There are many things we can look back on in our history and find laughable. Similarly, there are things that are shameful, and some might see an intersection of the two. Mel Brooks famously mocked the progression of civilization in History of the World: Part 1, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail was a send-up of medieval times. Barbarism itself is not comedy, but horrific actions can become part of characters in films and television that serve to examine history through a definitively lighthearted lens.
In partnership with Deborah Davis, screenwriter Tony McNamara created the script for The Favourite, an Oscar-winning story about the complicated relationship between Queen Anne and two women in her court in eighteenth-century England. That blistering reframing of a less-known historical narrative found success in large part due to the strength of its performers, including Olivia Colman, who won the Oscar for playing Anne. McNamara has found an equally formidable and talented set of actors for his follow-up project, The Great.
Elle Fanning stars as the future Catherine the Great, whose arranged marriage to Russia’s emperor Peter (Nicholas Hoult) turns out very quickly not to be the dream she hoped it would be. Peter is a man motivated by amusement at his own actions, which are often cruel and depraved. Catherine is an inherently good person whose observation of her husband’s horrible nature gradually turns her into a cunning and cutthroat plotter who wants nothing more than to see herself replace Peter as ruler of her new country.
This series doesn’t pretend to base itself closely on historical events, instead extrapolating rich characters from loose inspiration for the sake of effective satire. Catherine can clearly see that what Peter does is wrong and that his motivations for the rare good he does are purely selfish, but she also recognizes the power structure and knows that, should her husband become bored of her, execution is all but assured. Catherine is a moral center, one whose growing frustration with the state of things around her and whose occasional preoccupation with her own happiness threaten to make her a better fit for her time.
Like many shows before it that have straddled genres like Desperate Housewives, Shameless, and Orange is the New Black, it is often jarring to see an immediate transition from a comedic moment to something truly serious. Catherine serves as a stand-in for the disgust viewers surely feel at the way that Peter casually presents severed heads as a prop at a dinner party, and there is nothing funny about the rage she feels that she must cower to a man she most often believes to be an idiotic monster. Yet this show’s tone and pacing are perfectly balanced, making each episode a mix of pleasure and terror, wonderfully woven together for a fascinating and captivating combination.
Fanning, an American actress, is just twenty-two years old and has already demonstrated both a range of acting abilities and a knack for accents. Her snappy delivery of each of her lines is second only to the fabulous Hoult, who has found a way to make the exclamation “Huzzah!” sound different each time he utters it, from celebratory to mournful. The two are marvelous together, and they’re supported by an equally superb cast. As Catherine’s maidservant Marial, a demoted former member of high society, Phoebe Fox contributes fantastically spiteful commentary to nearly everything she witnesses. Adam Godley’s Archbishop, known as Archie to Peter, understands the authority his physical appearance and religious standing brings and knows just how to manipulate others to his will, and Sacha Dhawan’s Count Orlov, also known as Orlo, is the opposite, still desperately searching for ways to communicate his intelligence, which allows his worldview to be similar to Catherine’s.
This series is a visual feast, complete with colorful costumes and vibrant sets to complement its extravagant personalities. Its ten episodes build towards an enthralling finale, one that will fortunately lead into a second season, which was announced by Hulu back in July. There are many layers to each of these characters, and watching them interact, appropriately enough, is a twisted delight.
Season one of The Great premiered on May 15th, 2020 on Hulu.