The Great - The Great - Review - The 2021 Guidebook We Need By TVAdora (January 6, 2021, 6:30 pm)

Originally previewed on Hulu in the early days of the plague, Tony McNamara’s brilliant macabre reimagining of Catherine the Great’s super antihero origin story disappeared into the ether. Emmy voters apparently watched just one episode. The Great had arrived too soon to be properly appreciated, but if ever a show was made for 2021 it’s this one. Hence, even as we strive to reclaim our own lives, I am reclaiming The Great for the New Year.

The first couple episodes function as something of a prologue as Catherine arrives in Russia, ready to be the doting consort to its Emperor and live a life of blissful pastels, sweets, parties, and maybe even thoughtful, intellectual conversation. Elle Fanning introduces Catherine to us with every bit of exuberance and perfection you might expect from a Disney princess. The Great is aware Fanning is an actual Disney princess who even dresses like a fairy tale heroine in real life, but don’t mistake her casting as merely the peak of cheeky meta nods. Catherine might love strawberries and pack hordes of books to read on the road, yet she’s also a young woman who declares it “perfectly right” that she should be Empress of Russia, kissing the very stones of the new ground she will rule over. Catherine doesn’t seek a life of royal bliss; she desires the power her title will bring, desires it fiercely, needs it even the way she needs knowledge and oxygen and attention. Over the first season, we’ll see her become more and more unapologetic in her quest to secure that power for herself. Most TV shows would portray a protagonist like Catherine as a mad woman, doom her to failure or regret, but The Great seems to have a very different endgame in mind. 

In the premiere, Catherine meets a wonderfully bizarre ensemble of future enemies and allies. Her new husband Peter III (Nicholas Hoult) is a nightmare; his most significant living relative, his Aunt Elizabeth (Belinda Bromilow), blows bubbles on Catherine at the wedding dinner, commenting the bride is “like the sun has floated into our court and exploded.” Peter’s head general, Velementov (Douglas Hodge), who is absolutely not on the front lines of the country’s war of the moment, ogles Catherine and nearly falls in her lap, pressing kisses up her arm. Everyone thinks Catherine is sweeter than a sugar wafer, even Georgina Dymova (Charity Wakefield), a prominent lady of the court who takes the Empress under her wing or tries to anyway. There’s also the extremely seedy Archbishop (Adam Godley) with his fingers in all the pies. And Orlo (Sacha Dhawan), perhaps the only person of sense on the Emperor’s council, quite possibly something of a coward and at definite risk for execution. 

Catherine does absolutely everything within her ability to be the good royal wife, and Elle Fanning’s wonderfully placid demeanor in these scenes as Catherine wills herself to not be ruffled by her surroundings is hysterically bleakly amusing. Gifting a sprig of evergreen to her future husband, quoting from the love letter he didn’t write even after she knows he didn’t write it, waxing beyond sentimental about the glow of their wedding night, making a to-do list after her wedding night that includes loving her husband, keeping her eyes from glazing over when she hears the court ladies spend half their day rolling balls on the lawn, not blinking when Peter reveals he keeps his mummified mother on display upright in a glass box….”She is pretty,” Catherine remarks matter-of-factly. Later she fights back tears upon learning none of the other ladies have any interest in reading, as it dawns on her that for all intents and purposes she is expected to behave as if she too is just a pretty thing on display. 

Catherine’s plight would be an oft-repeated and revisited tale, were it not for two important features that distinguish her journey from others that have been addressed onscreen. First and foremost is Peter himself, extraordinarily awful and wholly riveting. He gives us and Catherine whiplash with his wild swings from bonkers to cunning; we’re never quite sure just how insane Peter is. The idea that he might not be completely out of his mind encourages Catherine to attempt a normal relationship with him, but that same possibility makes Peter the biggest threat to her wellbeing and ascension to power. Nicholas Hoult should be a magnet for accolades with this role. Peter keeps everyone and everything on the edge of their seats. One moment he’s negligently firing guns indoors, laughing at his big oops of accidentally killing Catherine’s pet bear; the next he’s calmly punching his wife in the stomach to remind her there are worse things than being emotionally mistreated. The latter scene is a pinnacle of dramatic achievement for the show, because Catherine has been reacting rather mildly and childishly to her negative experiences at court so far. Negative experiences which are significantly chill by historical royal mistreatment standards. Her inexperience in navigating court politics rapidly puts her at a disadvantage, meaning she will have nothing but an uphill battle to fight. The scene between husband and wife in the library is disturbing too for how it suggests that Peter is far more aware of his problematic behavior and risky position than he lets on. We’re left to wonder how much of what he does is a calculated balancing act or if there’s perhaps a better version of him trapped within. 

The Great is not a show that is quick to reward its protagonist, not even when it comes to possible alliances. Catherine is surrounded by wildcards, beginning with her maid Marial (Phoebe Fox is a revelation and a revolution!), a former lady of the court whose family got demoted to servants after invoking Peter’s displeasure. Marial is not going quietly into the life of a servant, despite the obvious risks to her person, and she has a blindspot in the form of her ambitious, sleazy relative, the Archbishop. Still, in a perfect world, Marial would be the ideal partner in crime for Catherine. Every single one of their scenes electrifies, thanks to the perfect comic timing and sharp rapport the two women share. Catherine also finds a sympathetic ear in Orlo, whom she catches weeping over philosophy in the very dusty library. (He later accidentally provokes Peter to burn down the school Catherine wanted to start for court ladies. “Women are for seeding not reading!” The fact that Hoult makes Peter not only bearable but entertaining to watch for several episodes is a feat of talent that is unsurpassed). 

Another possibly empathetic member of court is Peter’s supposed best friend Grigor Dymov (Gwilym Lee), Georgina’s husband who seems to be okay with the fact he and his wife (Peter’s mistress) have to provide Peter with 24/7 affirmation and amusement. Catherine’s arrival upsets this delicate, stressful balance. By the third or fourth time Grigor laughs a moment too late at one of Peter’s supposed-to-be-funny actions, we’re left with a sense his nerves are beyond frazzled. And he might have a shred of pride left in there somewhere. Due to not being historically accurate, The Great doesn’t introduce either of the Grigrorys who were important in the real Catherine’s life, but one wonders if Grigor is being set up to fill one of those roles. (In a throwaway line, Peter reveals that Grigor was gently carrying around two ducklings for reasons unknown, hinting at a much more caring version of Grigor. Perhaps the same one who looks very unsettled by Peter’s faux drowning of Catherine during her escape attempt).

One humiliation leads to another and another and another, and Catherine contemplates taking her life. It's particularly notable that the show doesn't overdramatize or trivialize Catherine's state of mind here. While Peter might have told Catherine emotional blows aren't the same as physical ones, the show doesn't treat her despair lightly. Marial dissuades Catherine with some tough love and the most juicy of all juicy tidbits. The throne of Russia passes to the Empress if the Emperor dies. The great love Catherine saw in her dreams, that love could be Russia herself. Catherine looks into the camera, just barely smiling; after all, when a star explodes, it does create a supernova.

Scene to Carry With Us:

At the breakfast table, after the burning of her schoolhouse, Catherine (having not bothered to change out of her pajamas that morning) reads Peter a very specific Diderot quote.
“Man will not be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.”
“I love it!” Peter responds after a full beat of silence. 

Fun fact from real life: In his later years, Diderot was taken under Catherine’s financial wing; she provided for him in the last decade of his life, despite more than one difference of opinion between the two of them. 

Weekly What's Up With Marial Section:

Marial. Marial. Marial. Can Catherine trust her? Will Marial stick by Catherine if a better opportunity comes along to reclaim her social status? How long did she have that little nugget about the throne hiding up her very fashionable sleeves? She did send Catherine in to romantically surprise Peter without any warning about Peter having a mistress, knowledge Marial had to be fully aware Catherine with her floral delusions of love didn't have? And how did Peter know that Catherine was escaping via trunk but didn't punish Marial at all for helping? In the end, it might not matter if Marial's initial intentions were solely self-serving, because it's thoroughly splendid to watch her scheme.