CN: descriptions of graphic violence. Also plenty of spoilers for Season 1, episode 3.
Some of you may have watched the Netflix drama Marco Polo. So far, it’s run for two seasons, and the second season is much better written than the first.
It’s a standard mix of historical fiction, myth, war sequences, and unvarnished brutality—and yet, much like the Bible, it also includes some sharp observations about hope, fidelity, tenderness, and grace.
He shares your sin now. He is your scapegoat.” —Kublai Khan, Marco Polo S1:3 (Netflix)
Marco Polo is a young ward in Kublai Khan’s court. After he brings the emperor a false battle report to save the honor of one of the emperor’s sons, a messenger brings a true report to the palace and so reveals Polo’s lie.
Rather than punishing Polo, the emperor turns on the messenger and beats him to death with a heavy mallet. As the emperor reasons out loud, what if the word were to get out that he had not punished the liar that he favored?
The emperor then drops his mallet by the messenger’s corpse, and tells Polo that the messenger has paid his debt.
It’s a troubling scene, and I watched it while preparing last month’s talk at the Adventist Forum’s conference on nonviolence and atonement. My questions bubbled up.
How should Polo regard his emperor now that he’s become complicit in the brutal murder of an innocent man? On what basis should he love that emperor? On what basis should he trust him? And how does bludgeoning an innocent to spare another person resolve any questions about either Polo’s character or the emperor’s?
We regard the benevolent but violent master with wary eyes, not with soft hearts. And we say, with some characters in the BBC play God on Trial, “He is not good. He has simply been strong. He’s simply been on our side.”
The master who exacts death from whomever tells an inconvenient truth is not good, but he might be on our hero’s side. If he is, that doesn’t and can’t comfort anyone else. Even in the show, Polo is so spooked that he plots to escape.
And thousands of people have seen those issues rendered quite vividly in an imperfect historical drama. I hope they got the message.