Episode 2 of this season marks perhaps the most powerful and moving episode of this series ever. While we have seen the very weight of his kingdom sit on Kublai’s chest like a hundredweight of stone, few decisions have taken as much of a leap as the one that ends this episode. We also get the first bit of a rift shown between Ahmad and Prince Jingim, which makes me happy, as Ahmad is slipping into Jia Sidao territory for me.
There is a tangible and palpable sense of how much of an increased strain ruling all of China is upon Kublai’s brow, and it comes through in spades in Episode 2, entitled “Hug”. That title is particularly well-crafted, as when I read it, I set myself up with an expectation that it connoted the sharing of an embrace, perhaps between Mei Lin and Ling or some other characters who had been long separated or estranged. The episode opens with Marco and Mei on their journey back to the capital, escorting the last emperor of China. The banter between the two takes a slightly more humorous tone as they argue over whose turn it is to take the young boy to use the bathroom. But still, the tone between the two is overall tragically dramatic. The theme of questioning their intentions in their service to Kublai continues, as Mei asks Marco where his morals lie, knowing that the Khan might very well kill the Emperor. In a scene that creeped me out almost as much as a horror movie, we see Marco sight Michelle Yeoh stalking them from afar; seeing the camera flash to her jarred me almost as much as seeing a Walker in the woods.
Returning home, Marco runs into Kokachin, and it is tough over a couple of scenes to understand whether Marco knew about her wedding to Jingim or not. He acts surprised when Jingim introduces her as his wife. But in a later scene, one showcasing the wonderful dynamic between Master Sifu and Marco, Sifu seems to accuse Marco of deliberately dragging his feet to get back because he was trying to avoid the wedding. Regardless, that curiosity pales in comparison to a later scene, where Koka and Marco run into each other alone, and she appears to say that she married Jingim to hurt Marco for leaving her when the Khan army marched on XiangXiang. Having been on the receiving end of seemingly irrational breakups, I chalked it up to a bit of over-emotion, but I am left curious as to what Koka’s intent was behind this particular laying of blame. Maybe it’s due to the reason Queen Chabi gave last episode, that Koka is angry because she knows that Marco chose loyalty to the Khan over his love for her.
When Marco and Mei return with the boy-Emperor, Ahmad sways Jingim to convince his father not to make a spectacle out of the boy’s capture. But after agreeing to this and initiating the thread with Kublai, Ahmad’s follow-up is to twist the engender to a request to murder the child. Thinking that Jingim will follow through on his commitment to support him, Ahmad’s position is initially weakened when Jingim breaks off his support at the suggestion of killing the boy-Emporer. At the end of the luncheon scene, it is Jingim and Polo that stand united and beg of Kublai to take the more compassionate option of sending the boy away and keeping him from public sight.
But the seed has been planted. And late at night, Kublai has the boy brought to him. Initially threatening to kill him with a dagger, the boy begins to sob and Kublai relents. The boy runs to him for consolation and there is a brief moment, a bit of room to think that Kublai might take the boy into his own house and raise him. But alas, the warm embrace, the episode’s titular “Hug”, is an embrace of death, and Kublai smothers him ’til no more breath escapes. It is a shockingly horrific scene, as the boy’s muffled screams are heard, his tiny fists strike Kublai’s massive shoulders, and his feet can be heard kicking, first very intensely, and then slowly weakening and slowing down, trailing off until the tempo is zero. My stomach was twisted, I was nauseous, and I was crushed. But the art of the scene struck the exact chord that the showrunners wanted. Well played.
Looking at things from a purely Machiavellian perspective, I do not question Kublai’s decision. It is highly unlikely that the boy would have grown up loyal. He would have constantly been a threat. Now we wait to see who Michelle Yeoh’s character is and how she reacts. To see if Ling finds out and how it impacts her. Or if she poses a similar threat as the half-sister of the last Emperor. Many more questions abound from this episode, rather than it having been any sort of resolution. Plenty of things to play out over the course of the remaining 8 episodes. A very rough ending, but it leaves many more questions to be explored. Just the way I like it.