“The Great” rewrites history with tongue firmly in cheek

The Great The Great (Courtesy of Hulu)

The Favourite screenwriter Tony McNamara gives the same treatment to Catherine the Great, to largely wry results.

Hulu’s sardonic new series The Great (*an occasionally true story) tells the a story of Catherine the Great and her bloody rise to become one of Russia’s most legendary rulers. Written by The Favourite co-writer Tony McNamara, the series is another wry look at the grotesquery underneath gilded ages and those in power. With more levity and revelry in its baseness, The Great* presents Imperial Russia as the Wild Wild (Eastern) West in ways that smash genre conventions. But it still follows historical ones that reveal more about us than they do Russia.

The first season follows the six-month period from Catherine’s (Elle Fanning) arrival from Austria as a young bride to Peter III (Nicholas Hoult) in the “barbaric” Russian court. With the encouragement of her cunning maid Marial (Phoebe Fox) and sanctioned-lover Leo (Sebastian de Souza), Catherine soon realizes that her passion and intellect make her far better suited to rule than her absurd husband. Together with Grigory Orlav (Sacha Dhawan), the Scooby Gang plans a coup to bring about a new, Enlightened Russia.

Whereas recent period pieces like Reign, Marie Antoinette, and even The Favourite used sly context clues to suggest their irreverence for historical accuracy, The Great* announces its asterisk proudly. From the moment we enter the world, we know that play (often of the murderous kind) drives the series rather than historical truth. With a strong cast, intelligent teleplay, and sumptuous production design, The Great maintains this strong sarcastic and critical tone, even if some of the sober moments feel more like a hangover.

The Great
Courtesy of Hulu

As Catherine, Fanning is a blonde and precious Candide, an optimist who believes everything is working out for the best of all possible outcomes. But it doesn’t take long for cracks to form in the porcelain. 

Fanning has the opposite problem of Marlene Dietrich, who played Catherine in Josef Von Sternberg’s 1934 baroque classic The Scarlet Empress. Dietrich was wholly unbelievable as an innocent anything. She exudes worldly and carnal knowledge, so her beginning characterizations are quite camp. 

Fanning nails these opening notes perfectly, but as the series goes on, it doesn’t fully succeed in revealing a rich and seductive intellectualism of the kind that excites McNamara so much about Catherine. She has moments, though! In one midstream scene, she delivers a delicious monologue about Eve and feminism before giving us a biting payoff involving a priest’s fingers. 

But, once Sleeping Beauty gets true(?) love’s first orgasm, she wakes up again and is able to believably wear the cou(p)ture with confidence. The ironic break when our Candide learns the satirical intent behind Candide shows Fanning is keenly aware of her end goals in conquering this character.

With a strong cast, intelligent teleplay, and sumptuous production design, The Great maintains this strong sarcastic and critical tone.

Hoult has a different but equally difficult task. Catherine is always, well, Great*. Texts are built around liking her. Russia liking her more than Peter is essentially the plot of history. It’s easy for audiences to like her. Peter III has been portrayed in history and past screen adaptations as an impish child, demented with power. He fiddles with soldiers and has wily, wandering eyes. Sustaining that for 10-plus episodes is a huge routine of cinematic and historical gymnastics.

What Holt and McNamara have managed to achieve in their re-teaming is something quite remarkable. Peter is all those things, yet importantly, he is believable within the carnivalesque world of the series. Catherine describes him as “the oddest of creatures: cruel and thoughtless. Tender. Entertaining and bizarre” and that is certainly true. Holt manages to take this solipsistic and buffoonish Tsar Tsar Binks character and turns him into a more likable 18th-century version of ’90s Hugh Grant, an emperor with truly no clothes. It’s marvelous. Huzzah to him!

But most of all, The Great is a showcase for McNamara’s sparkling dialogue, which draws attention to the writing of history itself in exciting ways. Free from historical purism, McNamara writes a wild untamed world where incest, bestiality, infanticide, execution, and libidinal sex are both ironically and unironically enjoyed as part of everyday life. McNamara’s aristocrats are once again fatuous, vomiting, shitting, licentious, and treasonous creatures. But with The Great, we get more of his acerbic wit that makes watching these grotesque vampires feel all the more enjoyable. 

The Great
Courtesy of Hulu

Not that McNamara inspires any Bolshevism (unfortunately). Even in Catherine’s time, Russia has been painted by “The West” as a backwards nation, an almost-Europe with no moral, cultural, or economic direction. It has been a backdrop on which The West can project its civilizing fantasies of liberalism and individualism cutting through the chaos and disorder.

A cursory watch of other Catherine the Great features show how this works. The Scarlet Empress, made not so long after The Russian Revolution in 1917, describes Russia as an empire with a foundation of violence, fear, and “oppression.” Catherine, then, is the maiden leading a nationalistic crusade to restore respectability. HBO’s Catherine the Great (2019) starring Helen “the Great” Mirren opens with Catherine arguing to free the serfs. Though these are similar forms of servitude, the code switching serves to pull American/Western audiences to her side.

The Great opens similarly with Catherine arguing passionately for widespread education reform, especially for women. Enlightenment Philosophy is presented as “wokeness.” She is to bring about a “coup of ideas” to this lecherous backwater empire. 

While most Catherine the Great stories lean into the seriousness of their dire political narrative, The Great at least delivers jokes at the edge of History’s knife.

The Great puts on its petticoats and heads to Hulu May 15th.

Trailer:

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