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HUZZAH! The Great’s Deliciously Subversive Take on History

HUZZAH! The Great’s Deliciously Subversive Take on History

I was not super excited about seeing The Great when it was first announced as a Hulu original, with Elle Fanning playing Catherine the Great. 

Of course I would see it, and I did think it looked more enjoyable than HBO’s take on similar material, starring Helen Mirren, portraying the legendary Russian empress in the later years of her reign, showcasing the character’s political acumen, passionate love affairs, and enduring legacy. 

The Great, by contrast, announced itself as a wildly-irreverent ride through history. Kind of like what Apple had done with Dickinson, but with more debauchery and less propriety. 

Crafted by the imaginative minds of Tony McNamara (famous for his Oscar-nominated screenplay The Favourite) and Fanning (known for roles that often blend innocence with inner steel), the show serves a smorgasbord of satire, seasoned liberally with anachronisms and appetizing absurdities I never saw coming. 

I’ll watch and appreciate a period drama, but I’ve never once been like, ZOMG!! CAN WE PLEASE WATCH SOMETHING SET IN 18th-CENTURY RUSSIA?

With lavish costumes, opulent palaces, and plenty of courtly intrigue, The Great delivers on what fans of the genre expect, but the show flips these familiar tropes on their head to deliver a refreshingly modern take on one of history’s most enigmatic leaders, turning dusty pages of history into a vibrant, living mural of ambition and wit.

The Great is one of my favorite shows of the last several years, and Bonnie’s favorite of all time. Season Three was the last, and while I would have loved to see this show continue for another few years, the trilogy of seasons as it stands is masterpiece TV. Why? 

Because The Great offers its audience a subversively-hilarious spin on the historical drama, using dark humor, and a decidedly contemporary sensibility to explore timeless themes of power, gender, and the nature of progress.

Subverting Historical Accuracy for Narrative Effect

The Great grabbed me just minutes into the pilot and never let go, in large part because of its gleeful disregard for historical accuracy. The show’s tagline, which pops up during the opening titles and often triggers a giggle from me, warns you that you’re about to see “an occasionally true story.” The writers clearly delight in playing fast and loose with historical facts. 

Anachronisms abound, from a liberal use of modern slang and profanity to the inclusion of decidedly un-period-appropriate music. Real-life figures like Catherine and Peter III are reimagined as exaggerated, cartoonish versions of themselves, with their quirks and flaws cranked up to eleven for comedic effect.

But this creative license is more than a gimmick. By freeing itself from the constraints of strict historical accuracy, The Great can craft a narrative that feels timeless yet urgently relevant. The show’s winking, self-aware approach to its own absurdity allows for commentary on the tropes and conventions of period dramas, even while employing them to great effect. 

In addition to Catherine and Peter, the primary ensemble includes Mariel, the quietly cunning servant with a knack for survival and secrecy; Elizabeth, Peter’s flamboyantly wise aunt who navigates the court with a blend of lavish eccentricity and sharp insight; and Archie, the deviously ambitious head of the church whose holy veneer barely veils his earthly schemes.

The dialogue among all the characters is delicious. Here is a platter of samples: 

Individual Lines From Catherine and Peter 

“It is marvelous – you are marvelous. You gave me a bear and have ceased punching me. What woman would not be happy?”

Catherine (to Peter)

“Man will never be free until the last king is strangled by the entrails of the last priest.”

Catherine (quoting the philosopher Diderot)

“You can cut off a man’s head, or you can change what’s in a man’s head.”

Catherine

“Women are for seeding, not reading!”

Peter

“My father used to say when a woman wants to kill you, you’re in business.”

Peter

“I have crushed my wife’s heart like a mouse in a beaver’s throat!” 

Peter
Dialogue Exchanges

Catherine: “Ever since I was a child, I felt like greatness was in store for me. A great life, I felt. Like God himself had spat me forth to land on this Earth and in some way transform it. That I was here for a reason, a purpose.”


Marial: “Why did he make you a woman, then?”


Catherine: “For comedy, I guess.”


Peter: “This fucking duck is delicious. Do you not find?”

Catherine: “Indeed.”

Peter: “Ever eaten duck as good as this, Archie?”

Archie: “I have not.”

Peter: “Ever eaten pussy?”

Archie: “I have not.”


Catherine: “How was your night?”

Marial: “Avoided rape. You?”

Catherine: “Same. If anyone ever invents something easier than buttons, we are all in trouble.”


Balancing Humor and Drama

The Great stands apart from other historical comedies is its ability to balance its irreverent humor with genuine moments of drama and pathos. For every scene of slapstick comedy or biting one-liner, there’s a corresponding moment of genuine emotional weight. 

Catherine’s journey from naive newcomer to ruthless leader is played for laughs, but it also serves as sharp commentary on the corrupting influence of power and the challenges of enacting change in a deeply entrenched system.

The show’s darker undercurrents are surfaced through nuanced performances from the entire cast. Fanning shines as Catherine, capturing her initial wide-eyed idealism and gradual hardening as she learns to navigate the treacherous Russian court. Nicholas Hoult is equally impressive as Peter III, imbuing the character with a blend of childish petulance and occasional vulnerability that makes him so much more than a one-note villain.

Some of the scenes between them during the show’s three season run are stunning. 

The Wedding Night: Catherine’s naive hope for love clashes with Peter’s crude expectations, setting the stage for their tumultuous relationship.

The Coup Discussion: A tense-yet-intimate moment where Catherine subtly gauges Peter’s reaction to the notion of a coup, revealing her growing ambitions and his obliviousness.

The Hunting Scene: Peter teaches Catherine to shoot, a metaphor-laden scene that hints at Catherine’s emerging strength and Peter’s unwitting contribution to his own downfall.

The Opera House Argument: A fierce argument about the role of art and culture in society that lays bare their fundamentally different values and ambitions.

The Last Supper: Their final meal together, fraught with the knowledge of impending betrayal, a stark reminder of what could have been and the inevitable conclusion of their power struggle.

These scenes all underscore the brilliance of The Great in portraying Catherine and Peter as deeply-flawed, relatable characters, navigating the treacherous waters of love, power, and ambition.

Exploring Themes of Power, Gender, and Progress

The Great is a story about power: who has it, who wants it, and what they’re willing to do to claim it. Catherine’s arc over the course of the series explores the ways in which power can corrupt even the most idealistic among us. 

Once enmeshed in the intrigues and machinations of the Russian court, Catherine finds herself resorting to ruthless tactics to achieve her goals. The show is never timid about showing the moral compromises and personal sacrifices that come with the pursuit of power, even as it celebrates her determination to bring about change.

Catherine’s attempts to bring Enlightenment ideals to Russia are met with skepticism, hostility, and outright sabotage at every turn, suggesting that true progress is often a slow, painful process requiring a willingness to challenge entrenched power structures and societal norms.

The Great also explores gender with wit and insight, subverting traditional notions of feminine power and agency, presenting Catherine and other female characters as complex, multi-dimensional individuals with their own desires, ambitions, and flaws.  

In a society where women are often treated as pawns in the games of men, Catherine’s determination to forge her own path is inspiring and subversive.

The Performances and Visual Style

Fanning delivers a tour-de-force performance as Catherine, capturing the character’s journey from wide-eyed innocent to ruthless strategist. The actress brings a wonderful sense of comedic timing to the role, delivering wry observations and cutting one-liners with aplomb. But she is equally adept at conveying the character’s more vulnerable moments, allowing us to see the human being behind the historical icon.

Hoult is also fantastic as Peter III, Catherine’s mercurial and often monstrous husband, bringing a manic energy to the role, veering between childish petulance and chilling cruelty with ease. He’s the perfect foil for Fanning’s Catherine, and their scenes crackle with a delicious blend of tension and dark humor.

Visually, The Great is a feast for the eyes. Production design and costuming are stunningly detailed, immersing us in the opulent world of 18th-century Russia and all its gilded excess. But the anachronistic touches like modern music and stylistic flourishes create a unique aesthetic that feels timeless yet unmistakably contemporary while commenting on our own era’s struggles with power and the corruptibility of the human spirit.

If you don’t mind a general overview of the show from start to finish, here is a list of ten excellent episodes in the order they appear. 

A Royal Affair (Season 1, Episode 1)

The pilot introduces us to a vibrant, ambitious Catherine, naive yet determined as she enters the opulent, cutthroat world of the Russian court. This premiere episode sets up our expectations with the show’s blend of dark humor and drama defining the series as Catherine’s dreams clang against the harsh reality of her marriage to Peter.

And You Sir, Are No Peter the Great (Season 1, Episode 3)

Peter’s insecurities bubble to the surface, giving us a glimpse into the complexities of his character as Catherine’s resolve hardens. A chess game of ego and ambition, this episode showcases the brilliant interplay between characters.

A Pox on Hope (Season 1, Episode 7)

Smallpox hits the court as Catherine faces a personal and political crisis that tests her mettle. This episode masterfully intertwines the themes of disease and decay, both literal and metaphorical, challenging Catherine’s ideals against the harshness of ruling.

The Beaver’s Nose (Season 1, Episode 10)

The first season finale is a crescendo of strategic gambits, emotional confrontations, and the culmination of Catherine’s plot to seize power. A masterpiece of tension and release, blending political schemes with deeply-personal stakes in a thrilling conclusion that promises a new era, and sets the stage for the battles to come.

Heads It’s Me (Season 2, Episode 1)

The aftermath of Catherine’s attempt at a coup introduces new challenges, both from within her circle and from Peter’s loyalists. This episode skillfully navigates the murky waters of victory and the realities of unfinished revolution.

Wedding (Season 2, Episode 3)

A royal wedding serves as the backdrop for political intrigue, personal revelations, and opulent absurdity. This episode is a lavish display of visual and narrative style, using the spectacle of marriage to explore alliances of all kinds.

Five Days (Season 2, Episode 8)

A countdown to a pivotal event brings a sense of urgency, as plans are laid and fates are sealed in the rush toward a dramatic climax. This episode is a ticking clock of tension and anticipation, expertly blending personal and political stakes.

Heads Will Roll (Season 3, Episode 1)

Catherine’s rule is tested by new alliances and enemies, setting the stage for her most daring political maneuvers yet in an episode that perfectly blends the personal with the political as Catherine facing the complexities of motherhood alongside the demands of her crown.

A New Era (Season 3, Episode 5)

Catherine’s vision for Russia takes shape, but not without opposition from within her ranks, leading to a decisive confrontation that will define her reign. This episode brilliantly captures the tumult and triumph of revolution in a narrative high point, showcasing The Great’s knack for marrying historical drama with acute insights into leadership and reform.

The End of All Things (Season 3, Episode 8)

The series finale brings Catherine’s story to a monumental close, as she faces the ultimate test of her rule and her heart to leave a legacy that will be remembered through the ages. With its mix of triumph and tragedy, humor and heartbreak, this episode is a fitting end to a series that redefined the historical drama genre.

And Bonnie’s favorite episode is Ice (Season 3, Episode 6), where the writers pull the rug out from under a narrative that seems to be going in one direction with a moment so heart-stopping that Bonnie gasped in horror before backing up the video to watch it unfold again from the start of the episode. The midpoint of the show’s final season, “Ice” completely derails the narrative to set it barreling down a new track that seems to be racing toward the total destruction of everything Catherine has built to this point.

The Great takes the familiar trappings of a period drama and infuses them with shots of punk rock energy and irreverent wit and razor-sharp writing, phenomenal performances, and sumptuous visual style. It’s a must-watch for anyone who appreciates smart, subversive storytelling that stands out as a raucous, ribald, and truly original romp through history that never fails to surprise and delight.

As Catherine herself might say, The Great is truly great indeed.