We’re eight episodes into the new Netflix series Marco Polo before we see the titular character’s first serious moral crisis over matters of state.
While preparing to lay siege to their enemy’s capital city, the Mongolian troops, whom Marco Polo serves, begin butchering alive captured enemy troops so their fat can be rendered into boiling oil to be used as a weapon.
Marco is horrified. “They are our captives,” he protests “This is sin.” The quaint excuse he is given is still commonly heard today: “This is war.”
Indeed, in spite of numerous hours of on-screen warfare, torture, adultery, and lying, Marco’s defense of prisoners of war is the first and only time we hear of “sin” in the series.
But there’s a good reason for this. Only in the most extreme cases does Marco look to big ideas such as his Christian morality. Marco Polo, after all, is not a show about ideology, politics, or philosophy. At its core, it is a story about family.
Marco Polo, Netflix’s new $90-million streaming television series, takes place against the real life historical backdrop of the final days of the Song dynasty, which was the last significant source of resistance in China to the Mongolian Khan in the thirteenth century. The Khan wishes to unite all of Mongolia and China into one vast empire. To do this, he must force the Song dynasty government to submit to his rule. Such events, so distant in both time and geography are wisely channeled by the series creators through the eyes of Marco himself, who remains never more than a foreigner in this strange land.
Moreover, from the very beginning of the series, we learn that Marco is only in Mongolia out of a desire to know his father who has been away traveling most of Marco’s life. And yet, upon arrival at Kublai Khan’s court, Marco’s father abandons him and gives him to the Khan as a sort of collateral for the Khan’s permission to trade freely along the Silk Road.
Marco eventually becomes an advisor to the Khan, and as with all such courtiers, Marco is not a captive, but he isn’t free either. Everything he has depends on being in favor with the Khan. Marco, stunned by his own father’s betrayal, begins to feel a familial bond with the Khan who takes Marco into his confidence. When Marco has the opportunity to escape the Khan’s lands, he nevertheless remains at the Khan’s side, even to the point of ignoring the Khan’s brutality in war. The Khan himself lives in the shadow of his grandfather Genghis Khan, and feels obligated to expand the empire handed down to him. The Khan must also deal with an ambitious brother and unruly cousins.
The characters who inhabit the world of Marco Polo seek to love and be loved by family members. Matters of state, on the other hand, are an obstacle to the nurturing of these relationships. Putting down an insurrection requires the Khan to kill his own brother, after which he mourns and asks Marco to explain to him the story of Cain and Abel from Marco’s “holy books.” Marco in turn seeks the approval of his father, and when Marco’s father and uncle are caught smuggling silk worms out of China — a crime punishable by death — Kublai fully expects Marco to intercede for them, which he does. Had Marco not interceded to save his own family members, we are led to believe, the Khan would have regarded such indifference to family as an enormous failing. Family, it seems, trumps all ideologies and other loyalties.
The central role of family is present among the Khan’s enemies among the Song dynasty as well. The woman who spies on the Khan’s court for the Song regime is motivated not by any sort of patriotism, but by a desire to protect her daughter from the corrupt prime minister, Jia Sidao.
Sidao himself, a low-born social climber, illustrates within Marco Polo what becomes of those who value only political power. Sidao treats his own sister and niece with contempt and thinks only of matters of state. A master conniver, Sidao’s brutality is contrasted with that of the Khan. Unlike with Sidao, the Khan’s brutality is in the service of what he sees as his many responsibilities. He owes a debt to his family, to his ancestors, and to those who rely on him for employment and sustenance.
Sidao, on the other hand is in the service of no one, including the people of the Song or the emperor he is sworn to serve. He is, in a sense, the ultimate individualist, and a community of one.
Through these relationships, we find that Marco Polo is profoundly conservative (in the traditionalist sense) in its view of the state and those who live under it. Yet, while we can speak well of Marco Polo’s contrasting of the family and the state, and of the show’s assertion that matters of state should be subordinate to family matters, it would be a mistake to describe much of anything within Marco Polo as favorable to the idea of laissez faire. For example, the least sympathetic character beyond Sidao is Marco’s father who, as a merchant, is portrayed as greedy and even inept, escaping execution only thanks to Marco’s efforts. The merchant trade is not a virtuous trade, the series tells us, and for Marco, abandoned by his own father who seeks riches instead, true virtue is to be found in service to the Khan.
Also prominent within the series is taxation, and those who collect and count taxes are three-dimensional and largely sympathetic characters in Marco Polo. Meanwhile, those who actually generate the taxes — merchants like Marco’s father — are either self-serving or simply nameless rabble.