Since this is meaty, I’ll try and be succinct.
I liked it. Mostly. The views are both breathtaking and sweeping, the immersion into this strange new world a communal experience with Marco as we move with him plucked from home and thrust, bartered, into his foreign life of servitude. When he learns we learn, growing to better understand the machinations of the palace and politics. Like a slow-spanning spiral our radius of understanding widens alongside his. That piece of the journey works exceptionally well, and even at the close of the season, continues to do so. With a benefactor as ambitions and far-reaching as Kublai Khan, the possibility of what’s left to be revealed is great.
Bits which worked: the package. Between the vistas and the costumes and the overall palette, I felt saturated immediately by the culture. Again, to repeat myself above: immersed. The story progression had a natural flow. Perhaps it’s a result of a ten episode season, but the narrative was a tight one without forks which appeared to break from the main supply for any reason other than to convolute and stir drama. I’ll say there are some near exceptions to this, mostly in the character of Jingim, Kublai’s son and heir, who struck me as a less malevolent and bratty Joffrey Baratheon, his distrust of Marco in line with what I’d assume the prejudices of the period to be while nearing a xenophobic quality, lending his decisions a vaguely unbelievable air. Distrust for sake of distrust. We’ll eventually learn how some of his emotions were manipulated, making my argument moot to a degree, but even so, I found him exaggerated. Each character is distinct, another good mark. Combat is just the right balance of spectacle and tightness, the use of wires done subtly so as to offer a glimpse toward the fantastic without relying on them purely for showmanship. Hundred Eyes should have his name changed to Mongol Matt Murdock. Triple M.
Things I wasn’t wild about: the large-scale battle scenes were weak. I understand a budget is being watched, and I’m not expecting Helm’s Deep here, but the directional choices of tight shots and few combatants shrunk the scale to a terrible degree. In one particular scene, the fight is more a brief series of shots with a piece of art showing the outcome used as means of narrative, which worked well save the fighting. Had it just been the sound of war overlaid with the art, the grandness could have been saved, allowing the audience to use their imagination to bolster that scale. As it stands, this great conflict becomes a schoolyard spat. One other quibble is the tension. There are a handful of times the audience is led to believe a character is about to be removed both from show and body. The difficulty with a period piece like this is anyone can easily see what happened to who and when, making many of the more weighty moments… exercises. Perhaps it’s a little unfair, this criticism. We should focus maybe more inside the framework of the known to the smaller pieces moving across the board, and I get that, but it’s an issue which struck me just the same. To reuse The Two Towers, there’s no fear of Aragorn having been dashed along a cliff. I mean, it’s Aragorn. Don’t draw out the moment unnecessarily.
And last: the ending. It’s a solid wrap-up, though the final reveal seems counter to the character we’ve seen throughout the series. I’m being intentionally vague so as to avoid spoiling things, but someone who’s shown as pragmatic, thoughtful, decisive, and calculating, is made to be sloppy and incredibly overt. I just don’t see that decision being made by him, and it feels like a poor addition. Obviously we have a whole new season to see that kernel become fertile.
I’ve heard the show gets some flack. I’m not familiar with what those criticisms might be, but we’re not talking about a perfect product here. Is it enjoyable? For me. Was it better than a chunk of what I’ve seen on television these days? Again, for me. I still prefer Netflix’s House of Cards and Orange Is The New Black, but Marco Polo is a solid effort from them once more. Recommended, if for the setting alone.