The first few moments of “Prisoners” are quite stirring. We’re no longer on the battlefield (or, more accurately, in a tent after the battle), but back in Kublai Khan’s court. The camera drifts around the premises, as if idly taking stock of the previous episode’s events. The halls are empty except for the occasional servant or guard who wanders into the frame. Then we focus in on Kublai, who is getting an update from Yusuf on the finer details of the fatalities and losses. Then, Yusuf broaches the subject that must be broached: what is to be done with Marco? We cut to the Khan atop his throne, but he no longer looks dominant. He’s somehow smaller, being swallowed by the throne. He listens as Marco defends his innocence against the charges of treason, but his mind is on many matters. He’s defeated, and feels betrayed. When Marco is done defending himself, he makes sure to note that Kublai’s plan to conquer the West after taking down Xiangyang is sure to fail. He’s speaking honestly, calling out the Khan’s hubris. It’s a perfect, lengthy post-credits scene, setting up the themes of isolation and loss that permeate the episode.
Back in Xiangyang, having fought off the Mongolian empire for at least a little while, Sidao is doing everything he can to claim power. Having learned of the attack on Xiangyang, some cities have begun pledging support and warriors to Sidao’s cause–well, he’s also stripping their land involuntarily, so that might have something to do with it. At the same time, he’s training the boy Emperor, teaching him the ways of the Cricket Minister in order to sway any potential negotiations his way. If there’s ever been a saving grace for the boy Emperor, it’s the Empress Dowager, who has tirelessly worked to keep Sidao out of power. He’s just too sneaky though. He always finds a way to get what he wants. And the poor Empress Dowager doesn’t even get much in her final moments; she rattles off a bunch of exposition about what Sidao’s plans are (just in case the viewer hasn’t been paying attention, which would be totally understandable) before he turns around and blasts her away with his newly obtained gunpowder. It’s a shocking scene, but one that certainly suggests that when the Mongolian empire regroups and comes back to Xiangyang, he’ll have another trick up his sleeve.
The larger part of this episode focuses on the impending death of Marco, who has been imprisoned for treason. Benedict Wong turns in a wonderful performance, as he tends to do when the Khan is placed in a role heavy with responsibility and deliberation. It’s clear that he wants to trust Marco, but he’s unsure of what is best for his empire. Kublai Khan is reacting to his defeat more so than he is to Marco’s perceived betrayal. His anger is merely a source of his wounded pride and the hiccup in his grand plan. The Khan has always envisioned himself as the next great ruler after Genghis Khan, and the failed attack on Xiangyang, coupled with Marco’s insistence that the West will prove to be stronger than any enemy he has faced before, has him questioning his investment in securing a monumental legacy.
Not to be outdone is Joan Chen as Empress Chabi. Her careful balance of ruthlessness and empathy makes her one of the few fleshed-out characters on this show, and she boasts a magnetism that brings an otherwise listless storyline about the Blue Princess to life. See, it’s clear that the Blue Princess wants to escape–she comes close to killing herself in the same way the real Blue Princess did–but the reasons why are murky, and not in a mysterious way, but in an underdeveloped way. Only an episode ago she could have left with Tulga, a lifelong friend, but instead she chose to stay, shooting Tulga with an arrow as he fled. The suggestion is that the Blue Princess wants to stay because she’s in love with Marco, and therefore must flee with him. As I mentioned in the “stray observations” section in the previous episode’s review though, there has been no development of their relationship. Their romance has no basis. The timeline across nine episodes looks something like this: Marco sees her riding in the moonlight, he talks to her briefly, she is cold to him. He sees her riding in the moonlight once again, talks to her, and gets nothing. Then he is bitten by a poisonous snake, has sex with Khutulun, then is suddenly madly in love with the Blue Princess and must secure her safety, no matter the cost, as we near the end of the season. It’s ludicrous, a cheap and completely ineffective way of inserting some romantic stakes into a narrative that hasn’t given us a reason to be invested in those emotions.
At least, as “Prisoners” comes to a close, it gives us a meaningful moment, one removed from the stilted character relationships and contrived dialogue that otherwise bog down this episode. Yusuf confesses to the “crimes” Marco has committed. He does so because he knows Marco is innocent; he knows that his sacrifice will be for the good of the empire. Marco shows Yusuf a design for a trebuchet that he believes will help take down the walled city. Yusuf understands that not only will the trebuchet work, but the only way the Khan will accept even a visit from Marco is if he’s cleared of his crimes. Yusuf makes it impossible for the Khan to deny his confession, having sent letters to other parts of the empire detailing his atrocities. It’s an important scene because Marco’s well-being alone hasn’t been enough to keep us invested in the story. Attaching Yusuf’s sacrifice to the success of Marco’s plan lends a gravity and sense of responsibility to the battle that is sure to follow.
- As with so many episodes, “Prisoners’ is heavy on the dialogue. That’s not inherently an issue, obviously, but the writing on Marco Polo is so affected and tedious that many of the scenes end up feeling like placeholders for something more consequential or focused. Such moments rarely come though.
- Over the course of the season, Jingim has been a sly highlight. His seemingly complete inability to handle responsibility due to his nagging insecurity is evident in just about every action he takes.
- Jingim also getting ridiculed harshly in this episode. First, from Marco: “Please, Jingim, do not mar my final hours.” Even a dead man doesn’t want to be around him.
- Byamba lets him have it too: “How does your body stand straight without a spine?”