Are you a history buff? So am I. But maybe more specifically, I am a history buff and I love period films and TV. It’s something we do not get a lot of on television because it’s expensive. For anything in this space, you need an interesting period and event(s) in history. You need sets, costumes, and locations. And some forms of this sub-genre add in a bit of fiction. Or maybe a lot.
Such is the case with the NetFlix original series, Marco Polo. It peppers in a healthy amount of fiction. And that rubs some people the wrong way. It is, after all, the demographic of history buffs that often also wears the label “grognard”. Whether you are a gamer or not and that label fits perfectly, I still throw you in that category if you are a crankipotimous if a movie or show skews too far away from historical fact (or the perception thereof), when it does not claim to be an historical account.
I’m a fan of Polo, and I give it a bye because I do not recall the show ever being marketed or branded as being historically accurate. If you tear that seal off the bottle, then you can allow yourself to view and consider it in terms of how it stacks up as pure fiction. And in that view, I like it, although I feel like it has struggled to find a rhythm in Season 2 and is a bit off from what it achieved the first season.
Right off the bat, my main problem with Season 2 is too little Sifu. If there is one character that excites me every time they are on screen it is the blind monk, whether he is simply passing along his cryptic philosophy, or conducting body breaking kung-fu moves. But especially the latter. There is some minor compensation here in that they did bring in Michelle Yeoh, the true number one female action hero of the 21st century. A title that she shares with Ming-Na Wen. While there have been a number of love tracks in this show, no one rings more bitter-sweet than the story and scenes between Sifu and Lotus. There are two episodes this season featuring a kung-fu ballet between the two. The first, where Sifu is not sure whether someone is there or not, literally brought me to tears. The second was more so pure action, but you can literally feel the tragedy and sorrow emanating from your screen. You can feel the sadness in the twisting irony of Lotus having taught herself the Crane technique to avenge her village, which was executed to almost the last person, but not being able to exceed her former love, Sifu. Because he is more righteous? Because he is not the sad, twisted spirit of vengeance that she has become? You cannot be sure. But it’s a right tortuous scene that informs what this show can achieve when it is at its best.
But we do not see a lot of that this season. The main problem with Polo finding its mark is that they took a lot of the focus off of the titular character. That is not necessarily a reason that the show falters here and there. I think it was a fine choice, I just think the showrunners struggled a bit figuring out how to manage it. At times, I felt like Lorenzo Richelmy was a guest star on his own show. A lot of this season and a lot of the screen time was occupied by exploration of the Khan and his family. A good tact to take. I wonder if better pacing may have been to split each episode up and have some focus on Polo for one half, and then on the Khan and his family for the other. Or to have packed the storylines of Marco in a buddy-cop pairing with one of the other characters for a few episodes rather than having them strung out. I love the Marco+Byamba episodes. Again, that is often the show at its best. I’m glad that Polo and Jingim healed their divide, but the episodes with them together are not great. And I was wearied a bit by the constant telegraphing that Jingim could slip back into jealous regard of Marco at the drop of a feather. Some of the best episodes or short runs on The Walking Dead were those Season 4 episodes where you do not even see Rick Grimes. I wonder if a similar setup would work here.
The other key slippage this season was the lack of an ultimate villain. At the end of the day, Ahmad was just some sex-obsessed megalomaniac with an Oedipal complex. The misfortune is that, while there is imagery that supports that theory, they never confirm it with a very clear and unarguable bumper sticker. His death leaves the nature of his vengeful conspiracy against Khublai to the realm of arguable hypotheses. Still, his character is nowhere near as hateful as Jia Sidao. And his come-uppance is not as graphically righteous as the final fight between Sifu and Jia. In this season, the real “balance of justice fight” winds up being between Jingim and Orphus. Rewarding, but Prince Jingim is a pitiable character at best, and Orphus was just a fucking idiot.
I was still pretty satisfied with Season Two overall. And I was always hungry to watch the next episode. Each episode just left me with a clarity in being able to identify exactly what I wanted to see more of. All the things I want to see are there; it’s not a matter of things that are missing. And this cast is top notch. I just want to see the writers put them together in a more winning formula and with better, less herky-jerky pacing. As of right now, there is not official word on whether or not the series will be renewed. The outlook is not positive, especially when NetFlix has become Marvel’s channel of choice for small-screen super heroes. That gives any other show, especially expensive ones, a tough go to remain onboard the streaming giant. Regardless, the show through the first two seasons is a solid binge for both history buffs and anyone who just loves period films and episodic content. Give it a go when your backlog schedule permits; it doesn’t need to be at the front of your queue unless it is solidly in your wheelhouse. For those of us whose pallets are specifically tuned for this kind of content, it will be a rewarding ride.