and confused.
Sometimes, Polo makes little descriptive statements about the world and everyone reacts as if he's just done something amazing. Kublai Khan treats him like a son, Mongol noblewomen have sex with him on the steppe, and a blind kung-fu master teaches him martial arts, all for no convincing reason. Netflix's Polo is just a boring white-guy character who exists to lead the narrative action.
Maybe Polo will develop into an interesting character once he learns more kung-fu, has sex with a few more steppe princesses, and generally stops moping about the Mongol capital; more likely, he'll be like " Piper Chapman" in that other Netflix Original, Orange is the New Black: the least engaging character in an ensemble of talented actors and good storytelling. Luckily, the historical drama woven into Marco Polo, which focuses on the growing pains of the Mongol Empire, is interesting and provides plenty of drama to delve into, at least when Polo isn't there to mess things up.
The show opens in the late 13th-century as the Mongol ruler Kublai Khan is preparing to extend his domain over all of China. He already rules the north, but the southern Song dynasty and their walled city of Xiangyang still hold out against the Mongol threat. Some of the Mongols, especially the Khan's brother Ariq, are worried that Kublai is going to make the Mongols too Chinese. They are especially concerned that Kublai's son is not a "real" Mongol. Plots thicken, Mongols wrestle, and men get drunk on fermented horses' milk served from a ladle fashioned from an elephant's scrotum. Rebels rebel and are quashed (spoiler: Kublai Khan is going to win).
Meanwhile, inside Xiangyang, the "Cricket Minister" plots. He likes to play with praying mantises in a little bowl, while considering ways to consolidate power, most of which involve tormenting his sister and making sure that there's no peace with Mongolia. He's also mean to little girls, which is the show's way of making it clear to us that he's the bad guy.
The historical Marco Polo grew up in Venice during the 13th century. He was in Asia during the 1270s and 1280s, and then moved home. Around 1298, Polo was under house arrest in Genoa, which was at war with Venice at the time, and met the Italian Romance writer Rustichello da Pisa. According to tradition, Polo told the writer his stories of Asia and the Great Khan. Based on those conversations, Rustichello wrote a kind of textual atlas of the world, bracketed by a brief, narrative prologue of Polo's travels and a section on the recent history of Kublai Khan. It's from this last section that the show draws its inspiration.
Generally, historians believe that most of Polo's account is authentic, if heavily garnished with myth and legend. It's entirely likely that Polo's skill with languages made him useful to the Khan. Also, Kublai made a habit of employing non-Chinese individuals to oversee some of his governmental affairs. Kublai was, as portrayed in the show, remarkably interested in people from diverse cultures and religions, so long as they all were held in place under the Mongol order. The historical Polo, a skilled traveler and keen observer, unsurprisingly found a niche in the great court.
The problem with the show is that we're meant to enter that complex world along with Marco Polo, who is presented as something of a neophyte. The writers use Polo's ignorance to awkwardly explain Mongol or Chinese history and culture to the viewer. In the first episode, Polo's father and uncle give the younger Marco to the Khan's service as a semi-slave. Kublai, who has daddy issues of his own, is so impressed by Marco's skill with language and description that he brings the young man into his close confidence and sends him to the blind master, Hundred Eyes, for military training. That's not a bad premise. But in the first five episodes, Marco isn't interesting enough to deserve all this attention. In fact, in any given scene, he's probably the least interesting person in view.
There's a long history of "the East" being portrayed in our culture solely through the gaze of the Westerner—a tradition academics call Orientalism. In the Orientalist tradition, Asian societies are mysterious, sensual, antiquated, static, and easily dominated by the West.
Marco Polo both resists this tradition and is drawn into it. When the white guy is off-screen, Mongol society looks nuanced and in a state of productive flux. It was complicated for a group of 100,000 steppe nomads to transition into ruling major global empires, and the show makes a story of cultural shift exciting to watch. But as soon as Marco becomes the focus, the show morphs back to another episode of "explaining Mongol or Chinese culture to the white guy." Without Polo, the show is rich, complex, and beautiful. Unfortunately, the show is called Marco Polo, so he's around far too often.
Watch Marco Polo on Netflix tomorrow.
David M. Perry is associate professor of history at Dominican University. His work can be found at CNN, Al Jazeera America, the Atlantic, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.