Note: While this is another brilliant episode of The Great, there are mentions of rape and some gory violence depicted during the episode. As these are sensitive topics, we advise those who don’t feel comfortable to not read beyond this point.
“The Beard” builds on the success of The Great‘s pilot episode, with Catherine realizing she’ll need to play Peter’s game to overthrow him successfully. Orlo struggles with trying to make a change in Russia, and Peter struggles to make Catherine love him (with hilarious results.) Elle Fanning once again does great work as she shows Catherine’s true desire to improve Russia, and Nicholas Hoult delivers his dialogue with a zeal that is both funny and horrifying. Read on to find out what happened in “The Beard” …
The episode begins with Peter having sex with a very unenthusiastic Catherine. He’s distracted by a buzzing bee in the room and leaves, with Catherine calling for a bath in a disgusted voice. Grigor greets Peter as he walks into a gathering, with Peter saying “F*ck off, I’m in a mood” (aren’t we all?) Grigor cheers him up by reminding him that is the Emperor of all he surveys. Peter notices Grigor’s wife Georgina staring at him from across the room. The two go to a deserted hallway and have sex, doing a very poor job of hiding it (Grigor telling the band to “play louder” to drown them out is a comedic highlight.)
Catherine and Marial discuss what is to be done with Peter, with Catherine noting, “I’ve never done a coup before, so I’m unsure how to proceed.” Marial has some violent thoughts, but Catherine notes that no one has killed Peter despite his awfulness. They need a reason. Catherine doesn’t want to kill Peter because she hates him; she simply wants to build a better Russia, giving an impassioned speech about her ideals. Marial’s response while rolling her eyes: “Oh, okay, well, that’s … good.” Catherine suggests recruiting Orlo, which Marial doesn’t recommend since he is so close to Peter. But Catherine knows he’s not as loyal on the inside as he appears on the outside. Marial cautions Catherine to be careful since anyone finding out about their plot could lead to her death.
Orlo, Archie, and Peter have an audience with members of the court. One asks to be gifted the lands of his recently deceased brother … who was found with a sword in his back. Archie says to give him the land as long as the church gets 15% of the value. Orlo tells Peter this will lead to brothers killing brothers at parties all over the land, amusing Peter, who responds, “let’s not ruin the parties.” It seems Orlo has great influence over Peter. Rostov enters with a beard, which Peter had previously banned. He says he’s seeking special dispensation to wear one, which Peter responds to with “well, I’d like a bird that sh*ts chocolate.” Rostov pleas that his wife has never seen his face, which he says is covered in scars. He’s worried she will reject him if he has to shave the beard that covers it up. Peter is unmoved, saying that as long as Peter is happy, it doesn’t matter if his wife is. Orlo chases after Rostov and says he’ll try to get Peter on his side.
Catherine and Marial head to a party looking for Orlo. She’s invited to join in with the other ladies of the court, but Catherine can barely hide her disdain. Marial accidentally knocks into a server, and when Catherine defends her, the others talk about her behind her back. Georgina is the only one to defend her, saying that they need to keep Catherine happy so she can keep Peter happy. Orlo enters, trying to convince Grigor to help Rostov keep his beard. To him, it’s a question of free will. Grigor doesn’t seem inclined to help, especially when Orlo references Georgina’s affair with Peter as a reason why Grigor should support free will. Georgina talks with Catherine, making a barely-detectable joke at Peter’s expense before Grigor asks Georgina to retire with him to their quarters. Orlo finds Catherine to tell her of a Voltaire pamphlet she would like. As an opening line to inviting him to join her rebellion, Catherine says Peter is not “the Great” like his father but the “not quite adequate” (we’ve gotta work on Catherine’s humor.) Orlo pretends not to know what she means, but Catherine watches knowingly as he walks away. She tells Marial to set up a meeting.
Aunt Bet is chasing butterflies around her room as Peter enters. She happily informs him she is training them to fly in formation, to Peter’s bafflement. Bet tells Peter she has noticed Catherine’s unhappiness and that he must help fix it, which he thinks is absurd. It should be Catherine’s job to make him happy. Bet delicately says his mother had always said there was something “rancid” about Peter – maybe Catherine sees the same thing, and that’s why she doesn’t love him (harsh but true, Bet.) Peter wonders if maybe hitting her wasn’t a good idea, and Bet says he needs to figure out what makes her happy. Catherine is writing her ideas for a new government as Marial cleans. She says they are necessary to convince Orlo to help them, appealing to his mind. Marial has other ideas, saying, “and then you’ll f*ck him, right?” (Marial is the best.) She gives Catherine a quick crash course in seduction, sounding so bored it’s clear she’s done this before. All the while, noting that she should eat oysters to put her in the mood.
Orlo arrives, and Catherine unsuccessfully and hilariously tries the seduction route (Elle Fanning is pitch-perfect as she tries suggestively sitting on the couch only to be ignored by a Voltaire-obsessed Orlo.) Orlo finally gets that she’s trying to seduce him, right as Catherine gets sick from the amount of oysters she ate. He adorably says “well, of … of course I’ll have sex” as she vomits (read the room, Orlo!) He says he “is not well versed with women” (no, really?) as he rushes out. Catherine runs after him, telling him she was hoping to seduce him into leading a coup against Peter with her. These two seriously need to work on their subtlety. Orlo, shocked, tells her not to say anything else as he rushes away, with both muttering “f*ck” under their breaths.
Catherine tells Marial the plan failed, and Marial is upset Catherine told Orlo of the coup before being sure of his intentions. She says Orlo could have told Peter already, and both worry he has when Peter sends for Catherine. But it seems Peter is trying to take Bet’s advice to heart, inviting Catherine to eat breakfast with him. They establish that they both love bacon (common ground: essential to any marriage) as Catherine sits. Peter acknowledges they’ve gotten off on the wrong foot. In a hilarious speech made better by Nicholas Hoult’s performance, he says that they both “just don’t do it for each other,” which he says is fine. It might be better if they both acknowledge this. He says he’s bought her a new bear to replace the one he shot earlier and says she should live as the Empress and be happy. He also suggests they find her a lover the way someone else might suggest picking out new curtains. He thinks that if Catherine is not satisfied, then he will grow increasingly angry with her and have to kill her. He says he doesn’t want to do this, noting that she’s “not a bad person.” Catherine “jokingly” responds, “I could kill you. You are a bad person,” which makes an unaware Peter laugh. Giggling, he says, “See; I like you! You’re funny, in a droll, despairing sort of way. I couldn’t take a lot of it, but occasionally it’s refreshing.” He asks if they’ve come to an agreement, and Catherine instead calls his whole idea “rancid” and storms off. It seems it hasn’t occurred to her to play along in order to get what she wants.
Marial goes to Archie, who is revealed to be her cousin, telling him she needs help with Orlo. That something Catherine said to him in confidence could be taken the wrong way. She notes that it was Archie’s idea to bring her to court and that this could reflect poorly on him. She also suggests that Orlo tried to rape Catherine, saying Archie could use that as an excuse if he needed to. Catherine spots Orlo, who literally runs from her into the gardens. She catches up and asks for help with the coup, which Orlo replies is a word that definitely shouldn’t be said out loud (or shouted in the gardens.) Catherine lays out her plan. Orlo says he is making (slow) progress, but Catherine says it’s not fast enough for the people of Russia, and he seems to know this. He says her choosing him to help is enough proof that she’ll never pull it off, calling himself a coward. Catherine disagrees, but Orlo is afraid. He calls her angry and crazy, but also says he will forget she ever said anything to him about it.
On a hunt, Peter jovially says they will discuss whether or not to kill Catherine, calling her “a strange creature who I sense at times is laughing at me.” He says Archie won’t be involved in selecting the new Empress, saying, “you were abysmally f*cking wrong, and you can take that directly to God.” He sends everyone away, but Grigor and Georgina. Peter cites them as a perfect union he hoped to have, kissing Georgina as Grigor tactfully looks away. They both argue for keeping Catherine, with Grigor noting that marriage needs work. Orlo and Archie discuss the situation, with Orlo agreeing to help keep Catherine happy as long as Archie helps with Rostov’s beard. Grigor and Georgina walk alone, with Grigor making a joke about Georgina and Peter that she doesn’t appreciate. They seem genuinely in love, and it’s clear if it were their choice, Georgina wouldn’t be with Peter. Georgina and Grigor believe they’ve succeeded in keeping Catherine alive, but Peter tells Orlo he’s killing her in a fake carriage accident and to “make it work” with Europe.
Marial sneaks back into her old apartment but is caught and beaten by the guards. Orlo runs to Catherine, telling her that by being so obviously unhappy, she has endangered her own life. Calling for Marial, Catherine is told by one of her servants that she is indisposed. Catherine demands to be taken to her. Marial is recovering when a shocked Catherine finds her. She won’t say who ordered her beating, reminding Catherine sarcastically that it’s not her place. Archie enters. He is also upset, but turns to the more immediate goal of making Catherine happy by discussing a recent “vision from God” he’s had (Marial: “He does that.”) Archie essentially warns Catherine of the same thing Orlo did, telling her that the only way to stop Peter is to pretend to be happy.
At a ball that evening, Catherine visibly smiles to try to fool Peter. Bet talks to her, telling her that Peter’s mother was cruel to him and never gave him the love he wanted (it always comes back to mommy issues.) She asks Catherine’s forgiveness on his behalf, and Catherine sweetly pretends to accept. She finds Peter and flatters him, saying she’s been unhappy because she had her period, “and you know how that goes. Ugh.” Peter accepts this explanation and says the ball is for the wounded soldiers. He points out one who lost his eyes, saying that at least he can be happy having sex with ugly women now (I guess it’s always good to look at the bright side!) Catherine laughs, and Peter seems delighted with this change in her. He yanks her onto the dance floor, with a flustered Catherine pretending his awful dancing is good. Peter notes that the secret is to “pretend to have wings on your feet” as he nearly rips Catherine’s arm off, pulling her around the dance floor. Georgina and Grigor join in, helping make Peter’s good mood even better.
It all seems to be going well until Peter orders “the heads” to be brought in. They are the severed heads of his Swedish enemies, and Catherine is horrified. She hides her disgust as Peter contentedly eats dinner with a head on a spike in front of him. She says he’s marvelous, especially since he has “given me a bear and ceased punching me. What woman would not be happy?” Peter is glad all is well. He gets up and orders everyone to scoop the eyes (!) out of each of their severed heads (!!) because they are watching him (!!!). Catherine very reluctantly plays along.
Alone with Marial, she says she doesn’t like all this lying. Marial, fed up with Catherine’s tendency towards innocence after the beating she took earlier, says taking an empire won’t be easy and might require it. Peter enters and has sex with Catherine, which features a very funny Elle Fanning smiling almost maniacally the entire time. After, she goes to see Orlo again to convince him to help her. She chastises him for having big ideas with no courage to enact them. She passionately defends her ideals and says he can be a man who lives and dies by his principles. He whispers, “I can’t,” and Catherine delivers a blow: “I saw a small man and imagined something bigger. I apologize, sir.” She walks past the banquet hall, where a servant is gathering the heads. She asks Archie to give them a Christian burial, and he agrees to bless them. They both stand in the rain as the heads are buried, and we see Catherine as a true leader for the first time. The next day, Rostov comes back to court with his beard, with Orlo urging Peter to reconsider. He thought he had the support of the others, but one by one, they desert him. Orlo loses his temper, with Catherine’s words about his lack of courage in his head. Peter pulls a knife on him and makes him choose. Either shave Rostov’s beard or die. Catherine receives a visitor: it is Orlo, covered in Rostov’s blood. He simply nods and knows he’s on her side as “Movin’ On Up” by Primal Scream plays.
The Great is available now on Hulu.