Marco Polo‘s trailer suggested beautiful cinematography, Clue-worthy, who-killed-the-butler plot twists, and gratuitous nudity à la HBO, plus Orientalism, fetishism, yellow peril, and the “Mongol barbarian” stereotype common even in China, so imagine my surprise watching the series and discovering that along with stunning wardrobes, fight scenes and landscapes, Marco Polo, far from shallow, delivered well-characterized characters with fascinating motivations, friendships, and relationships, acted by an international cast, wuxia martial arts, and strong female characters.
Novelist Jeannie Lin has already stated the case for the show (spoilers) elegantly. Expecting a typical absurdity about an Italian boy in a spooky Asian land, I watched instead a just, strategist, human khan, the relationships between him, his advisors, and family and they between themselves, where Marco Polo plays a role but the Asian characters steal the show and shockingly, most screen time, with nary a stereotype in sight or any ogling of “weird customs”!
Marco Polo, while following the Mongols, also humanizes their Chinese rivals. We can’t tear our eyes away from Chin Han as frightening Song chancellor Jia Sidao, and my family’s already agreed we wouldn’t watch the show without Benedict Wong’s khan, but we love so many characters: the poetic martial arts master, the wildly diverging ministers of defense and the treasury, the badass empress, the playful, athletic princess Khutulun, who refuses to marry until she meets her wrestling match. Lagertha (Vikings) finally has company! Enjoy the rare historical script at once pretty and accessible! Binge that ish on Netflix!