The Great (Season Two) Back

From the outset, Tony McNamara’s The Great has caveated itself as ‘an occasionally true story’. The second series of the Hulu show, released in the US on 18 November 2021, makes a strong case for the benefits of loosening the corset-laces of historical accuracy. As we saw in the first season, it allows for the novelty of anachronistic dialogue, music, and costume (although I like to believe that leopard-print frock coats were canonically popular in the 1760s). The Great’s second season diverges even further from fact, and asks the important questions: Can Catherine the Great enact true change for the better in such a wounded society? Is there a chance that a once-tyrannical emperor could reform? And, most importantly, ‘Is your hair supposed to be a humorous talking point?’

The first season showed us Catherine (Elle Fanning) as an idealistic young woman, fresh and feminist and with great hopes for a better Russia. The second season sees Catherine faced with the harsh realities of reigning, from difficult yet necessary compromises, to ever-fluctuating loyalties, not to mention the sheer amount of admin involved. ‘Why is it everyone comes in here “I want, I want, I want”?’ Catherine complains between supplicants coming to her with their personal causes. ‘Does anyone have anything to offer Russia?’ Do not suppose, however, that the early months of Catherine’s reign consist solely of diplomatic discourse and council-chamber conflict. Threads of delightful surrealness are woven throughout each episode, giving the series a pleasantly hallucinogenic quality. The pastel fever-dream of a baby shower organised by Peter, with its Pinterest-on-acid aesthetic and gently unhinged dance choreography, is one particular highlight. A supporting cast of sundry animals are put to strange and amusing effect, Peter befriending a butterfly during one of the more demented spells of his confinement (a potent lockdown mood), while at one point a rogue crocodile roams the corridors of the palace, thought to be an omen condemning Catherine’s reign.

The storylines and humour are more than matched by the performances of a truly excellent cast. ‘I am fucking charm itself!’ the new Empress retorts, a statement that in the case of Elle Fanning rings absolutely true. A witty and endearing ingenue in the first series, Fanning further showcases the extent of her comedic range throughout the second. While she can deliver withering putdowns with sardonic ease, she is also often comically irrational, erratic and (in one instance involving powdered lavender) wired. Although Catherine is pregnant for the first three-quarters of the season, this is refreshingly never treated as the lynchpin of her series arc. Her growing bump never threatens to eclipse her personality; Catherine carries the baby rather than it carrying her. Fanning’s Catherine is sharply funny, endlessly charismatic, and when she grieves, unexpectedly heartbreaking.

The wider ensemble of supporting cast members is no less accomplished. Elevated from servitude to aristocracy following Catherine’s coup, Lady Marial (Phoebe Fox) retains both her acerbic sense of humour and, at times, a convincing and unsanctimonious empathy for the life of serfdom she has left behind. Peter’s loyal comrade Grigor (Gwylim Lee) steps out of his prior role as a pining cuckold, becoming a more developed and sympathetic character who has compelling chemistry with both Peter and Marial. Douglas Hodge plays General Velementov as a randy drunk with depth (which is surely how many of us want to be defined and remembered). Rather than simply functioning as a surface-level Falstaff, Velementov struggles with feelings of purposelessness during peacetime; and, although instrumental in Catherine’s coup, shows an avuncular tenderness towards Peter that is very charming to watch. Peter’s Aunt Elizabeth (Belinda Bromilow) is as gloriously batty as in the first series, yet also extends wise counsel and sincere affection to both Catherine and Peter. Doctor Vinodel (Julian Barratt) prescribes increasingly deranged medical treatments with deadpan authority, while Jason Isaacs appears for a memorable scene as the ghost of a dead Russian emperor. And, of course, Gillian Anderson, much-teased in promotional material for the series, gives a turn as Catherine’s mother Joanna, a character who might benefit from some intensive therapy with Anderson’s Sex Education character Jean Milburn.

However, perhaps the greatest joy in The Great’s second season is the singularly enchanting character journey of the recently coup-ed Peter (Nicholas Hoult). The real-life Emperor Peter III died just eight days after being overthrown by Catherine, while Hoult’s Peter survives the coup and remains alive under palace arrest for the entire second series—a historical revision he goes above and beyond to earn. One of my main complaints about the first season of The Great was the shallow monotony of Peter’s petulant violence, punctuated with meaningless huzzah!-ing. The second series deploys its huzzahs more conservatively and to greater effect; it also opens up multitudes within Peter’s personality. While he is still recognisable as the man-child emperor to whom we were first introduced, during his imprisonment he carries himself with the air of a well-heeled himbo on a gap-year journey of self-discovery, taking up hobbies and looking eagerly ahead to his impending fatherhood, while contemplating the notion that he might not even have wanted the greatness thrust upon him by his birth. Hoult plays Peter with pitch-perfect openness, almost guilelessness, his dedication to Catherine unprecedentedly sincere and charming. The Great traps its audience into actively investing in the idea of Catherine and Peter as a dysfunctional yet bewitching romantic couple. At no point during the first season did I predict having tears in my eyes and hoping desperately, ‘Maybe she can change him??’ about a bloodthirsty Russian autocrat; and yet here we are.

Even amongst this Hogarth-sprawl of excitement, there are elements of the series that fall short. Count Orlo (Sacha Dhawan) is sadly let down by unengaging plot threads. Ostensibly coded as asexual in the first season, in the second he is seen engaging in half-hearted experimentation before entering into a tepid liaison with the palace schoolmistress, the (eye-roll-inducing) suggestion being that his kink is intelligence. The Archbishop (‘Archie’, played by Adam Godley) also has a confusing story arc, swinging disjointedly from theological conflict to surging sexual thirst and quite literal self-flagellation (narratively bizarre but then again, not unentertaining to watch). The movement of the plot, moreover, can sometimes feel stagnant. In the first season, we knew everything to be building towards Catherine’s seizure of power, whereas the second can seem in places like an endless sequence of characters pottering about the palace exchanging quips. There is great potential to use the show’s irreverent and anachronistic style as a Trojan horse for political and social commentary, but the second season fails to fully take advantage of this; unless its intended conclusion is that the revolution will be mostly admin. Although there are a few sudden spikes in the political stakes, these can feel oddly positioned in the grand scheme of the series, often declining as quickly as they are introduced, and without apparent lasting impact. Perhaps an argument could be made that this accurately reflects the landscape of social change; nevertheless, these moments of political discord sit awkwardly in a story that is, in terms of the relationships between its individual characters, otherwise quite well paced.

While the second season of The Great loses its way in certain aspects, in others it finds its stride beautifully. The rich comic tapestry of personalities and their ever-bisecting relationships is a joy to watch, their dynamics often (as Peter remarks after Catherine’s coronation) ‘strangely touching.’ As of December 2021, the show has yet to be renewed for a third season; but my own outlook is one of optimism, and my expectations are great indeed.