I was going to avoid saying that The Great is pretty great fun to watch, but why fight the obvious? It is a great, darkly funny, and, by its own admission, an only sometimes accurate historical drama about Catherine the Great’s rise to power, that somehow manages to mix rich period costumes, debauchery, crass jokes, feminist humor, sex, and absurd wit into a very bingeable ten episode series.
The Great begins just as Catherine (Elle Fanning, who is damn perfect in this role, and yes who is an adult now) is heading off to Russia to marry Emperor Peter (Nicholas Hoult, yes, the kid from About a Boy, yes, all grown up, yes, time does march on). She is an apple-cheeked, wide-eyed teenager, naive and steadfast in her belief that this marriage is driven by destiny and that she will help bring culture and knowledge to Russia.
When they first meet, she presents Peter with a sprig of spruce as a symbol of their love and as assurance that they will be “constant and caring all our lives.” He jokes that she looked taller in her portrait and threatens to exchange her for another wife. She says she hopes she will make him happy. He tells her she’s perfect because he needs a wife who is from aristocracy, but not a powerful family. “Your family apparently are fucked,” he says gleefully. So, basically, it’s love at first sight and they’re perfectly matched.
Catherine remains determinedly optimistic through the pre-wedding internal exam performed by the Archbishop (Adam Godley, who makes everything he’s in weirder and better); the wedding banquet where she discovers her husband is a bit of a lout who shouts HUZZAH! a lot and smashes glasses on the ground; and even their (decidedly disappointing) wedding night.
It takes her longer to describe her idea of sex to Marial (Phoebe Fox), her maid, than it does for the actual act, which Peter performs fully clothed while talking over his shoulder to his friend (Gwilym Lee) about duck calls. She even keeps her chin up through him showing her the fully clothed remains of his (very shriveled) mother. When she discovers that the women of the court are illiterate and their only outlet is talking about hats and throwing colored balls on the lawn, she asks Peter for permission to start a school. He grants it until he and the Archbishop realize she wants to educate actual grown women, at which point they burn the school to the ground. “Women are for seeding, not reading,” he tells Catherine before giggling at his own turn of phrase. This is the match point for Catherine, who begins plotting her eventual rise to power.
Catherine is delightfully flawed, unapologetically ambitious, determined, sexual, smart, and, ultimately, guileful. She delights in the bear that Peter gives her as a wedding gift because it is cute, and she carefully protects herself from unwanted pregnancy with a diaphragm made from a lemon (please do not actually stick fruit in your vagina) because she understands what motherhood would mean for her goals.
At one point she tells Marial— who was a lady of the court until her father made some seriously questionable choices—that she thinks that God has sent her to Russia to become something great. Marial, whose blunt verbal blows and derisive eyerolls help make her my favorite character, asks her, “Why did he make you a woman, then?” To which Catherine replies with a shrug, “For comedy, I guess.” She is absolutely the kind of woman that history loves to hate and demean with, say, rumors about her proclivity toward horses, but this series treats her with humor and humanity.
Her conversations with Marial are among some of the moments I enjoyed most in the series. (I would absolutely watch a spin-off where the two of them loosen up their corsets and riff on the gender dynamics of the 1700s.) At one point when they are catching up with each other Catherine asks, “How was your evening?” In response, Marial says cooly, “Avoided rape. You?” After which they muse that if anyone “invents something other than buttons, we are all in trouble.” A darkly funny and sadly timely commentary. They are, in fact, the perfectly balanced couple of the show. Marial is constantly urging Catherine to just go ahead and kill Peter already, while Catherine insists they must have patience and be thoughtful. At one point Marial asks, “Is this a coup or a fucking book club?!?” (As an aside, I also love that Catherine has a giant bulletin board (not a historically accurate term) hidden behind a tapestry in her apartments that outlines the plan for deposing Peter, like she’s some kind of amateur sleuth in a Law and Order episode.
Do I need to talk about Peter? It’s not that Nicholas Hoult isn’t delightful as the crass, vain, violent, not-so-bright, insecure, and lazy emperor. He absolutely is. It’s just that Catherine and Marial are so much more interesting to me. Though I should say that, by the end, I had surprisingly warm feelings toward Peter and I felt almost bad about his impending demise. I was very glad, though, that the show’s creators didn’t turn it into a situation like The Crown, where we had to suffer through multiple episodes about how terribly, terribly hard it is to be a powerful man. Phew. Enough about men.
The show addresses the absolute brutality of Peter III’s reign (okay, okay, we can’t entirely avoid talking more about men), with a lot of very dark humor. At some point, smallpox breaks out among the servants. Catherine proposes they try inoculating people, which the doctor (Jamie Demetriou, who is, as always, delightful in his awfulness) says is a scurrilous idea. When she brings the idea to Peter, the men and women of the court end up having a very genteel discussion about the merits of burning all the serfs. It’s absurd, crass, funny, and heartbreaking. As is the scene where Peter merrily shows Catherine all the various and bloody ways in which he plans to torture members of the court to suss out a traitor. It’s not really like Monty Python, but if you listen, you can hear the same melody.
I should say that if you find the word fuck to be offensive or think it’s a lazy way to talk, then you should run screaming from this show (and from me, probably, because aside from feminist, it is one of my very favorite f-words). But if you’re cool with–ACK! Wait! I didn’t explicitly talk about the costumes. They are wonderful and rich and do a lot to express the moods and growth of the characters. The sets are fabulous as well—from Catherine’s light-filled rooms with green curtains that almost glow to Peter’s dark and glowering spaces where you can almost smell sweat and semen and stale alcohol. You could, I think, maybe watch it for those even if you’re not fond of swearing and strong women. But if you do like swearing, strong women, dark humor, historical interpretations, and drama, then do yourself a great (sorry not sorry) favor and watch this. HUZZAH!