As Archie (Adam Godley) puts it, “Russia… a prehistoric creature all anger and thoughtless disregard for life. Anarchic and selfish, lacking reason. These are the things we must face down metaphorically.” But Tony McNamara’s bombastic The Great, returning for another 10-episode season on Hulu, faces these things down literally. What makes the show so excellent is not that it solves any of these problems, or even comes close—it’s that its characters constantly yearn and strive and lash out and cry with a mixture of humor and humanity unlike anything else on television. Perhaps these is nothing more Russian than that.
Of course, historical or regional accuracy should not be one’s primary concern when watching The Great. Did things happen as the show depicts? Certainly not. Does the series nevertheless provide an emotional accuracy? Indeed; huzzah. The petty personalities vying for power, the incompetency and waste, the horrendously difficult task to get anything worthwhile done (Russia being, especially, a notoriously fractured area to control) all work together to capture the essence and humanity of the thing, however comedically augmented, that stuffier historical series lack. And The Great is anything but stuffy.
In Season 2, we see how the power dynamic has shifted after the success of the coup. Catherine (Elle Fanning) has Peter (Nicholas Hoult) cornered and imprisoned. This assertion of dominance alongside her pregnancy is enough to control Peter through a love he has now discovered for her (and crucially their forthcoming son, Paul). But Catherine’s feelings for her violent, chaotic husband are similarly complex. She hasn’t killed him, not yet, though his list of sins against her is long. Still, she comes to believe she needs him—even as he frustratingly reframes that he “gave” her the throne rather than her taking it—as she struggles to command respect or loyalty from the court.
And so, The Great Season 2 is essentially a flamboyant Russian divorce of sorts, full of artfully vulgar dialogue, indiscriminate violence, and the constant threat of death on all sides from everyone. Even when diplomacy is desired, it’s hard to argue that the easiest path is to simply command and shoot anyone who disagrees—and yet, Catherine doggedly pursues her ideals with stunning self-confidence. The Empress leans into some real Hillary Clinton / Tracy Flick vibes in the new episodes, a triggering figure for the frustrated female overachievers of the world. But it’s fitting, as it is the women who, aside from Peter, have the most interesting stories this time around. With Orlo (Sacha Dhawan), Archie, and Velementov (Douglas Hodge) more sidelined, it’s allowed for the rising of Marial (Phoebe Fox), who has been restored to Catherine’s side, and Peter’s Aunt Elizabeth (Belinda Bromilow), who becomes a key resource and conscience for Catherine. (A late-season appearance by Gillian Anderson as Catherine’s mother is also one to remember.)
As Catherine faces constant uncertainty about what to do with Peter and the horrible nobles at court, and faces a looming war with the Ottoman Empire, the show never stops having fun dabbling in ahistorical jokes and references. From the creation of a roller coaster and “velcra” to crocodiles in the palace and a (very British) understanding of Russian ways and customs as Catherine tries to drag the European Enlightenment to Eurasia, The Great’s exceptional banter is matched only by its willingness to treat its setting as a satirical playground.
The show’s greatest trick, though, is how—just like Season 1—it manages to weave in an astonishing amount of pathos. When genuinely shocking moments happen, and real tears are shed, it always feels earned. Occasionally things quiet down just enough to tenderly uncover the true sadness that lies beneath the glibness and japes the characters so easily deploy. They are never cartoons; even among the supporting cast, there is always humanity to be found and revealed. Their jokes and violence cover up a difficult reality, where each is haunted by loss in many and various forms. It’s never an excuse, but rather, context that makes the show all the richer.
Having said that, for all of its fun The Great doesn’t always know when to leave the party, or even how. Its episodes are long and sometimes overstuffed, and the carousel of Catherine and Peter’s exhausting love/hate relationship overtakes every other storyline (or potential storyline) of the season. But there are few things greater than Fanning and Hoult crisply trading witticisms and insults back and forth, occasionally stumbling into true feelings before backing away just as quickly.
Both actors are magnificent once again; Hoult’s job is more fun as a violent buffoon discovering his heart (it’s good to be the king—or emperor. Or former emperor), but Fanning should not be overlooked for the way that she commands each scene, oscillating between optimistic and ethereal to cold and courageous. Peter has his own journey in Season 2, and Hoult plays those subtle changes exquisitely, seeming to relish in doing so. But it’s also incredible how Fanning holds all of those raging thoughts, feelings, and desires inside of Catherine and lets them play out in turn, pushing us to the edge of wanting to follow her and then pulling us back in. Huzzah!
Like Russia itself, The Great is an amalgam of many disparate parts, all of which ultimately fall in line if by duty or destiny. The series is a strange, funny, ridiculous, trundling carnival of ideas, genres, and characters. It is great in both size and quality—ambitious, reckless, and always a joy.
All episodes of The Great Season 2 premiere Friday, November 19th 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
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