By Sarah Osman
In The Great, Tony McNamara proves that period pieces that pit conniving yet sympathetic women against tyrannical men can make for a kind of refreshingly cathartic entertainment.
It’s highly debatable how historically accurate Hulu’s miniseries The Great is, but what is certain is that it’s a delightfully snarky vision of the past. Starring Elle Fanning as Catherine, the brilliant Russian empress from whom The Great retrieves its name, the show was created by The Favourite co-writer Tony McNamara. Much of its humor runs in the same vein as that film’s, what with the characters’ misery and misfortune generating mirth at the painfully absurd predicaments of the high and mighty.
Set in the late 18th century, the show features Fanning, who shines as the initially naive Catherine the Great, a Prussian princess sent to marry Russia’s Peter (Nicholas Hoult) in order to become an empress. Catherine quickly figures out that Peter, later dubbed “Peter the Terrible,” is indeed memorably terrible. He takes joy in sadistic acts; his behavior is akin to the habits of the hated Joffrey from Game of Thrones. Hoult is downright terrifying in the role, although some of his throwaway lines are amusing (at one point, he cheerfully reminds Catherine that he shot her a bear and then punches her in the stomach. He frequently refers to his friends as “fat fucks”). He slams his vodka glasses down on the ground after every joke and shrieks “huzzah.” It’s hard not to root for Catherine to take him down.
The Great doesn’t pretend to be an accurate biographical look at the life and times of Catherine the Great. The end of each episode includes snatches of modern music, and numerous Russian historical figures are played by actors of color. However, the costumes and recreation of the Winter Palace are convincing, as is Catherine’s fighting spirit (in real life, she did take multiple lovers and was one of Russia’s greatest rulers). Despite its black comic flourishes, The Great is not that over-the-top when it comes to portraying just how despicable Russian aristocracy could be (it’s no surprise that the serfs eventually rebelled), as well as how tricky survival could be for a member of the court. Not that you care for Peter’s victims all that much: they have every luxury at their fingertips but rarely rise above the vile.
The supporting cast is strong as well, including Phoebe Fox as Catherine’s sarcastic handmaiden Marial and Sacha Dhawan as Catherine’s partner in crime. Belinda Bromilow also has a fun turn as Peter’s bonkers aunt, who is either completely insane or the sanest person on the premises.
Some of the hilarity (and horror) of The Great comes from how closely it parallels our own society. The series follows an overgrown man-child, desperately seeking the approval of those around him, as he wreaks havoc on his government and his people. Men in powerful positions simper and scrape to his every inane whim. Meanwhile, the women (and a few of the nonpsychotic males) work together for the love of their country. We can’t help but laugh (when not crying) at the sadistic ineptitude currently afflicting us; the bedeviled characters in The Great provide a satiric outlet for our frustrations. McNamara proves that period pieces that pit conniving yet sympathetic women against tyrannical men can make for a kind of refreshingly cathartic entertainment.
Sarah Mina Osman is a writer living in Los Angeles. She has written for Young Hollywood and High Voltage Magazine. She will be featured in the upcoming anthology Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences under the Trump Era.