(Spoilers for Marco Polo season 2 below.)
If “Marco Polo” has a protagonist at this point — and I’m not saying it does — then it’s probably Kublai Khan.
(Don’t bother reminding me what the name of the show is. I’ll just tell you it’s called that more because of Marco Polo’s book than the man himself.)
If Kublai is the good guy, then the bad guys of season 2 are legion: Ahmad, Kaidu, Nayan, Niccolo Polo, the Pope, and more.
But I don’t think that’s how “Marco Polo” works these days. Season 2 doesn’t have a Jia Sidao — a clear and present external opposing force who’s just a complete asshole. Nearly all of Kublai’s enemies here are friends and family.
And in the case of Ahmad, Kaidu and Nayan, it’s people who not only are family — but people who were apparently on his side a season ago. They were themselves supporting protagonists. What’s changed?
Nature happened. Physics happened. Honest disagreements happened. In essence, these characters were taken for a ride by the metaphorical winds of human interaction. And somehow, for a brief moment, those winds brought them together on the other side of a game of chess from Kublai. And it just as quickly blew them apart.
The reveal of Ahmad’s motivation for wanting to take down Kublai midway through the season is a pretty great demonstration of how the character physics, and the perspectives, of “Marco Polo” work. We learn that Ahmad was a young boy when the Mongols sacked his town and apparently killed his mother. He himself survived and thrived in the aftermath when he was adopted by Kublai and Empress Chabi.
Years later, after Ahmad is grown, Kublai offers him the position he holds in the present, financial adviser for his empire. But Ahmad says he isn’t prepared for that responsibility yet, and wants to work as a tax collector for a while to get a feel for the empire and its people.
So he travels around doing that for a while, and we see that one day a brothel madame claims to be unable to pay, offering him the pleasures of the flesh as an alternative. And this madame happens to have on hand a woman whose skin tone matches Ahmad’s own.
They have sex, and this woman tells the story of how she came to be where she was: the Mongols had sacked her town, and killed her husband and son. She was brought in for consideration as one of the Khan’s concubines, but they passed on her and sold her to this brothel. And then she starts humming a distinct tune, one Ahmad knows.
The woman says she wrote the tune herself, for her son. Ahmad, of course, knew the tune because his mother wrote it for him. This woman that he’d just slept with was his own mother. All because of the carnage the Mongols had wrought when they conquered his home.
It’s hard to say exactly how most people would handle going through that sort of impossible scenario, but I would assume few of us would come out the other side normal. Ahmad, I think, handles it pretty well — sure, he immediately murders his mom (he probably considered it mercy), but from there he doesn’t go on some snap rampage.
He spends years, maybe decades scheming to overthrow the Khan. He knows who’s ultimately responsible for what happened, and that’s who he wants to hurt.
It’s a very legitimate grievance, and it’s one he has simply because of the incredibly random way the wind blew on that one day when he was a kid, followed by another improbably string of coincidences that led both he and and his mother to be at a specific place at a specific time — and none of it was meaningfully within anyone’s control — except, perhaps, for the man who decided the Mongol Empire should rule the world.
In another story, you could easily see Ahmad as the underdog hero who fights back against a rampaging dictator. His failure could be seen as a nihilistic tragedy.But that’s not the story of “Marco Polo.”
Kaidu’s conflict with Kublai is similar in that way. Kublai wanted to continue to expand, and Kaidu wanted a more conservative approach for the Mongols, one that didn’t involved endless war and conquest — and he planned to pursue that approach through peaceful means, by challenging Kublai’s authority and calling for an election.
But the pressures of the situation were overwhelming and he didn’t handle it well. His desperation ruined him, as was also the case with Nayan. Nayan was a devout Mongolian Christian who met the Pope (the freaking Pope!), only to have that voice of God on Earth tell him straight up that he risks eternal damnation if he doesn’t ally with the church to take down his own family.
But the Pope has his reasons: he’s concerned about what will happen to Europe, and its people, if Kublai decides to send tens of thousands of soldiers to conquer it. This, I would say, is a valid concern, given all Kublai’s rhetoric about ruling everything under the blue sky.
And really, how is Nayan leading a bunch of crusaders east to murder Kublai any worse than what Kublai is doing all the time as he orders Mongol armies to sack cities and occupy the lands belonging to other countries? It’s not.
Kublai, on the other side of the table, also spends season 2 making bad decisions — some you might even call evil. But “Marco Polo” is his show, not Ahmad’s or Kaidu’s.
Make no mistake, though — Kublai is as lost as anybody, because there’s no guidebook for how to rule the world. Everything he does is so perfectly and imperfectly human. The weight of everything is far too much for any man to bear, and Kublai is just a man.
The result is a season of television that can feel, at times, narratively chaotic. But that’s why it’s so interesting. Kaidu and Ahmad and Nayan aren’t “bad guys” any more than Kublai is — and Kublai isn’t a “good guy” any more than his opponents are. There’s no “right” choice among them. And there are no easily identified markers of evil — nobody is doing what they’re doing because of a lust for power, for example.
It’s all just a matter of perspective who your hero is. “Marco Polo” knows it, and that’s why season 2 works so well.