NOTE: This post contains mild spoilers on the first season of Marco Polo, but nothing that would ruin the show if you have not yet seen it. This post pertains only to the first season of Marco Polo, and does not include characters that only appear in the second season.
Back in December 2014, Netflix released a big budget historical epic that could have been its answer to the then massively popular Game of Thrones, but which was met with mixed to negative reviews and was quietly canceled after two seasons. Perhaps the most frequent complaints revolved around the central character, Marco Polo himself, played by Italian actor Lorenzo Richelmy. Whilst I agree that the character Marco could have been much better written, I was amongst those who enjoyed the series and who would have been happy to see more. I recently rewatched a few episodes of the first season of Marco Polo, and was reminded of the many things I liked about it (and, sure, a lot of the things I didn't). Marco Polo the character wasn't great, but Marco Polo the show was a true ensemble, a series that was peopled with vibrant, fascinating characters who more than made up for the weakness of its lead. Here are four of the best characters of the first season:
Hundred Eyes, portrayed by Tom Wu
Hundred Eyes was so popular to Marco Polo fans, that a 30-minute origin story was made about him and released on December 2015. Hundred Eyes was a blind warrior monk who lived in the court of Kublai Khan, trained his warriors, and educated his son Prince Jingim. When Marco arrived at court, he, too, became a student of Hundred Eyes.
As expected, given that the character was an extraordinary warrior, Hundred Eyes was responsible for some of the best kung fu scenes in Marco Polo. More than being poetry in motion, however, Hundred Eyes also spoke words of serene wisdom, and had some genuinely funny lines in the show. Tom Wu was one of those actors who could communicate a thousand stories with the littlest of movements, but when he did move, it was with power and grace. If I were asked to name just one reason to watch Marco Polo, I would mention Hundred Eyes.
Vice Regent Yusuf, portrayed by Amr Waked
I read a few reviews of Marco Polo, and was surprised that none of them mentioned Vice Regent Yusuf, the second most powerful man in Cambulac and the Khan's most trusted advisor. A man whose origins we knew little about, Vice Regent Yusuf was nonetheless one of the most powerfully drawn characters in Marco Polo. He was the man who decided whether offenders within the khanate lived or died, yet he viewed himself as a servant whose role was to tell the truth. He was a cripple, yet in a society where strength and proficiency as a warrior were the most valued traits, he calmly held power. He was an outsider, he clearly did not share the same ancestry as the Khan, yet there was no more loyal minister. It was a marvel to watch Amr Waked in this unshowy role; with the slightest shifts in his ceaselessly calm facade, he could tour the viewer through a range of stories and emotions.
Jia Mei Lin, portrayed by Olivia Cheng
Sister to Song dynasty chancellor Jia Sidao and concubine to the late emperor, Mei Lin had a famous scene in Marco Polo where she fought off imperial guards whilst naked. Nudity in Marco Polo is something that should probably discussed as a separate topic, especially given the revelations of the #MeToo era (from the point of view of an outsider, just a fan watching the show, much of the nudity, particularly female nudity, in Marco Polo was unnecessary). Mei Lin was a standout for me because her competence as an operative was so obvious, both warring camps thought to use her daughter as leverage to get her to work for them. Mei Lin was featured in a scene of beautifully choreographed kung fu and emotion that begun as barely restrained before it raged out of her.
Jia Sidao, portrayed by Chin Han
Jia Sidao was a very well written villain, because whilst there was no question that he was villainous, he was also a hero not just in his own mind but in the China he worked to protect. He was capable of appalling cruelty, but so was his enemy the Khan. Jia Sidao's loyalty began and ended with himself, but his tenderness toward Jing Fei was real, as was his reassuring teacher role to the boy emperor. A political operative and a kung fu master, he wielded war as an instrument of power, and he was very good at it.
Whilst Marco Polo was not a show with a broad enough appeal to merit more seasons, it was a series that perhaps those interested in historical epics would like to revisit. I did, and I rather liked it.