‘The Great’ returns to explore how an idealistic dreamer survives a deadly environment, let alone thrive

Category: Television and Streaming


What would you do if you’re trapped in a bad marriage and do not see a way out? Tony McNamara of The Favourite fame thinks this is a contemporary conundrum that needs to be studied in a young woman’s journey to power in the 18th century Russia.

Adapted from his own 2008 stage play, Hulu’s The Great* – *an occasionally true story  takes a farcical and contemporary approach to the life of the famed Russian Empress, Catherine The Great. McNamara’s signature biting and absurdist vision of history is apparent in this young, ambitious woman’s dreadful and continuing conundrum of leading Russia into a greater future while surviving the ‘kill or be killed’ deadly environment. It’s not a run-of-the-mill restrained period piece for sure. McNamara always strives to create an exciting show about a great character with a contemporary twist so that his 21-year-old daughter would watch.

The Great‘s initial season chronicles the coming-of-age adventures of the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed German princess in the 18th century Russia. The young and ‘fierce’ (interpretation: educated and sharp, hence threatening and annoying to men) Catherine (Elle Fanning) arrives with hopes and dreams for a fairy-tale romance and a happily-ever-after ending. Peter III (Nicholas Hoult), however, turns out to be a narcissistic, undisciplined, cruel, and mercurially violent Emperor. A chauvinistic pig? That’s a given, right? Once Catherine realizes she’s trapped in the gilded cage to be a voiceless, invisible, and subservient baby machine, the suffocating reality informs her to switch her focus on overthrowing this greatest menace to Russia. The first season ended with Peter discovering Catherine’s plot to have him killed, but he spares the pregnant Empress in the name of their unborn child, Paul.

Season 2 picks up moments after Catherine’s coup and explores the aftermath of her coming into power while pregnant with his child. Idealistic and disciplined to a fault, the expectant mother is gung ho about bringing the backward country with horrific and bizarre customs (to her, mind you) into an enlightened one. Underestimated and dismissed by almost everyone around her — court, her strategic and military advisors, Peter’s loyalists, nobles, and the peanut gallery — Catherine desperately wants to be taken seriously and gain some RESPECT. She just wants to become a mother to Russia as well as to Paul.

Can her self-appointed title, Catherine The Great, and her pie-in-the-sky ideas born out of bright-eyed optimism put her feminist and enlightened stamp on a country that refuses to step out of the dark ages? It’s easier said than done, especially when the unhinged and hungry Peter is placed under house arrest and his loyalists are doing everything they can to sabotage Catherine’s disciplined efforts for a greater Russia. But first she needs to survive the imminent ‘kill or be killed’ danger coming from every which way you can imagine.

Season 2 digs deeper into the whys and wherefores of the royal couples’ dysfunction. Catherine’s unwavering needs to be perfect is tested when her mother, Joanna (Gillian Anderson), shows up with an agenda and treats her like a delusional and clueless idiot. Catherine realizes that she, too, was raised by a toxic mother who has gained power by manipulating men.

Confronting your toxic parents (whether mummified, imaginary or alive & kicking) is not for the faint of heart, but it must be done in order to grow up and feel comfortable in your own skin. Peter seems to have come around; he claims he’s ready to give up his God-given throne and all he wants is to be a good father to Paul. Has he really changed? Can he be trusted? This is the guy who killed your lover, Catherine!

When Catherine’s arrogance is chipped away and people see the chinks in her armor, she will realize that she’s not perfect after all. She has to learn the power play strategies for women; taking risk, making mistakes, and asking for help. Then, and only then, she will appreciate my favorite Rumi quote: “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” But wait! Who am I kidding? Even though The Great is a character study of a fictionalized Catherine, the real Catherine The Great learned her lessons, changed, and became the longest-ruling Empress of Russian history.

All ten episodes of The Great Season 2 are streaming on Hulu.

About the Author

Meg Mimura is a TV critic who actually watches shows zealously in search of thought-provoking and paradigm shifting human drama worth our precious time. She is a member of Television Critics Association. Follow her on Twitter.