The Great June 8, 2020
Sebastian de Souza
ittle about The Great (2020) is true. So little about it is true, in fact, that when we arrive at its opening title card, on which the name of the show appears in swooping cursive, there's an asterisk next to the word "great." This TV show about a young, pre-honorific Catherine the Great (Elle Fanning) is only “an occasionally true story,” the card wants us to know. (One of the few truths disseminated is that Catherine, contrary
to legend, was not an equinophiliac killed by her fetish.) A savvy viewer knows not to trust any visual media ostensibly retelling the truth also seeking to entertain. So how necessary is it, really, for The Great to exert the extra effort to deem itself untrustworthy? I like to think the disclaimer is meant to function more as an enticer than a warning — a way of hinting at pot-stirring fun soon to come.
The 10-episode series, now on Hulu, was created and predominantly written by Tony McNamara, the Australian filmmaker and playwright who debuted a play using most of The Great’s same material in 2008. He’s best known for co-penning the rowdy, 18th-century-set The Favourite (2018), which garnered him and co-screenwriter Deborah Davis a Best Screenplay Oscar nomination in 2019. Those who loved that movie’s ahistorical pageantry and rather poisonous type of comedy will in no doubt be attracted to The Great, which is doing much of the same, just with more time to kill. (I suspect that many viewers are watching the series because of its connection to The Favourite — I know it’s what got me interested.)
In the course of The Great’s sextet of (on average) 50-minute-long episodes, McNamara reimagines Catherine’s arranged marriage to huge prick Peter the Great of Russia (Nicholas Hoult) up until her eventual overthrowing of him. (In real life, it took Catherine just six months to enact her coup.) Historical perversions are, of course, everywhere. Some are especially conspicuous. Everyone, no matter their origin, has a posh English accent, and peppers their
language, as expected from McNamara, with lots of ahistorical “fucks” and at least one “cuntstruck.” Peter is played by someone objectively pretty when he was actually notoriously ugly. And Catherine goes from an operatic ham with some undeniably good political ideologies to being a passionately liberal, well-intentioned but sometimes naïve and tone-deaf young woman who is finally victorious.
It’s fun to watch Peter and Catherine duke it out in The Great — they’re so temperamentally poles apart. (It’s worth noting that it isn’t just their battle of wits that energizes the show — practically everyone here is committed to power-playing, and the series makes a point of taking the hot air out of everyone’s various performativities.) Peter is hedonistic and brutal: he enthusiastically womanizes and carries with him a noisy inconsideration of mortality, among other things. At dinner one evening, he presents to his guests the severed heads of enemy soldiers on shiny plates; he punches Catherine in the gut after she calls him out on his verbal abuse, to make a point that she can get over word-lashes a lot more easily than a physical blow. He’s despicable. Yet as played by Hoult, he can be despicable in a darkly humorous way. Peter evokes many of the show’s biggest laughs, usually in moments where he’s expounding on self-observations and is completely off the money. He’s a big, stupid baby who unfortunately yields much power. He mistakes everyone’s fearful coddling for genuine love — he never stops thinking he’s universally liked. Peter yells “huzzah!” as much as if not more often than Jay Gatsby calls friends “old sport” in The Great Gatsby. It’s a verbal crutch, self-important affirmation as punctuation.
There is a Trumpishness to Peter. Eerie prescience looms large when, late into the series, when Catherine progressively announces that the best way to protect oneself against smallpox is to get inoculated (this did famously happen), Peter continuously balks. He doesn’t like the idea, so therefore it must be wrong. He finally gives in and admits that maybe science does have credence after all when he throws a Pomeranian wearing a parachute off a roof. The pup, thankfully, blissfully floats downward.
Fanning’s Catherine spends the show coming into her own. I wonder if the series is called The Great rather than “Catherine the Great” because she spends these episodes not only not having yet earned the honorific, but also that she and Peter are essentially competing for it. Catherine is a disarmingly messy character. She knows she has the potential to wield big power responsibly (Peter is doing a lot of squandering). But she's also out of touch with what’s going on in the country she putatively is dying to run. Her vision is blocked, reaping the exploitatively cultivated benefits of aristocracy. The series does an effective job of presenting us with someone who is often underprepared without totally condescending to her when she publicly evinces herself as over her head — with stronger ideas than applicable knowledge. To us, Catherine is typical of a smart 20-something still in the process of intellectually developing — in certain places brilliant but in others entirely in the dark. (Most of this is rooted in her privilege, which entails that Catherine always be pretty myopic.)
In one scene, which finds her on a misguided trip to the battlefield, she passes out rainbow-colored macarons to muddy, blood-soaked soldiers attending to blown-off limbs in a poofy dress. In another, she makes a grand speech to a large crowd about all the things she’d like to abolish if she hypothetically ruled Russia. Then she's called out for not knowing basically any of their minutiae. We like this Catherine, whom we know is not too much like the real, far battier one, because she appears willing to do what it takes to pick up the pieces. She’s cloistered, but is painfully aware of the cloistering. The macaron gaffe strikes her so immediately as insensitive that it only makes her more committed to finding a resolution to the war. And after that embarrassing speech, Catherine works to catch herself up to speed because she knows that the betterment of a country she says she’s bound to really does depend quite a bit on her knowing what she’s talking about.
Fanning, giving yet another engaging, hypercompetent performance, is the human center and straight man of the show. Though her being the straight man seems less about disposition and more the fact that everyone else is so much more notionally comedic. Hoult's a thorough goof, and shoutout to Phoebe Fox as Catherine's sardonically funny lady in waiting and Belinda Bromilov's dotty, ruthless-when-need-be Aunt Elizabeth. Fanning, who has honed her comedic timing, is at her best when she's loosest, like when Catherine fucks with other ladies on the court when they start dispelling nasty rumors about her or when she's lying through her teeth to protect her up-and-coming coup.
Some abbreviation could benefit The Great. While never not entertaining, there are some episodes toward its latter half that stumble, trying to give side characters some more backstory without fully investing in the ambition. Catherine’s arc loses some of its momentum toward the end. But such quibbles don’t undermine the potency of The Great’s visual thrills and anarchic comedy-drama. The show, paired with The Favourite, makes a good argument for McNamara’s potentially becoming a household name — a widely beloved jokester. Most of the time I do prefer it when movies and shows featuring real-life figures try to adhere to fact — they’re media that together can shed light on underreported truths. But McNamara, ever the provocateur, is a gifted tempter. He makes us want him to toy with the real. The Great goes deep into the rabbit hole. Pretty delightfully, it makes sure to fuck up lots on the trip down, grinning the whole time.. A-