The Great: An Occasionally True Story
Hulu’s The Great takes on Russian history through a novel lens: overt and colorful comedy. Elle Fanning plays young Catherine the Great, Russia’s longest-ruling female empress. Catherine arrives in Russia to marry Emperor Peter, played by Nicholas Hoult. Comedy and drama ensues, with plenty of gorgeous costuming and set design along the way.
P.S. This review of contains spoilers! // Photos are from Hulu.
Some Background Russian History
I confess, as much as I love history, I know very little about Russian history, the basis for this series. The show made me curious from the start about what was accurate and what was fictionalized.
The show skimps on the backstory, but Catherine was the eldest daughter of a Prussian prince. She was born Sophie von Anhalt-Zerbst, and married her cousin Peter, heir to the Russian throne, in 1745. Unlike in the show, Peter was not yet on the throne at the time of their marriage. She converted to Orthodox Christianity and took on the name Ekaterina — Catherine.
The marriage was a failure, which The Great doesn’t shy away from. Catherine ultimately came to bower in a bloodless coup, resulting in the arrest of her husband, Peter. He is later murdered, following his abdication. It is unknown whether Catherine had prior knowledge of the plot (reminiscent of Mary Stuart and the murder of her husband, Darnley).
The Great‘s Biggest Inaccuracy: The Timeline
While the show does change many details about Catherine’s story, the most overt fabrication is the condense timeline. In reality, Peter only comes to the Russian throne in 1762, about 17 years after his marriage to Catherine. However, the show is fairly accurate, it seems, regarding how quickly the coup developed. Historically, Peter was overthrown just six months after becoming czar. In the show, the coup takes place about six months after he and Catherine are married.
The Cast and Ethos of The Great
Even having only seen the trailer, The Great instantly reminded me of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006). The Great has overflowing costumes of bright colors, magnificent sets, and straight-faced royals uttering pointed satire. The script points out social issues with quippy language. It’s a unique style of storytelling, but one I rather enjoy.
The story surrounds Catherine, obviously, and Peter, the emperor. It also incorporates a number of recurring courtiers and servants, including Marial, a bitter and snarky former court lady who has had her title taken from her, and Leo, Catherine’s lover (more on him below). Marial, who steals many a scene with quips and simple expressions, acts as Catherine’s lady in waiting, confidant, and co-conspirator.
Diversity in The Great’s Casting
Alternatively, The Great also reminded me of Josie Rourke’s 2018 Mary Queen of Scots. Like the Mary Stuart film, The Great features a racially diverse cast throughout. An article from Variety noted that, “since this version of Catherine and Peter’s story explicitly doesn’t care about being entirely accurate, its case of characters is racially diverse in a way that period dramas rarely are; the best actors for the parts got the parts.”
Lots of Familiar Faces in Hulu’s The Great
Overall, I felt that the casting for the series was great. The show highlighted a number of well known and up-and-coming actors. Elle Fanning is fantastic as Catherine, growing in confidence throughout the series. Nicholas Hoult brings a certain bleak comedy to Peter, who generally suffers from megalomania. His humor picks up in the second half of the season. Peter has quippy one-liners and touching character growth as he comes to actually have feelings for his wife.
Beyond Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult, I was surprised to see Sebastian De Souza as Leo Voronsky, a sort of amalgamation of Catherine’s various real-life lovers. Sebastian De Souza has been in two of the shows I’ve watched lately — Showtime’s The Borgias and Netflix’s The Medici — so it was funny to see him pop up here.
I spent half the season wondering why Georgina Dymova — wife to Peter’s best friend, Grigor, and reoccurring lady of the court played by Charity Wakefield — looked so familiar. Turns out, she played Mary Boleyn in Wolf Hall.
Where Hulu’s The Great Succeeds
The brilliance in Hulu’s The Great is that it does not set out to be historically accurate. It also doesn’t take itself too seriously.
From the title scene, the show is open about the historical inaccuracies. It doesn’t hide the liberties taken in crafting a dramatic comedy surrounding the hubris of humanity. Instead of showing historical figures as stoic, larger-than-life, and stylized characters, The Great highlights their flaws.
The show all but tells the viewer to suspend disbelief and accept the story for what it is: history based loosely on fact (not unlike most historical fiction series, like Reign and The Spanish Princess). It brings in details it needs to push Catherine’s story along, or to prove a point about society. But, then it moves on, as they did comedically with reoccurring references to the Catherine the Great horse story.
Were The Great not so clear about this, I think there would be some confusion, particularly since period pieces tend to take themselves seriously. The Great has serious moments, sure, but, overall, is rather comedic in its delivery.
The Best on Hulu
I restarted my Hulu account to watch this show and think it was definitely worthwhile to do so. I tend to enjoy Hulu content cyclically, picking the account back up for The Handmaid’s Tale streaming and then cancelling it until the next season. It is definitely worthwhile to start up a subscription to watch The Great.
Will Hulu’s The Great Get a Second Season?
As of right now, there isn’t a release date for a second season of The Great, but the general consensus is that they’ll continue into another season at least. An announcement for a second season may be delayed due to shut downs related to COVID-19. Fanning is on board, according to this article, and there’s certainly more to be told of Catherine’s story!
UPDATE: Huzzah! The Great has officially been renewed for a second season airing November 19, 2021 on Hulu! Check out this post from Elle for more info.