Kill Bill was great fun, but for people who thought The Bride wore too many clothes, I give you Mei Lin of Marco Polo. The second episode of Netflix’s racy new series once again featured the powerful Chinese Imperial consort shedding her clothes before shredding unsuspecting men who weren’t thinking with their brains. Her brother, Jia Sidao, the cold and calculating Chinese minister who uses her bedroom talents as a political weapon, has a pet cricket. Or is it a praying mantis—you know, the insect whose females devour the males during sex. If so, counting Mei Lin, he has two.
Yet for all Mei Lin’s deadly skills, and the soft power wielded by the Kublai’s wife, the Empress, 13th-century Asia was very much a man’s world, and “The Wolf and the Deer” demonstrates the limits of a woman’s influence, which stretch only so far as an alpha-male’s ego.
Kublai’s military invasion of the defenseless farming village near Xiangyiang was a fiasco. Not only did his troops, led by his “golden” son, Jingim, find fierce Chinese rebels ready and awaiting their assault, but Kublai’s brother, Ariq—and his powerful cavalry—never materialized, breaking his vow to join his nephew in the fight to sack the rebel stronghold. Jingim, who’s been raised as a pampered prince first, textbook warrior second, returns home a failure to face the wrath of his father. Kublai isn’t Longshanks, and Jingim isn’t a foppish dandy heir, but a disappointed Kublai realizes that there are some things a king must do for himself.
But who can he trust?
Lowly Marco might be the only man Kublai can trust, because he’s a complete outsider not yet corrupted by the Khan’s largesse. In fact, though Marco has been assigned to the genial Imperial tax collector, he’s plotting his escape by hoarding food for an opportune moment. One night, he slips outside the city’s walls on horseback, and though he doesn’t make a run for it, he encounters the beautiful young woman that entranced him in the village. She’s on a mission of her own, tying a blue ribbon to the branch of a hilltop tree and burying something in the stones. She sniffs at his impertinence and warns him against being so familiar, for she is the Blue Princess, and he is beneath her. As you wish, he barely resists answering. No doubt they’re destined for romance: They race their horses back to the stables. (And we all know what racing horses really means.)
But what is the Blue Princess up to out of her cage? Is the blue ribbon a signal? Is she communicating with Kublai’s enemies?
The next morning, Marco is summoned before Kublai. But it’s not to be punished for his late-night excursion—though he seems to know of it. In fact, perhaps Kublai’s knowledge that Marco left the city but didn’t leave has increased his faith in him. Kublai is sending Jingim to Ariq’s city, in order to learn why his troops never reached the battlefield. Marco is to go along and report back as well. “Let me see, Latin, the way things truly are in the kingdom of my brother.”
There is the beginning of a rivalry between Marco and Jingim, who doesn’t care for the extra company—or the fatherly mistrust that it represents. “Beware, Polo,” Jingim tells him, before meeting with his uncle. “Your words can get you killed.” Marco is left outside the tent, while Ariq and Jingim discuss the recent battlefield failure. Ariq explains that his army was pinned down by the spring rains and his messenger was intercepted and beheaded. Jingim is inclined to believe him, especially when good ol’ Uncle Ariq flatters him about his bright future as the next Khan. But he also plants the seed for discord. “Beware, my big brother is too trusting of outsiders,” he says. “Open the gates to outsiders, secrets will be spilled…. Who is the Christian that rides with you?”
Marco makes the most of his time in Ariq’s village. While Jingim is being spun by his uncle, he’s seeing the conditions on the street—and the camp is low on grain supplies for the horses. When their party returns to Kublai’s court, Jingim gives a glowing report and assures his father that Ariq is prepared to join forces. In a stinging rebuke, Kublai asks for Marco’s impressions, and he blatantly challenges Jingim by calling into question whether Ariq’s horses could even make it to Xiangyiang with their current feed supply. “You will not be gaining favors by your charming stories anymore,” spits Jingim. “Not without a tongue.”
There is no going back for Marco now. He has sealed his fate. If he’s correct, he becomes invaluable to Kublai—not just a charming storyteller but the rare truth teller who’s willing to give bad news. There is no one else in Kublai’s court who can provide that service, because they all have too much to lose. But that also makes Marco a giant threat to everyone in that hall. They’ve risen in status by kow-towing to the man in charge, and carved out fortunes when he was looking the other way—like the doomed tax collector had. As long as the business of power kept rolling, there was no harm in the Khan’s friends whetting their beaks a little when no one was watching. Looking the other way was a mutually beneficial practice. But now, the Khan’s new pet, is watching. Fortunately for him, Kublai’s scouts confirmed Marco’s report. In fact, Ariq has long been in league with Jia and the rebels. Marco’s tongue is safe today.
In Xiangyiang, the Chinese emperor finally breathes his last, and Jia sets his powerplay in motion as the new ruler is only a child. The first casualty: his seductive sister, the mother of the late Emperor’s illegitimate daughter and one who could conceivably have some claim to power. To win the allegiance of the army, he sends three thuggish soldiers to her quarters to sample her wares. “I do not bed soldiers,” she tells them, with an air of condescension. “Chancellor Jia Sidao has granted us permission,” answers one of them, as they make themselves comfortable. Cold, bro.
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Min Lei begins a seductive dance, slowly disrobing until she’s stark naked. Annnd… then she butchers them in a Tarantino-esque ballet of blood. As her punishment, Jia banishes her from the Walled City and commands her to go to the enemy and pretend to be a defector, seducing Kublai in the process. To force her allegiance, Jia promises to take good care of her daughter, his “sunflower.” While being dragged away, Mei Lin insults her brother, “Your men, they laugh at you—call you the Cricket Minister.” When I first watched, I thought she said “Crooked” instead of “Cricket,” crudely implying that he is homosexual. Both terms make some sense in Jia’s case—he’s the rare alpha who doesn’t seem to measure his prestige by the number in his harem.
Back in the Mongol’s court, Kublai’s wife is trying to insult her own man’s manhood. She knows that Ariq has betrayed them, and knows exactly which buttons to push to get Kublai to act without mercy. “Ariq believes he can pleasure your women better than you.” Kublai laughs it off, but the comment hits the mark. He sends a falcon to his brother, with what looks to be pieces of an arrow. (Did anyone make out what it was?) War is coming.
Kublai dresses for battle and marches with his army to meet his brother. They have a final friendly meeting, to see if war can be averted. But after reminiscing about their parents, the lines are drawn. “I do not want to be Emperor of China,” says Ariq. “I do not want to be the ruler of the face of the Earth. I want to be Khan of Mongolia.”
“So… it has come to this,” he adds, when Kublai protests the issue.
Not the writer’s greatest moment. “So… it has come to this” is the violent-epic version of “It’s not you, it’s me.”
At sunrise, both armies meet on the field of battle, atop the ridges on opposite sides of a valley. Whoever attacks first would be at a disadvantage. But this is a grudge match, to be settled backyard style, mano e mano. “You want Mongolia, you come and take it,” yells Kublai. Ariq is younger and fitter, but he hesitates when he might have finished Kublai off. Never let your older brother get up, Ariq. He’ll just cut your head off. You know that old maxim.
Kublai unites the Mongols—for now. But uneasy lies the head that wears the crown. His son, who’s more Fredo than Santino, might not be completely satisfied with the new normal—especially with his father taking Marco under his wing. And a deadly consort from Xiangyiang is coming to Kublai’s court. Perhaps she’ll succeed in seducing Kublai or his son—or both.