Hulu’s ‘The Great’ is more than a raunchy farce. Love and mercy reign.
Empress Catherine the Great of Russia holds a special place in the history of the Jesuits. When Pope Clement XIV issued a suppression order of the Society in 1773, Catherine refused to enforce it in Russia. She provided the Jesuits a place to regroup and continue their work until Pope Pius VII restored the Jesuits in 1814.
That’s the true story of Catherine the Great. But today, I’m not interested in the true story.
Instead, I’m writing about an “occasionally true,” or later stylized as the “almost entirely untrue,” story of the Russian empress: Hulu’s “The Great.”
For me, the plot events ahead are secondary to the show’s real strength, the paths that the characters themselves will take.
Set in imperial Russia, the third season of the black comedy drops on Hulu on May 12. After a cliffhanger finale to close out the second season, audiences cannot wait to see what lies in store for Catherine and her court. But for me, the plot events ahead are secondary to the show’s real strength, the paths that the characters themselves will take.
A raunchy and irreverent historical farce may not seem like the best medium for pondering forgiveness and redemption. But Season 2 of “The Great” showed that under powdered wigs and gilded dresses, the show’s central players each fail to be the person they hope to be and must learn to accept each other—and themselves—without qualifiers or resentments.
In Season 1, a young Catherine, fresh-faced and precocious and feeling gung-ho about becoming the wife of the Russian emperor, arrives in the imperial court. She hopes to bring the Enlightenment to Peter III and his country. But once she discovers that her husband has the temperament of a toddler paired with the nighttime habits of Victor Hugo, she quickly abandons this goal.
What happens instead over the course of Season 1 is the haphazard plotting of a legendary coup-d’etat by a naive teenage girl, a washed-up general and a thoroughly uninspiring bookworm. The cast makes this premise captivating and hilarious. Elle Fanning as Catherine is impossible not to root for; Nicholas Hoult as Peter III makes us laugh even while we despise him; every supporting character contributes somehow to the absurd childishness of court politics. And the finale, when Catherine launches her coup in the final moments of the episode, felt like the perfect wrap-up.
A raunchy and irreverent historical farce may not seem like the best medium for pondering forgiveness and redemption.
Where do you go from there? In Season 2, “The Great” answers: To the mirror. Gone are the “good guys” and “bad guys” of Season 1. Both the heroes and villains of the imperial court go on emotional journeys that surprise the audience and often themselves. As we watch, we’re forced to question the judgments we have passed about the characters and, in many cases, revise them.
For example, by the end of Season 1 Peter comes to adore Catherine’s resolve, but it is not the love he believes it to be. He wants ownership of her. He plies her with gifts one moment then threatens her the next, all in order to make her his.
Meanwhile, Catherine is revolted by his impulsive hedonism. He does precisely what his body desires at a given moment, with no thought for how he impacts others. It is precisely because of this that Catherine reasons that she should usurp his throne.
Season 2 completely flips this dynamic on its head. In a few pivotal moments, Peter shows himself capable of self-sacrifice and true respect for Catherine, even when she fails to show him mercy. And Catherine catches herself becoming the punitive ruler she loathed, going to extremes in her treatment of him. Even as he changes, she callously insists that he is incapable of love and they have no future together. But still he continues to be there for her when she needs him.
No glutinous, self-obsessed backstabber is beyond redemption.
Does this mean that Peter has become a good person? Or that Catherine has become a worse one?
So many of the relationships and characters go through this same identity struggle, whether it’s Catherine’s trusted advisor Orlo stealing money or the antagonistic archbishop of her court finally learning to support her. And what we see, both in the breaks between laughs and sometimes amid them, is that no glutinous, self-obsessed backstabber is beyond redemption. Love can be messy and forgiveness difficult, but both are worth pursuing.
The crux of Season 2 comes in the last few scenes of the final episode. As they both stand up for wedding toasts—Catherine’s best friend must marry her prepubescent cousin to maintain her noble title—Peter and Catherine confront each other about the pain they have inflicted on one another. Their respective supporters hold guns underneath the feast tables, ready to turn this party into a bloodbath if one unleashes their fury on the other.
But instead, for the first time in the show’s 20 episodes, Peter apologizes for a mistake he made.
“It turns out that the worst thing in life is to come up against your own limitations, and stumble and fall and crush the one person you wished to be your best for,” he tells his wife.
Catherine holds onto her wrath momentarily, and then, in an incredible performance from Elle Fanning, we see grace gently quell the flames of her ire.
“Maybe a great love, like a great country or a great leader, is a flawed one,” she admits. “As long as we are always questing for the better, knowing that we will bring ourselves down as often as we set ourselves free,” she comes to realize, we can find ways to love ourselves and each other.
Season 3 is certain to test that philosophy through its 10 heart-wrenching and hilarious episodes—with plenty of glasses smashed along the way. Huzzah.