Published on June 12th, 2020 | by Christopher McKay0
Amazon Prime’s latest period drama series, The Great, is as acerbic as it is a-historical. Chris McKay breaks down both the show’s wit and its historicity.
Each episode of Amazon Prime’s new miniseries about Catherine the Great (which originally streamed on Hulu in The U.S.) begins with an asterisk at the end of its title, letting the viewer know that this is “an occasionally true story.” With that in mind, The Great dives into the story surrounding Catherine’s 1762 coup against her husband to become Empress of Russia with all the hilarity that would allow if its history were contrived for television in the first place.
The Great begins with the nineteen-year-old Catherine (Elle Fanning) arriving in Russia from Germany to marry her distant cousin, Emperor Peter (Nicholas Hoult). Expecting a gentleman and a leader, she is shocked when Peter turns out to be more of a spoiled man-child than a king. Compared with Catherine’s noble upbringing which revolved around churning out a dutiful wife, she cannot help but find Peter to be her very antithesis. His vocabulary is mostly expletives, he openly mocks his head of military, he has sex with his best friend’s wife at crowded parties, and he is waging a pointless and bloody war with Sweden just because his dad won one. After briefly considering suicide to escape the hell she has found herself in, Catherine’s lady-turned maid, Marial (Phoebe Fox), points out that if Peter were to somehow find a knife in his back, Catherine would replace him as ruler. With this in mind, Catherine begins her plan to subtly win over the court, the church, the military, and the people to install her as leader after killing Peter.
While Fanning plays Catherine with the perfect balance of feigned innocence and tactical manipulation one would expect of a coup leader, there can be no mistake: The Great is Hoult’s show to steal, and he steals every scene he’s in. With a dumb smile constantly worn on his face, Hoult believably plays Peter as a man who can order dozens of people to be executed one second and then order dessert the next. Most of the comedy comes from Hoult’s performance, although credit has to be given to Fanning’s deadpan responses to Peter’s most absurd comments (“Not directly, but I had a sense,” is Catherine’s answer when Peter asks her if he told her he once thought of killing her, and had even sawed her carriage’s axel in half already).
Fox and Belinda Bromilow (as Peter’s Aunt Elizabeth) also deserve special mention, the former for playing Marial as the most complex character on the show, and the latter for essentially being a kinder, wiser, female Peter. Marial, Catherine’s right-hand woman and the inspiration for the coup, is sometimes torn between her loyalty for Catherine and the feelings she has for the people in court she has known a lot longer than her. Marial’s motivation for the coup is also more to re-establish herself as a lady of court than for political progress, and tensions arise when Catherine gives her maid orders.
Aunt Elizabeth is an advisor and confidant for both Peter and Catherine, and Bromilow nails the delivery of every line, whether it is political or relationship advice, a quirky comment on her pet butterflies, or the many comments she makes to Peter about how much she enjoyed sex with his dad. The thankfully-diverse cast is rounded out by Sacha Dhawan as Peter’s seemingly-spineless advisor who joins the coup, Gwilym Lee and Charity Wakefield as Peter’s only real friends with varying degrees of loyalty, and Sebastian de Souza as Catherine’s lover, hand-picked by her husband.
The Great, which spared no expense in its period-appropriate costumes and sets, derives its comedy from the situations Catherine finds herself in as she gets closer to disposing Peter. Is she willing to kill? If yes, is she willing to kill Peter’s nine-year-old cousin who’s locked away in the palace somewhere? Is she still able to have sex with Peter while planning to have him removed from the throne? If yes, will her maid please insert a lemon slice into her vagina to kill his sperm and prevent her from getting pregnant?
However, other jokes, such as Peter suggesting there would be a lot of money in the psychiatry of mother-son relationships, or if “anything easier than buttons is invented, women would be in constant fear of rape,” awkwardly pander. This actually takes the audience out of the otherwise stable historical fiction world the show has made.
The Great is an occasionally true story, and along those lines, it is an occasionally great show. It is a period piece epic, but with enough laughs (and inaccuracies) thrown in, it doesn’t feel like watching a history lesson. A stellar ensemble cast brings to life this increasingly suspenseful miniseries, which will leave viewers hoping there will be a second season to witness more of Catherine’s power-grabbing as Catherine the Great.