This review originally published on May 1, 2020
For those who adored The Favourite, writer Tony McNamara is back with “an occasionally true story” for Hulu focused on the rise of Catherine the future great, when she was just “a 20-year-old who’s been in Russia six months, and who—with the aid of a drunken general, an angry maid, and a nervous bureaucrat—is going up against the violent regime that is Peter’s empire,” (as one character succinctly states). The 10-episode series has a crisp, fast-moving script and sumptuous costuming that looks like a traditional historical drama but feels refreshingly modern in its approach. Bathed in a Marie Antoinette meets Death of Stalin aesthetic (and never going Full Dickinson), the series’ acid, winning humor understands the familiar absurdity of an age filled with the constant juxtaposition of wealth and brutality. Emotionally affecting as a complicated dance of horror and hope, Catherine’s outright victories may be few and far between, but the journey is thrilling.
The Great begins in the mid-18th century, with Catherine’s (Elle Fanning) arrival at the Russian court as a naive German bride for Peter (Nicholas Hoult) the not-so-great and in fact very-much-awful. A script this cleverly bombastic requires very specific handling to balance its humor and drama, and both Hoult and Fanning are luminous as the ill-matched new couple. But though Catherine has a distaste (quite rightfully) for Peter, she does have a heart for her new country. “I want a strong, vibrant Russia alive with ideas, humane and progressive, where people live with dignity and purpose,” she says dreamily. “Russia?” the Emperor’s advisor Orlo (Sacha Dhawan) says in a questioning tone. “It needs to be believable.” Catherine’s maid, Marial (Phoebe Fox)—a former noble lady stripped of her position—adds, “Just tell them … no one will rape and kill you and your children, and you’ll have some bread. That would be sufficient.”
Serious issues of Russia’s ongoing war with Sweden, as well as the spread of smallpox and worrying matters of state, ground the otherwise truly bonkers events happening inside Peter’s Hieronymus Bosch-like court. Catherine wishes Russia to modernize and become more European, while Peter has a custard dessert served on platters next to severed heads whose eyes he gouges for fun. He also schtupps his best friend’s wife in front of him, constantly, and is irritated by Catherine’s apparent piety and lack of enjoyment in their own sexual encounters. “Mother always lit up when father came in a room. I could kill Catherine now and start again, why is no one excited by this?!” Peter whines. Later, contrite, he quickly rushes through a non-apology: “You probably don’t remember this, but a week ago I shot your bear and punched you. And I think that has caused a pall between us.”
Hoult’s line readings are masterful in their comedic derangement, reminiscent in some ways of Jodie Comer’s unique take on the character Villanelle in Killing Eve. Peter is a handsome psychopath, but he’s also sometimes tender and almost childlike. He punctuates every statement with “fuck off” or “huzzah,” breaking glasses, faces, and killing indiscriminately (he also throws a dog off the castle roof as a “science experiment” meant to appease Catherine, but thankfully the science part of it—a parachute—saves the day). But when Hoult’s Peter looks to Catherine for approval, there’s something unexpectedly likable about him. Not enough to let him off the hook, though. “You have given me a bear and have ceased punching me,” Catherine tells him dryly. “What woman would not be happy? Huzzah.”
Fanning also balances a tricky mix of confidence and insecurity, later coming alive like a delicate doll who becomes righteously possessed. Catherine may have grand ideas, but she’s more often humbled than triumphant (at least at this particular historical time, taking place over six months). But in that, the show manages to find a lot of genuine pathos, including her being bullied by the women of the court, or in her horror after visiting soldiers fighting at the front. There is a moment when Peter’s delightfully eccentric aunt Elizabeth (Belinda Bromilow) stops their carriage and steps daintily out into the woods where she screams and flails and screams some more at the general insanity of, well, everything. “It helps to get it out,” she counsels Catherine.
Amid all of the satisfyingly swirling romantic and personal stories (including Catherine reluctantly, then eagerly, taking on a lover—Sebastian De Souza’s sweet Leo—gifted to her by Peter), are jabs at the larger institutions, from the nobility and the church to the military. Regardless of its historical accuracy, The Great understands the spirit of the time and the people; that is, human nature doesn’t really change, only circumstances and technology do. When Peter “brilliantly” institutes an anonymous comment box at the palace, most of the notes say “kill yourself.” Basically, YouTube comments. A foreign queen laments bringing the printing press to her country because now that people can read, “they’ll probably depose us.” Hearing that Sweden has a free press, Peter immediately scoffs “that was a fucking mistake.”
The caustic brilliance of McNamara’s scripting cannot be overstated, but I was also truly emotionally invested in the season’s final crescendo to Catherine’s desperate power grab. Because The Great, by its own admittance, is only occasionally true, the Wikipedia hole you will quickly find yourself in will not provide the answers you seek. Anything is at play, no one is safe; The Great’s exceptional, understated cast made me genuinely care for all of these madcap players, and the stakes became incredibly high. (Another note on the cast: They speak in English accents and do not attempt Russian, which is a relief. And while the cast is very white, it’s not blindingly so—race doesn’t factor into the story, so the court is refreshingly colorful without being specifically commented upon or “explained,” because it doesn’t need to be).
In some ways, it might be a mistake for Hulu to release all ten hourlong episodes at once, because The Great really should be savored. The way it charts Catherine’s quiet but brave attempts to take power by growing a voice at court and discovering new things about herself is a really beautiful journey, punctuated by completely absurd events. It’s strange and wonderful and a fantastically funny ride. But it will also leave you pondering the nature of sacrifice and real change, and the courage it takes to overthrow a despot. Huzzah.
The Great premieres on Friday, May 15th on Hulu.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.