As a fan of historical fiction (especially when history is viewed through a modern sensibility), I was already excited to watch The Great, a highly fictionalized take on the life of Catherine the Great of Russia and her attempts to overthrow her husband Peter from the throne. But watching Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult bring this tale to life is better than I ever could have hoped. Fanning shines as Catherine, moving from naïve girl to resolute ruler in the span of a single episode. She’s funny as well as dramatic, and her intelligence is evident throughout. She’s always thinking, especially when everyone else assumes she isn’t. A less strong actress might be upstaged by Hoult’s preening, insufferable Peter, but Fanning ensures the attention remains on Catherine. And just how hard that task is becomes evident quickly as Hoult steals scenes as Peter, his hilarious one-liners creating most of the early humor in the show. He makes Peter terrifying, to be sure, his fits of rage underscoring the dangerous world Catherine finds herself in. But the screen lights up whenever he is on it, and he’s game to make himself look foolish for the sake of a laugh. This show is perfect for fans of The Favourite or Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, with anachronistic music choices and often vulgar humor. I can’t wait to see where the show goes from its strong pilot episode. Read on to find out what happened in “The Great.”
The episode opens with Catherine and Angeline swinging on flower covered swings. Angeline teases Catherine for her family’s low status, but Catherine laughs it off, saying she will soon marry Emperor Peter of Russia. This stops Angeline in her tracks, and she looks on in disbelief as Catherine happily discusses the type of life she will have as the Empress. We see Catherine arrive in Russia to meet her Emperor, sweetly learning Russian and bringing a token of her affection. As she waits in the main hall to meet him, Peter barges in. He looks at her from all angles before declaring, “you looked taller in your portrait, send her back and get me a tall one!” He bursts into laughter and his nervous courtiers also laugh as he says, “Just kidding!” She laughs nervously, then presents Peter with her little evergreen leaf, a symbol of their love. Peter turns to his advisor and says, “she gave me a twig. She’s not another inbred, is she?” Catherine assures him she’s not insane, adding that she appreciated his letter expressing his love for her. It’s pretty clear by this point that there’s no way in hell he wrote the love letter, and one of his advisors indicates he was the one who wrote it. Peter says he’s glad he’s marrying her, as he needed a bride from an aristocratic family that had no power or money, and as Peter puts it, Catherine’s family are “apparently f*cked.” Her smile fades a little more, but then Peter says what every lovestruck girl wants to hear: “Boy, you are cute. I have to get back to my whores … Horses! Yes, horses.” Ah yes, Peter, what a romantic guy.
Peter’s advisor the Archbishop takes Catherine to prepare for their wedding. She blames Peter’s behavior on “cultural issues” that they will soon solve, and he wryly remarks that she’s a little too “optimistic.” That night at the wedding (things move fast around here!), it’s clear she’s out of her element. One of Peter’s generals introduces himself, and Catherine says she saw soldiers on the way there. Peter asks if they looked happy, and she says they looked wounded. Peter remarks, “oh sh*t, maybe we lost” before shoving the general away. Peter’s Aunt Elizabeth introduces herself by blowing bubbles and telling Catherine to call her “Bet.” She also says Peter is a gentle soul just before he smashes a glass on the ground. He toasts Catherine, who rises to say a few words before Peter says, “oh no, you don’t talk my love.” He gifts her a bear as a wedding present (which delights her) before she goes back to her rooms.
Marial, her maid, is unpacking while Catherine drones on and on about her wedding. Marial awkwardly asks Catherine if she knows what to expect from her wedding night, since Catherine appears very naïve. Catherine confidently says her mother taught her everything she needs to know before launching into an incredibly romantic notion of what sex is like. Marial is speechless before deciding it’s not worth trying to educate her, saying, “yep, that’s pretty much it.” Peter enters, and instead of “gently caressing” her the way she thought, he just immediately starts having sex with her while still talking to his friend Grigor about duck whistles. It’s over in a minute, and he leaves a very confused Catherine alone. The next day, Catherine writes a to-do list for herself: love Peter, make Peter love her, and find culture and education. Marial arrives with breakfast and delicately asks how last night was. Catherine admits she may have had an overly romantic view of it all, and Marial says she wouldn’t be the first.
She goes to have breakfast with a very hungover Peter. A perky Catherine happily tells him they shall greet the day together with “sunny dispositions and fearless hearts,” a prospect that doesn’t seem to make Peter enthused. She has the maid bring him a hangover cure, which improves his mood. He takes her on a tour of the palace, with the first stop being the body of his dead mother on display in the hall like a scene straight out of Psycho (Catherine: “she is … pretty.”) Peter pawns her off on Georgina, the first lady he sees. He exits by chasing a general as Georgina takes Catherine away. They walk together as Georgina vows to be her dearest friend. They meet with the other ladies, who wish to talk about the latest fashion in hats. Catherine would rather talk about Rousseau and politics, but no one else is remotely interested. Georgina covers it up by claiming it was a joke before telling Catherine none of the ladies can read. They gossip, but Catherine doesn’t know any of the people discussed and is out of her element. Marial tries to rescue her by saying she looks tired. Georgina says she’s spoken out of turn for her class and must remember her place. It seems there’s some bad blood between Marial and the other ladies.
As she escorts Catherine back to her rooms, Marial explains that she used to be a lady of the court until her father displeased Peter. Peter made her family servants as punishment. Marial and Catherine come to an understanding and seem to like each other. In an effort to please Peter, Catherine goes to his chambers that night ready to seduce him, only to find that he already has a woman in his bed. Peter sees no problem with this and wants her to join in, but she hesitates. Peter insists, and she complies. The next morning, she goes to leave and sees Grigor in a chair by the fire. The other woman is his wife. She asks if it’s hard to share her, and he says, “marriage is a struggle on a number of levels” as she nods knowingly.
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Catherine and Peter go hunting, with Catherine trying to engage Peter about what it is like to rule Russia (his verdict? “It’s actually not that hard”). As they walk, he hilariously misses every rabbit he aims at, shouting “RABBIT” as he fires at each one. Catherine wants to talk about funding a school and he asks her to stop talking about boring things. He says to do it if it will make her happy. He fights with one of his generals before running after a rabbit, and Catherine looks on, slowly realizing she has married an idiot. Marial and Catherine go to the library, which is in total disrepair. Catherine finds Count Orlo among the stacks. At first he’s worried about her reaction, but when she can discuss Descartes with him (and in fact knows the author), he’s at ease. She asks him for help with her school, and he’s delighted to find someone else in this court who values learning.
Peter and his advisors discuss his battlefield losses. Each of them jockeys for power, with the Archbishop trying to gain influence by blaming others for not being sufficiently enthused about the war. Velementov is blamed for many of the difficulties. Orlo is a voice of reason in the room. Peter says he wants to win like his father did, adding that all the amputee soldiers are really making the balls less fun. Orlo tells him that he admires his decision to let Catherine have a school, and Peter responds that he always makes women happy. The Archbishop asks to be allowed to vet any books Catherine wants to introduce, worried that new ideas from the West will undermine his authority. Orlo passionately defends Catherine’s idea, but ends up causing more harm than good when he accidentally reveals that Catherine intends to educate women. Peter has the small house Catherine planned on using for the school burned to the ground. Catherine storms in and demands answers from Peter, who simply says that women should not be able to read. When she tries to argue, he throws a glass at her that she dodges. He returns to ignoring her, and an angry Catherine leaves.
The next day at breakfast, Catherine is reading silently while Peter tries to engage her. She wants to read him a passage that Orlo found her in a book, but Peter is less than impressed. He needs Orlo’s mind to help him run the country, but finds him unworthy of respect. He even muses about his virginity until he realizes Catherine is ignoring him. She reads the passage anyway, which is about how man will never be free until all the kings and priests are dead (a bit too on the nose, Catherine). Peter just gets up and leaves, completely missing Catherine’s point. He talks with the Archbishop, wanting to know what’s going on with Catherine. He had foretold that they would be happy together, and Peter wants to know why they aren’t. He demands that “Archie” fix Catherine so they can be happy like his parents were.
Archie takes Catherine to the chapel to discuss her marriage. He says that there’s a way of things in Russia and with Peter, that she has to keep trying. He says that an unhappy Peter could make rash decisions that hurt millions of people. He wants her to pretend to be happy even if she is not, issuing a veiled threat to cut her family off from their allowance. Catherine lies in the grass contemplating her life as General Velementov approaches and stands over her. They discuss the war, with Catherine asking whether he values human lives or the chess game of war more. Before he leaves h says that by winning the chess game, you win men’s lives.
At a drunken party that night, Peter tests his new guns by accidentally shooting one of the guests in the knee. Catherine, growing increasingly angry at her ladies’ abuse of their maids, remarks that they are all wearing their wigs wrong in an attempt to copy Paris fashions. Catherine pats the bear she received as a gift. Orlo finds Catherine and asks if she’d rather walk in the gardens. As she agrees, Peter fires his gun again, killing the bear as a horrified Catherine looks on. She angrily walks up to him and slaps him across the face in full view of the guests. She runs to her library and sobs quietly. Peter follows her in a strange attempt to make amends. He says, “you are the only person not to love me. It is inconceivable to me and says nothing good about you.” She says if he had shown her any kindness, she would have loved him. He thinks for a moment, then says, “you look very pretty.” She gives a sad speech about missing home and her life, and he responds by sharing his sexual desires, since they’re “sharing their needs.” He says he’ll work on some of her worries, but she’s frustrated, telling them they could rule better together. He is not at all impressed by this, noting that he rules and she serves. He notes he’s never been that unkind to her, never physically hurt her. She says his words hurt her every day, and he hits her. He asks her if now she knows the difference between words and actions before stalking away. He kneels down and looks her in the eye, saying he does have a temper and that if she crosses him in front of others, she’ll pay.
Catherine tries to escape by hiding in a trunk bound for Austria, but this plan quickly backfires when the men escorting the trunk throw it into the river. It seems Peter has heard of Catherine’s plan and means to teach her a lesson. At the last second, Peter orders the trunk opened. A wet and gasping Catherine emerges as Peter simply says, “escort the Empress back.” That afternoon she sits alone, contemplating ending her life with a letter opener when Marial walks in. Catherine complains about being trapped in a loveless marriage to an idiot, which Marial quips “has never happened to a woman before.” Marial calmly orders a servant to gather towels and a bucket to mop up the blood just in case. Marial also tells Catherine that if Peter were to die without an heir, the whole of Russia would go to Catherine as the Empress. She also notes that plenty of the nobility are unhappy with Peter and might welcome a new leader. Catherine perks up a bit at this, especially when Marial wonders aloud if maybe Catherine’s great love wasn’t meant to be Peter, but Russia itself. She drops the letter opener into the bucket, and looks into camera with a new determination as “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Patti Smith plays.
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The Great is available now on Hulu.