‘The Great’ is Pretty Great

But Catherine maybe wasn’t so great

At the outset of The Great, the 10-episode Hulu original series about Catherine the Great, German-born Catherine (Elle Fanning) is so cartoonishly naïve and optimistic that she might as well be a Disney princess. “It’s like the sun has floated into our court and exploded,” one courtier observes when she arrives in 18th-century Russia. But Russia is no magic kingdom, and Catherine’s new husband Emperor Peter III (Nicholas Hoult)—the son of Peter the Great—is no Prince Charming. Instead, he’s a profane, mercurial, sociopathic brat, who’s turned his court into his own personal fight club, complete with free-range bears. The men are bewigged boors; the ladies are illiterate, more interested in talking about fashions than philosophy. Catherine remains positive until the end of the first episode, by which time her can-do spirit curdles into contempt. She and Peter spend much of the next nine installments trying to kill each other.

Dramedy is a difficult tone to pull off, especially when you add the trappings of a lavish historical biopic into the mix, and The Great could have been a hot mess. Instead, it’s a hoot, largely because Fanning and Hoult fully—and I mean fully—commit to their flawed characters, her determined do-gooding balancing his almost Trumpian blend of arrogance, cruelty, and cluelessness.

Like a master criminal planning a heist, Catherine plots a coup by assembling a team of carefully chosen co-conspirators: Marial (Phoebe Fox), a tart lady of the court demoted to servant; the bookish Count Orlov (Sacha Dhawan); the boozy General Velementov (Douglas Hodge); and her official lover, the sexy, supportive Leo (Sebastian De Souza). Meanwhile, Peter complains about the “strange creature” her married to his mistress Georgina (Charity Wakefield) and her husband, Peter’s best friend, Grigor (Gwilym Lee, who played a similar longsuffering sidekick, Brian May, in Bohemian Rhapsody).

With its cavalier attitude towards historical facts, raunchy sex scenes, pop soundtrack, colorblind casting, and obvious anachronisms (Peter’s “Huzzahs!” are interspersed with “Boo-yas!”) The Great may remind you of modern monarchical mash-ups like Marie-Antoinette, Versailles, Reign, and even Blackadder. But its closest kin is The Favourite, co-written by The Great’s creator Tony McNamara and also featuring Hoult (and a duck obsession).

The Great
Catherine the Great and Peter the Great, not a great match.

Apart from a truly tasteless Chernobyl joke, McNamara brings the funny, with Peter getting the best of the many, many good lines. “You probably don’t remember, but a week or two ago I shot your bear and punched you,” he tells Catherine. “Perhaps it has cast a pall between us.” A late episode, “Meatballs at the Dacha,” centers on Peter’s peace conference with the king of the Swedes (“blond, moose-buggering, lingonberry-gorging fucks”), which detours into a nutty bromance before going inevitably and hilariously wrong.

Though Catherine has an actual murder board hidden under a wall hanging in her bedroom, she ultimately decides to unseat her husband through a bloodless “coup of ideas.” Cue talk of freeing the serfs, the arrival of a printing press, and smallpox inoculation, which pro-vax Catherine champions over the traditional treatment of burning victims alive.

Catherine and Peter’s cat-and-mouse game grows tiresome over ten episodes of plotting against each other, reconciling, then plotting some more. But The Great has bigger philosophical fish to fry. Is the future always better than the past? Does progress justify violence? What is progress, anyway? Peter thinks himself modern for banning beards and devising more efficient and creative forms of torture, but he’s horrified by the idea of educating women. When Catherine inspires him to support the sciences, his experiments involve lighting farts on fire and shooting frogs out of guns; his printing press mostly produces porn. Meanwhile, Catherine is eager to modernize Russia but hasn’t really thought through how or why. For all her good intentions, she isn’t all that great.

Indeed, Catherine’s claim that she always felt destined for greatness rings hollow; we, the audience, don’t know anything about her past or her youthful ambitions beyond a royal marriage. Catherine’s patriotism springs from personal motives; as she explains, “Russia and I are married to the same man.” She wants freedom for herself as much as for her adopted country. Yet The Great is determined to paint her as a proto-feminist heroine. The real-life Catherine II never freed the serfs, and she wasn’t very nice to the Jews, either. “Most women die with an unsaid better idea in their hearts,” one character comments. Some television shows do, too.

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Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell

Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell writes about fashion, art and culture for the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and Book + Film Globe.

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