‘The Great’ Mocks Power and Courtly Manners With a Silver Spoon and Acid Tongue
How funny the halls of power can be, as those bloated on ego and spoiled with decadence become players in their own tragedies. This is one keen observation in “The Great,” a hilarious romp that reimagines the court of Catherine the Great before she truly achieved the famous title. Elle Fanning wanders into a Russian shark tank, all innocence and bright eyes, and by the end has learned that high status also comes with knives aimed at your back. It’s satire in a classic, wicked tradition. Some historical details are on point, some are cheerfully made up, but it is like a tonic in this age of a world ruled by the mad.
Russia in the 18th century and young Catherine (Fanning) is a German of “good stock” married off to Emperor Peter (Nicholas Hoult), son of the former, more admired Peter the Great. Her only firm expectation from the ruling class is that she provides her womb to grant Peter an heir. But her romantic fantasies are dashed when she enters the palace and discovers that Peter is a debauched narcissist who enjoys shooting live animals, mocking anyone around him and sleeping with any woman that catches his gaze, no matter if it happens to be his best friend’s wife. Feeling adrift, Catherine first makes allies with Orlov (Sacha Dhawan), who like her enjoys books and is inspired by the Enlightenment ideas taking root in France. There’s also Marial (Phoebe Fox), once an aristocrat but a family mistake turned her into a servant. Characters of darker shade abound like the Archbishop (Adam Godley), who enjoys professing hearing the voice of God in his Orthodox ears. Peter is distracted by a farcical war with Sweden, when he notices Catherine’s increasing discontent and boredom he tries to cheer her up with a lover, Leo (Sebastian De Souza), who comes from a line of well-endowed Casanovas. Disappointed in affection, what Catherine seeks is to bring culture and progress to Russia. To do so she will have to do more than curtsy and conspire a great coup.
“The Great” is the latest reassembling of history by writer Tony McNamara, who penned Yorgos Lanthimos’s acclaimed, elegantly savage takedown of British monarchy “The Favourite.” Serving as executive producer along with Fanning, McNamara again uses real events as a mere canvas to dash away. It goes beyond revisionism, even the dates get moved around (the show begins in 1761, by then Catherine already had two children and had been married for 15 years). But as with any good drama, going back to Shakespeare, if you wish to absorb the real facts then a library or documentary is what you seek. What is again effective is how McNamara scoffs at the pretensions of good manners and aristocratic protocol. Catherine is made to follow strict rules in a world where women are seen as second class creatures, even among the well-bred. From a virginal exam conducted by the Archbishop to Peter tossing her Leo, she is an object (“women are for seeding not reading”). Of course for Peter all of Russia is a toy. The halls of the royal estate are full of wrestling, belching, fornicating gentlemen and ladies. Peter gives Catherine a bear only to shoot it during a party, and dinner tends to commence with everyone smashing their glasses and shouting “Huzzah!” It essentially becomes the show’s version of a game chant.
As played wonderfully and ebulliently by Fanning, Catherine sees herself as the one to bring enlightenment to this barbarous land with the help of friends like Orlov. The first half of the season is all about Catherine learning to survive amid scoundrels. The ladies at court immediately dislike her independent ways, spreading a famously false rumor about her having carnal knowledge with a horse. The commander of the army, Velementov (Douglas Hodge), usually awash in vodka, uses his mighty girth to shade Catherine from the sun and later drunkenly proclaims his love. It is fitting that Catherine keeps referencing Voltaire because like “Candide” episodes function as wicked, adventurous anecdotes.
Even more than “The Favourite” McNamara makes the material a dance between humor and uncomfortable edginess. “Fuck” becomes a rhythmic cadence in the dialogue and there’s an unhinged, unsparing tone to the way “The Great” examines cruelty. Child pretenders to the throne are prone to getting their throats cut, aristocrats are forced to strip and jump for Peter’s entertainment or shave their beards because he doesn’t like the aesthetic (he doesn’t care that a noble would rather keep his boils covered). The despot doesn’t seem to notice that his good friend Grigor (Gwilym Lee) is going mad with jealousy over the emperor’s obsessive need to sleep with his wife (Charity Wakefield). When Peter sniffs a plot to overthrow him he orders that everyone at court be tortured. But McNamara knows how to turn such situations into the kind of dark comedy we laugh at, even if we resist the temptation to do so.
Like all great satire, we also suspect “The Great” is both about the 18th century and also the 21st century. Peter’s childlike rants and obsession to be loved, even as his policies favor no one, seem unmistakably similar to a certain blonde would-be emperor in the White House. When Catherine tries to push vaccinations (then a very novel concept) to fight a smallpox outbreak she is laughed at. Peter would rather follow the old tradition of burning down entire villages to stop the spread. At least Peter later agrees to try to be an enlightened despot, following Catherine’s advice and throwing a “science party” where a kid gets electrocuted to show off some knowledge. McNamara’s iconoclastic torching of all monarchs has its best moment in an episode where Peter and Catherine travel to meet with the Swedish king, who is just as childish and depraved. An argument over territory descends into middle fingers being thrown around. Voltaire himself sips his tea and smirks at Catherine’s naive hopes for a better world.
It is the second half of the season which then becomes more of a thriller as Catherine, Marial and Orlov try to plot the overthrow of Peter. This storyline mixes with some of the show’s more complex character arcs. Catherine feels the call of history, but her heart begins to feel the pull of love. And we can never be quite sure if the Archbishop, played with Rasputin strangeness by Adam Godley, could be a friend or is simply a shallow villain. As the plot begins to unfold fates are decided with acts as simple as a heartbreaking kiss, or answering the call of nature over a stash of wheat. By the end of the tenth and final episode Catherine has still not attained the throne, yet.
How the rest of the story plays out in subsequent seasons remains to be seen. The real Catherine the Great did indeed bring much progress to her adopted land, initiating what historians consider to be Russia’s “Golden Age.” Of course once the French Revolution erupted further down the European neighborhood, she quickly turned against those Enlightenment values (Robespierre mocked her regime as “a climate of iron”). But in this first season she is still a ray of hope in a country ruled by half-formed men. “The Great,” dressed in wondrous rococo designs and cinematography, is fun but keen, looking at figures of power with little respect and instead the mocking smirk of those of us living under their boots. Huzzah indeed.
“The Great” season one begins streaming May 15 on Hulu.