“Prisoners” begins with a foreboding ringing of a bell, and perhaps the bell finally tolls for Marco, the obvious scapegoat for the military fiasco at Xiangyang. But might it ring instead for others? Or is it Kublai’s entire empire that is on the verge of collapse?
Kublai has transitioned from the shocked and numb commander of a vanquished army to a vulnerable leader intent on damage control and political consolidation. New soldiers are being conscripted from the distant northern territories in order to secure Cambulac from attack, and Kublai presides over a kangaroo court to mete out Marco’s punishment. Technically, this is Marco’s last chance to plead his case, or at least plead for mercy. But Kublai isn’t even listening. He’s no longer interested in Marco’s actual guilt or innocence. There simply needs to be a reason—an excuse—for his own colossal blunder, and the white devil is an awfully convenient fall guy. Marco, to his credit, is a stand-up guy. “I will not plead for mercy,” he tells the court, “but I will defend myself.” He bats aside each of Jingim and Ahmad’s trumped-up accusations, one after another. Byamba sticks up for his friend, but he also sees the writing on the wall. The great warrior’s frustration bubbles over and he belittles his half-brother in front of their khan: “How does your body stand straight without a spine?” That should go over well. In the end, the charge of suspicion that sticks has nothing to do with Xiangyang, but the crucifix Marco wears that reads, “All kings shall fall before him.” It opens the door for Marco to speak recklessly—if honestly—to lecture Kublai about what awaits in the West. “Respectfully, we reap what we sow,” he says. “You must be prepared for the resistance of the lionhearted, and the West is not weak.”
The only man in the room who truly hears is Yusuf, but Marco seems to have sealed his doom.
In Xiangyang, Jia Sidao has complete control again after his triumphant military victory. Well, almost complete control. He has to deal with the boy Emperor and the Empress Dowager, who won’t get behind his new plans to attack Cambulac and strike a decisive blow that will unify China under the Song dynasty. She stubbornly announces her intention to stand in his way in any way that she can, and she insists on seeing the Emperor again soon after being a prisoner in her own palace. Jia can play this game for only so long. He can outmaneuver her if need be, but that takes patience, effort, and time. Or he can just blow her away with a hand-held cannon. Once the Empress confirms Jia’s suspicions that she’ll never get onboard with his administration, he stuffs the cannon with some jade shrapnel, taps in some gunpowder, lights the fuse, and aims the gun at her. It seems like such an inelegant weapon for Jia, like Darth Vader wielding Han Solo’s blaster. But it’s effective, for sure. Question: Was the shrapnel he used to blast her from something notable?
So it is Jia, and not the Empress, who takes the boy Emperor under his wing. He brings a gift, to soften the blow that his mother is dead: a pet praying mantis. We know how fascinated Jia is with the sacred insect, and he can’t help but marvel at the animal’s Darwinistic perfection. Though I can’t confirm his zoological lessons, you can obviously understand why Jia is fascinated by a creature that supposedly kills its weaker brethren in order to survive and perpetuate its superior genetic code. Though he was blindsided by Jing Fei’s betrayal, perhaps there’s something to Jia’s mantis fetish and his aversion to female intimacy. After all, the female mantis has been known to get hungry while mating.
In Cambulac, the night before Marco’s execution is a long one for everyone. Kublai just wants to sooth his mind with chess, but his playing partners—who are also the strategic pieces of his own personal game of power—are becoming more and more distant. He ends up wandering the palace like Nixon during the height of Watergate, bellowing at his beloved grandfather, “Why couldn’t you have taken that wall!” Kublai feels inadequate to sit on that same throne, and he feels every harmless glance from his subjects like a dart on his skin, an unspoken accusation that he’s not worthy. “You crave my failure,” he drunkenly barks at Yusuf, whose cautious counsel about attacking Xiangyang was ignored—a frayed relationship that Jia was quick to use against both men.
Meanwhile, Jingim can’t help but taunt Marco in his final hours, visiting his cell to compare his stealth takedown of Marco to a patient hunt for a 10-point buck. But something inside just won’t allow him to enjoy his personal victory; he can’t even make love to his wife under the circumstances. (Although perhaps this is not as unusual as we might think, judging by Khan and his wife’s complaints about the lack of an heir from Jingim.)
Kokachin is also enduring a night of great anxiety. The Empress brings her some fabric to make a special dress, the same fabric that the older woman once used for her marriage gown. The Empress tries to console Kokachin after the death of her protector and confides about her own pre-marital jitters, when she feared ”…someone would unveil me as a fraud…” because she didn’t feel worthy to marry an actual prince. Knowing the Empress to be as shrewd as anyone in all of China, it’s impossible not to suspect that her comment reveals she already knows Kokachin’s secret—that she’s an impostor. But is she implying even more than that? Is she also implying that she also came to power by the same fraudulent route?
Kokachin spoils the bonding moment by mentioning Marco’s death sentence, and the slightly peeved Empress responds by sending an armed guard to the Princess’ quarters to keep her from causing trouble that might spare his life. I initially thought that Kokachin and the Empress were going to negotiate a deal where she’d agree to marry Jingim if Marco’s life was spared. But there was none of that from either side. Instead, Kokachin tried to take her own life in her bath, but flinched at the last moment, unable to bury the dagger into her gut.
Hundred Eyes is also feeling the burden of Marco’s fate and Kublai’s poor fortunes. He offers himself up to Kublai as being equally culpable as his protegé, since he was officially responsible for teaching him. “Lord Khan, years ago, you took my eyes,” he says. “Today, I offer you the rest of me.” Kublai had blinded the monk as punishment for killing 25 of his best soldiers. But now, it is Kublai who cannot see wisdom.
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It is left to Yusuf to make things right. Yusuf, the humble war minister who once said, “Ego—not armies—destroys empires.” He’s stood at Kublai’s side for many successful campaigns, and his unbiased eye sees both his lord’s strengths and weaknesses. He already understands the truth, more than anyone else in Cambulac, and he honors Marco’s request for a final jail-cell meeting to confirm his impressions about the foreigner. He has the Latin man’s journal, and knows that the Blue Princess played a role in Marco’s decision to forgo escape and stay in the city. Marco confirms that yes, she was part of the reason he stayed. But now, after communing with an imaginary Hundred Eyes during meditation, he’s come up with something more valuable than his own life, something that Kublai needs: the key to conquering Xiangyang. Marco tells Yusuf about Alexander’s siege of Tyre, the walled island fortress, in 332 BC. Tyre was similar to Xiangyang in its walled fortifications, and according to Marco, he finally conquered the city with the use of a trebuchet, mechanized catapults. This is Marco’s ticket to vindication, if not freedom. “I’m not afraid to die,” he says, “but I’m terrified to do so while branded a traitor.”
Well, that’s where Marco and Yusuf differ. In many ways, they are spiritually similar. In fact, they might be the only two men who tell Kublai the truth about important matters. But while both men are willing to die, Yusuf doesn’t share Marco’s qualms about being branded a traitor. In fact, once he sees Marco’s plans for the trebuchet and understands its game-changing potential on the battlefield, he realizes that Kublai will eventually turn his weapons of mass destruction West after dispatching the Chinese. Yusuf has always feared that Kublai’s ambition will ultimately tear apart the dynasty, so now, he decides this is his moment to issue his Jerry Maguire mission-statement: stay small, perfect the status-quo. “The reason you do not sleep is because of a longing in your heart that will never be sated,” he tells his boss. Maguire, of course, was fired, but Kublai has to be convinced even after Yusuf confronts him with a full confession of treason: “I conspired for and with the Khanate,” he says. “Be it betrayal by my hands or by my heart, I am guilty.” To secure the verdict, Yusuf sent his signed confession throughout the kingdom, forcing Kublai’s hand. So it is Yusuf, not Marco, who gets the not-so-magic-carpet ride: death by stampede. “You are released from this prison,” Yusuf tells a surprised Marco, before taking his place in the cell. “But I am truly free.”
Obviously, Yusuf is not really guilty of hiring the Hashshashin or the battlefield failures. Those traitors still lurk in the shadows (Ah-ah-ahh-MAD! Gesundheit!), and the show is stripped of one of its strongest characters. It was clear the show’s writers enjoyed crafting Yusuf’s dialogue and actor Amr Waked made the most of every syllable. He deserved a better death, though, no?