Courtesy of Hulu

December 5, 2021

The Good, “The Great” and the Ugly

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(Spoilers ahead.)

The Great, an imaginatively unhistorical take on Catherine the Great (Elle Fanning), has continued in a bloody, romping second season. Created by Tony McNamara, it follows the dawn of a new era under Catherine’s rule of Russia, having just overthrown her brutally capricious husband Peter (Nicholas Hoult) — but is it truly a new era? 

It begins with a lackluster episode, “Heads It’s Me,” a minefield of forced humor and a casual end to the coup against Peter that occupied the whole of the last season. It tries to tie up the loose threads of the far more compelling finale that preceded it. On average, however, the writing does improve gradually,  as Catherine and her court adjust to her new reign and her pregnancy. Intrigue is layered upon intrigue, ambitions and appalling mistakes rising like the smoke from poisonous candles Catherine receives for her attempts at diplomacy. At times sickening, at others charming, The Great’s second season is a woozy, erratic take on similar themes to its first: idealism, desire and the price of power. 

Unfortunately, the show’s rowdy lewdness, which was previously done well, gets more cringes than laughs from me this time around — as always when characterization is sacrificed to shock factor. Otherwise, characterization is, if not believable, at least highly entertaining. Catherine’s fickle and feathery court is peopled with characters for whom one can’t help feeling empathy despite their laundry lists of misdeeds — eccentric and clever Elizabeth (Belinda Bromilow) grieving for her murdered son, general Velementov (Douglas Hodge) hunting truffles and musing on his legacy of failure, lovelorn ex-Emperor Peter hallucinating in a freshly dug grave. And, above all, the show’s women shine —  treacherous, clever, vain, compassionate. Phoebe Fox in particular gives another tremendous performance as Marial, restored to her former status and struggling with the responsibilities of being Catherine’s forthright friend. 

For all the delicate strokes expended to paint these complicated people, the plot suffers, wandering as aimlessly as the crocodile Archie (Adam Godley) lets loose in the palace. I am left with a sense that the writer must manufacture threats to Catherine’s rule, including the Ottomans, who are the otherized spectres at the feast. The almost cartoonishly evil Sultan made me cynical about the show’s ability to navigate its vague, colorblind historicity without veering into problematic tropes. The writers try to preserve Catherine’s virtue by shifting her political motives to a desire for liberation of those oppressed by the Ottoman Empire, but it is so clumsily done that it makes the rest of the screen time spent humanizing aristocratic despots feel trite. 

Other characters are a bit mishandled as well, especially Sacha Dhawan’s Orlo, who is made to exchange his previous gentle cleverness for worried idiocy, sidelining a skilled actor and character. I also expected to adore Gillian Anderson’s take on Catherine’s mother, but I confess myself relieved at her character’s swift send-off, as scandalous as it was. Anderson certainly savors every icy word that comes out of her mouth — I’ll give her that. 

The Great Mistake is the loss of the first season’s momentum. All of the danger and intrigue of Catherine’s coup is replaced with disappointment, failure and general weirdness, which makes for perhaps more philosophical storytelling, but it fumbles even that. Catherine’s attempts at progress are misfires. The short memories of the court allow them, and by extension each episode, to vacillate in tone without much accountability to previous plot points, laughing in some moments and rioting the next, smoothing ruffled silks after an afternoon of murdering serfs, placing bets on whether Catherine’s child will be part horse. While the show’s deliberate anachronisms are a refreshingly irreverent response to idolizing historical biographies, I wish they had made more of an effort to develop a sense of rising urgency. Maybe it is a matter of taste, but despite Hoult’s impressive efforts at portraying a playful and sincere Peter, slowly requited love from Catherine was not satisfying enough of an overall arc for me. 

One theme I think is successfully developed, however, is how — like the rest of her ‘Enlightened’ team — Catherine, for all her visionary plans, is still coming from a place of immense privilege. She is out of touch with the reality of ruling, and for each step forward, she is forced to take two steps back, undermined at every turn by friends and enemies alike. While she initially unleashes her avant-garde ideas on Russia without restructuring it, she cultivates a ruthlessness that makes her in some ways a mirror for Peter. Elle Fanning carries the show, portraying a young woman buffeted by delight, dismay and outrage, but still trying to hold fast to her high ideals.  Ultimately, however, the season nosedives with a finale that left me unconvinced by its emotional candlelit speeches. I expected better, as the first season so nimbly balanced its warmth with its ferocity. This continuation of The Great gestures towards narratives about the difficulties of marriage, of social and political progress and of failed redemption, but it is bogged down by its deeply questionable choices for sources of conflict. Despite its brilliant costumes and dialogue, it was just not as much fun to watch. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown —  and uneasy lies some shows that try to repeat their past success.

Charlee Mandy is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]