Marco Polo Season 1 Episode 4 Review: “The Fourth Step”

Marco Polo 1.04

One would think the return of Marco’s father and Jia’s first real power play within the Song power structure would prove to be Marco Polo‘s first dramatic crescendo; however, the episode drops any progress it made with “Feast” in favor of pure dramatic silliness. Don’t get me wrong; whenever Marco Polo isn’t focused on the big-eyed, small-mouthed man presumably it its center, “The Fourth Step” is a fairly interesting episode about the political state in both Xiangyang and Khan’s private quarters…. unfortunately, there’s too much time spent with the Man of Garbled English, rendering much of “The Fourth Step” redundant and emotionally hollow.

Niccolo and Maffeo’s return should’ve spurned a dramatic struggle between father and son; instead, Marco Polo decides to establish that Marco Polo is a fool who doesn’t learn, a man doomed to be abandoned by his father and other father figures around him. The most frustrating about this is how little agency Marco’s given in his own daddy issues; for the entirety of the episode, “The Fourth Step” is willing to let Marco stand sheepishly by when his father stomps all over him, ultimately disappointing in its portrayal of a man who sold him to the Khan over access to a trade route (which turned out to be for smuggling vaguely-notorious goods).

Marco’s lack of conviction when it comes to anything in this episode is really what robs him. I just don’t understand what this man stands for: it opens with him dreaming about the mysterious Blue Princess, who tried to poison him, and closes with the fate of another man who “poisoned” him, resting in his hands. But Marco’s decision doesn’t feel like a character-defining one; just another moment on a checklist of “big” moments and speeches that aren’t as well-developed as the script suggests. And with absolutely no charisma to speak of, all Marco becomes is a white man in a white shirt around a bunch of elegantly-garbed people: there’s no personality or pathos to his character, which makes the potential decision to kill his father a shoulder-shrugging moment for the show. They’ve already shown how little they care to develop brotherly bonds before destroying them with indulgent, “meaningful” violence – so it’s no surprise there’s barely a hint of relationship between Marco and his father (in a nutshell: Niccolo’s a jerk!) before one man’s life is in the other’s hands, a symbolic parallel to the end of episode two.

The rest of “The Fourth Step” is equally messy: still unsure of what characters are actually important to the show, it’s hard for the show to maintain any significant dramatic weight or promise to story lines before they move forward. In fact, there are often only one or two scenes given to define characters before they act: Jia gets one scene breaking his niece’s foot before he murders his own political negotiators, angered over the widowed Empress at her attempts to maintain control of the Song dynasty. There aren’t really any explanations for why Jia is so pissed about this: traditional masculinity power trip? Man spurned by his own family, drives to prove them wrong and regain glory? Just a sick MF-er? Marco Polo doesn’t seem to know or care; and a strong, disciplined performance by Chin Han can only go so far to disguise the utter superficiality to which character has been approached on the show.

At least the Khan himself remains interesting – although it’s really unclear why the hell he’s so interested in training his concubines, suggesting that he’s romantically attached to one of the women he’s bedding, who just so happens to be The Nude Assassin of the Song dynasty, a woman who now occupies the bed of both Emperor and Empress, intergrating herself to the most secret, intimate corners of the Khan’s realm in a matter of days, implicitly suggesting that the Khan’s lackadaisical approach to security and apparent sexual addiction could eventually be his downfall – though given how the show apparently reveres the Khan’s approach to politics, life, and bedding women, this probably won’t be the case (also: why is EVERY SINGLE MALE in historical television a willful polygamist, by the way? Seems like a bit of wishful thinking, if you ask me – and it’s really offputting how cliche it is).

I suppose the real issue with “The Fourth Step” – and Marco Polo as a whole, as we near the halfway point of season one – is that Marco Polo is a lot of flash and story without a lot of personality, a drama that puts its story cart way ahead of its character horses (someone who likes convoluted metaphors would suggest). And the result is empty, confusing television, rotating in a massive cast of characters through the churning wheel of story lines and favorable nudity-to-action ratios. The Khan himself may be an intriguing character, but the world around him is only interesting so far in a theoretical sense: as beautiful as Marco Polo may be, it appears that beauty is coming at the cost (a $90 million cost, no less) to the show’s soul.

Photo via Netflix

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