If you haven’t seen Netflix’s recent effort Marco Polo, you’re definitely missing out. For better or worse, it shows Netflix’s ability to successfully foray into nearly every genre, historical fiction especially. (Speaking of which, go watch Peaky Blinders.) Set during Polo’s early days as a servant to Ghengis Khan’s grandson, the show has enough intrigue, violence and boobs to be in the same conversation as Game of Thrones.*
Without saying too much about the series as a whole, Marco Polo is good entertainment. But what I think sets it apart is that it’s a prestige series set in Asia, with a multitude of Asian characters. While Marco himself may be the ‘hero’ (see: White Face In An Ethnic Place™), he is by no means the most dynamic nor the most powerful. Rather, the here power players are the honor-bound Kublai Khan in the North, and his beguiling opponent, Chancellor Jia Sidao in the South. While the factual side of this war between the Mongol horde and Chinese dissidents can be argued for days, the drama of these two men battling for the future of China is damn good. Much of this is due entirely to Jia Sidao.
Like GoT, Marco Polo plays morality in increasingly grey shades. As such, there are no clearcut heroes in the narrative. This allows viewers to root for different characters, while the characters themselves express more flexible forms of humanity and emotional complexity. In only so many words: everybody is up to something and no one is in the right all the time.
Yet, even within this spectrum, Sidao is the most apparent and cunning villain. Rising from poverty, he comes to have a chokehold on the political court of the Song Dynasty right at the moment when Kublai mounts his invasion. Sidao however is no fool. Kublai’s fiery yang of emotions and pathos are countered by the yin of Sidao’s ruthless calculating. For the majority of the season, Sidao is always subverting his opponents, exploiting assumptions, and striking with deadly exaction, all while maintaining a thoroughly cool manner.
Exploitation, however, is probably the most contentious tactic of Sidao’s. The extent to which he is willing to use his own sister, Mei Lin, as a sexual and political puppet are heartbreaking and vile. Seriously: the scene in which he punishes his sister’s perceived failings by binding her daughter’s feet is one for the books.
Sidao then is without a doubt an interesting character. But why am I writing about him specifically?
Well, he is particularly of interest because he is an Asian villain in a narrative that, while centering a white ‘hero,’ is almost completely concerned with other Asian characters. This is key because, Sidao doesn’t even meet Marco until the final episode.** The importance of this lies in the fact that, until that moment, Sidao is never concerned about the welfare or power of Marco. His actions, emotions, and development are never centered in relation to Marco. Thus, he is free (in a sense) from the constriction of racial tropes in a way that many (Asian) villains (when positioned against a white character) are not. Analysis of Sidao then, while not completely free of this context, can be more about the character himself and not the restrictions his character is unnecessarily boxed into because of his race. Let’s look then at Sidao’s most intimate moments. Namely, his sexuality and what we do get to see of it.
Throughout the season, Sidao is fairly asexual. In fact, he seems to play directly into tropes of a neutered Asian male; extremely talented, able to achieve impossible feats, but ultimately refused the same sexual freedoms and expressions as his white counterparts. But if we look closer, there are some things at work that reveal Sidao is much more than this. Key touch points are found in his relationship with Mei Lin, and her fellow courtesan, Jing Fei.
I’m gonna pull from non-sequential information here, but, bear with me for a moment.
As evidenced in a much later reveal, Sidao and Mei grew up heavily impoverished: Mei serviced men as an underage courtesan, while Sidao hid under the floorboards. However, the bigger reveal here is that Mei was initially the bullying, controlling sibling. Her treatment of a young and vulnerable Sidao is a crucial point for his later development into the man we see at the beginning of the season. This is because this treatment, and his later commandeering of her career as a skilled sex worker, informs his disdain of both sex work and his sister (among other things). This hardening of his heart ultimately coalesces with his ambitions to lead the Song Dynasty, royal blood be damned.
What’s interesting here is that his hate for Mei is only balanced by his need for her influence and flexibility. As a courtesan, she influences the court in ways that Sidao cannot. The two then are, in a way, a single unit: Mei’s sexual prowess (and fighting skills, lest we forget) complement Sidao’s own offical access to strategic avenues. It is only when Sidao becomes desperate that he tightens and (further) corrupts this relationship; effectively holding Mei’s daughter ransom. It is at this moment that Jing Fei takes center stage.
In Mei’s absence, Jing becomes the daughter’s surrogate mother. During this time, it’s revealed explicitly that Jing and Sidao are intwined sexually and emotionally. The subtext and irony is that Sidao not only despises Mei (and Jing, by association), he despises himself, namely for his inability to not love “a prostitute” such as Jing. In essence, his internalized shame of Mei’s profession, mixed with his hate of Mei herself, has manifested as an unhealthy and simultaneous attraction to and hate for courtesans. It is in this revelation that we get a couple rare moments of vulnerability for Sidao, in effect seeing who he truly is: a conflicted and wounded man with troubling understandings of sexuality and a terrible need to be loved.
This is all the more impactful when Sidao later confronts Jing for betraying him. While he does in some way love her, Sidao’s political ambitions (and arguably his honor/ego) refuse to accept this affront from his most trusted person. As such, he can neither bring himself to kill her nor save her and let her abscond. The impossibility of the situation, from Sidao’s point of view, is complemented by Jing’s own wordlessness. She cries, but performs the only action she can in the moment. As a woman who is ultimately a a chess piece (see: an object) in Sidao’s world, she chooses the only route that has some semblance of agency: suicide.
This scene, in a graceful passage of the show’s cultural ethos, illustrates Sidao’s deepest vulnerabilities and the tragedy of the inherent power dynamic present in his relationship with Jing. She was and forever would be subject to his whims, even if they meant her own death. And that is the only type of love and affection he truly knew: control and submission.
The gravity of this moment is only topped by the briefness of Sidao’s death. Despite his cruelty, his plotting, and even his twisted attempts at love, Sidao knows when he is personally defeated. And yet, as Hunnit Eyes™ stands over him, Sidao concedes and simply exclaims: “may Song Dynasty endure 10,00 years!” We see then that possibly even in death, Sidao refuses to let go, effectively cursing the Mongols in their assumed victory. Keen observers though will remember that, while the Walled City was overcome, the dynasty is still intact due to the Emperor’s assumed escape. Thus, despite a serious setback, Sidao may have bested Kublai even while forfeiting his own life.
In all this then, Sidao is a deep and interesting character. No matter your take on Marco Polo as a whole, you can’t deny that he presents an effective and complex villain that fucks shit up.
*I personally hate that everyone and they mama tried to put Marco Polo in a convo with GoT. But I guess that’s what happens when you help change the genre at large (I’m looking at you Avengers.)
**(In fact, Marco is not even given the triumphant white man moment in fighting The Cricket Minister. Shout out to Hunnit Eyes™ for laying them paws on Sidao.)
dap wants to be an enigma, but he’s pretty transparent. A transplant from “Back East,” he found himself in Oakland writing about alla the fun things. He’s in love with the coco(a) (skinned women and butter,) among other things. Find his rants and retweetery @dapisdope