Season 2, Episode 2 – Hug
After spending a whole season with Kublai Khan, I think it’s fair to say that we have a pretty good idea of what he’s capable of. While there’s still plenty of room for exploration, audiences who’ve followed the series up to this point can safely assume what his decisions will be and how he’ll face opposition. This is not to say that Kublai Khan is a predictable character, but only that we know enough about him to make good guesses as to how he’ll react when faced with certain situations. Unfortunately, I don’t think the writers are aware of this, because the main dramatic climax of this episode rests entirely on whether or not Kublai Khan is capable of killing the boy Emperor.
I’m not saying that Kublai takes pleasure in killing children or that he doesn’t find it difficult to do, but throughout the episode we find the supporting characters in fear of Kublai’s abilities to do such a thing. This is confusing because Kublai is a man who’s shown to be capable of doing really violent acts or ordering his army to do violent things in order to keep control of his empire. He’s not a savage ruler, but it’s clear that he won’t turn the other cheek when it comes to solving problems through brutal means. So when it comes time in the end of the episode for Kublai to do the deed, I couldn’t understand why the narrative focus of the episode was whether or not he will kill the boy. There is nothing I’ve seen in the past episodes of this series that made me even doubt that he was capable of it. A much better question would’ve been if he even should?
The dramatic conflict of the episode feels forced because while some solutions are proposed (such as sending the boy away in a monastery), the episode merely takes a glance at the conflict instead of exploring it in more meaningful ways. Kublai didn’t have to make his decision in such a short time. One lunch meeting with his advisers and a talk with his wife was all it took to make a final decision on a matter that would have severe political ramifications? To make things worse, Kublai is basically manipulated into killing the boy by Ahmad so that Ahmad can take the leap into executing his plot to take over Kublai’s rule. It’s a clever accomplishment by Ahmad, but it comes with the expense of making Kublai look foolish and making such important plot lines look simplistic. Ahmad’s plan is working too smoothly to be convincing and I can’t help but roll my eyes at seeing everything slot so neatly into place so that the season’s big conflict can begin.
In contrast to the main plotline, the B-plot of Kaidu looking for support in his quest to challenge Kublai’s rule is moving far too slowly. We are introduced to numerous characters who seem to serve as window dressing in expanding Kaidu’s cause (Kaidu’s son and his mother), but the writers have yet to make Kaidu even remotely interesting for us to start caring about his plotline. This is especially problematic since Kaidu’s quest seems to be taking up a significant amount of the show and I just want it to be over and done with already.
Another uninteresting B-plot is Princess Kokachin’s struggles in her marriage with Prince Jingim. Both characters are dull and the love triangle aspect feels out of place in the grand scheme of things. Watching Princess Kokachin and Marco Polo be reunited falls flat because the two characters have little to no chemistry at all. I hope the season moves past this quickly because even the short scenes dedicated to it feels longer than it should.
In spite of all the problems that this episode had, it did end on a high note. The scene where Kublai seems to go back and forth as to whether or not he will kill the boy Emperor was masterfully acted by Benedict Wong. He was able to show a lot of layers in the character that made you unsure as to how the scene was ultimately going to end. Despite the overall problems I had with the actual plotline, it still managed to hold a few surprises that elevated the episode beyond its simplistic execution.