Writer Tony McNamara, who co-wrote Yorgos Lanthimos’ Oscar-winning dark historical comedy The Favourite, clearly knows the history behind his new Hulu series The Great. Catherine the Great first met Peter III, the grandson of Peter the Great, when he was 10. She befriended his aunt, the Russian Empress Elizabeth, and spent 17 years ingratiating herself to the Russian court before Elizabeth died and left Peter in control of the country. Then Catherine plotted to overthrow him.
Only the last part of those events is true in The Great, a 10-episode satirical miniseries about Catherine’s rise to power. McNamara, who created the series and serves as its showrunner, incorporates the bits of history that make for good television. The rest of it, he throws out the window. The result has The Favourite’s hilarious Mean Girls costume-drama feel, while upping the stakes with enough violence, sex, and intrigue to satisfy Game of Thrones fans.
Elle Fanning of the Maleficent movies plays a version of Catherine who first arrives at court as a young adult, and is immediately married to Emperor Peter III (Nicholas Hoult, who played Hank McCoy in the recent X-Men films), who’s been rewritten as Peter the Great’s son. He definitely isn’t living up to his father’s reputation — he spends most of his time drinking and shattering glasses with the gusto of Thor on his first trip to Earth, or having sex with his best friend’s wife. When Catherine’s early attempts to make him love and respect her fail, she starts plotting to overthrow him instead.
Fanning is phenomenal, projecting an otherworldly beauty while walking the razor’s edge between being naïve and brutally cunning. She seems absolutely confident that she can charm anyone she interacts with, and whenever that fails, she finds clever ways to undermine them and improve her own standing within the court.
Historical dramas tend to move slowly, letting the atmosphere and costumes (which are spectacular here) stand in for action, and keeping the dialogue serious and earnest. But The Great uses rapid-fire biting comedy, making it feel like a TV adaptation of The Favourite, or the portions of Game of Thrones when Tyrion Lannister was doing his best to drunkenly dress everyone down. The entire cast makes a fantastic meal of delivering absurdly vulgar lines like “You must make him cunt-struck,” or “Apparently she fucked a horse before she got here. Huzzah!”
Catherine’s first co-conspirator is her servant and former lady of the court Marial (Phoebe Fox), who helps ground Catherine’s optimism, usually by pointing out how awful Russia is. She also guides Catherine to help her get back at the petty, vapid women who rejoiced in seeing Marial brought low. The Great is most reminiscent of The Favourite when it focuses on the women who don’t understand why Catherine doesn’t share their enthusiasm for spending days dunking animal-shaped cookies in vodka, or doing anachronistic dances. Marial and Elizabeth (Belinda Bromilow), who’s been demoted from Empress to “eccentric aunt who tries to train butterflies and masturbates in the shadow of a massive sculpture of Peter the Great,” both encourage Catherine to ignore these slackers, and set her sights on winning the favor of the men who have real power.
Having broken free of the shackles of historical accuracy, McNamara went a step further and implemented race-blind casting for the series. It’s a wonderful move for a genre that often banishes people of color altogether, or limits them to playing servants or slaves. The primary benefactor of that creative decision is Sacha Dhawan, who was one of the best parts of Netflix’s Iron Fist series, and is almost unrecognizable as the dweeby career politician Orlov.
Orlov is constantly fighting for Peter’s favor while trying to slowly push him to implement European reforms, which often places Orlov at odds with the court’s Orthodox Church representative, Archie (Adam Godley of Powers and The Umbrella Academy). Archie and Orlov two have a dynamic reminiscent of Varys and Littlefinger in Game of Thrones, though both are better people than their HBO counterparts. While Archie seems unlikable at first glance — as Catherine puts it, they get off on the wrong foot when he fingers her to confirm that she’s a virgin — Archie turns out to be significantly more progressive than his church’s elders, in that he’s willing to look women in the eye. Also his visions from God, which initially seem like a justification for whatever scheme he’s hatching, turn out to be drug-induced hallucinations, which Catherine brilliantly exploits.
While Game of Thrones’ writers found shock value in portraying most of their characters as monstrous, The Great is charming precisely because it has so few true villains. Peter can at times seem like a Trumpian caricature, particularly when he’s touting his natural military brilliance in a meeting of generals, and introducing a nonsensical strategy he insists will end Russia’s war with Sweden. But there’s something sad and sympathetic in Hoult’s portrayal of a young man scarred by abusive parents, and forced by the circumstances of his birth into a position he’s ill-equipped for.
He does show moments of vulnerability, in his obsession with his mother — he had her mummified and displayed in the palace, because he couldn’t bear the thought of burying her. That neediness, and the sharp wit he occasionally shows when dressing down courtiers, are almost enough to make him likable. Then he breaks the spell with a show of brutality, like punching Catherine or forcing everyone at a celebratory dinner to gouge out the eyes of decapitated Swedes. The power of comedic drama comes from contrast, and Peter is an embodiment of the enthralling emotional rollercoaster McNamara has written.
McNamara still gets to have the best part of a costume drama, with elaborate sets and stunning costumes. But he’s free to do whatever he wants, like having the ladies wear pastel wigs while dancing, to give the scene a Candyland feel, or having Catherine’s handsome, charming lover (Sebastian de Souza of Skins) invent the Moscow Mule while lounging with her in the palace’s immaculate courtyard.
High-school students looking for an easy way to study for their history tests, take note — The Great isn’t especially educational, given how blithely it departs from reality. But it’s an extremely entertaining fantasy version of a true story. McNamara has set a new standard for on-screen historical fiction, presenting a wild trip to the past without taking anything too seriously — even the facts.
All 10 episodes of The Great are available to stream on Hulu now.
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