Tony McNamara has written a lot of interesting television, but when he recently took on the idea of an almost surreal, modern, fictionalization of true events, working with brilliant director Yorgos Lanthimos, he gave us the best movie of the decade (according to me, here’s the list), The Favourite. Sticking with that model, McNamara now brings us The Great, a limited series which is inspired by the life of Catherine the Great prior to her reign, and is, more or less, a really long movie.
For those unfamiliar with The Favourite, “inspired by” here means that a lot of the names are accurately the people involved in the dance, and the big events that might make it into history books are pretty much what happened – Catherine married Peter, Catherine conspired to overthrow Peter, Peter was a bit of a nutter – but, beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess if the specifics are even interested in reality. It isn’t so much that these things happened, but these are the sorts of things that happened… probably.
Catherine (Elle Fanning), from an influential enough family, though not too strong, according to Peter, is filled with romantic fantasies about marriage and “European” ideas about life and governments, but she soon learns she has married into a world utterly foreign to her. Peter (Nicholas Hoult) is somewhat monstrous really, but in a way those of us more worldly than Catherine are not surprised by. Indeed, he is as flummoxed by Catherine’s lack of understanding as she is by his mix of buffoonery and masochism.
More than what happens as Catherine is stripped of her naivete, The Great, like The Favourite, is interested in revealing the inner workings of the horrible, and sometimes random, machine that is life at court. Catherine serves as our entry, much as Emma Stone’s Abigail did, so that things can be explained to her/us and we have the relevant excuse to stare at things everyone else overlooks. A brilliant scene several episodes in has Peter looking to make a new man of himself and he takes over the role for a time as he suddenly notices there are workers all around him, but it is, to him, as if they have popped into existence.
In another sort of telling, maneuvering through things to find allies in order to attempt a coup would be more than enough. Here, we first figure out what maneuvering means and how it’s possible to make it happen, and more importantly, what allies are. The political world is a kind of testament to madness, and for Catherine, it is seemingly nonsensical, especially at first. Peter is basically all-powerful, but even that isn’t quite what it seems, and piecing together how it all works, while trying to stay alive, is Catherine’s full-time job.
Peter does have to maintain some relationship with the church, nobles, regional leaders, and the military, all while considering how his decisions make him look to the rest of the world – which keeps him from killing Catherine. As convoluted as things are, Peter’s work isn’t especially difficult. But, he’s rather an idiot, but believes himself a genius, which leads to circumstances that are open to exploitation. He is, for example, constantly overruling his generals’ strategies in the war against Sweden, and replacing them with childishly foolish ideas guaranteed to get his own men killed.
Luckily, Catherine has people on her side, though some more “vaguely” than others. Upon arrival, she is given a maid who was until recently a noble herself, but her family slighted Peter and they were stripped of their status. Catherine also has designs on another ally, one of Peter’s advisors (played masterfully by Sacha Dhawan) who is far more progressive than perhaps anyone in Russia. It isn’t much to build a coup around, and Catherine seems hopelessly on a “one step forward, two steps back” adventure, but as she painstakingly ferrets out the inner workings of this bizarre game, her plans slowly take shape.
It’s a farcical, witty “game adventure,” that hints at Mamet as much as Stilman, but as Catherine runs into wall after wall, it also layers in a lot of soul. Approaching the series end reveals just how far we are from historical accuracy, but also surprises with the depth of character we’ve revealed. Weaving through cat fights, poisonings, peace treaties, dances, and a lot of sex, it’s easy to lose sight of the accumulated experience, which is the series perhaps offering audiences a chance to live in Catherine’s shoes. It leaves you breathless in the end, as you slowly realize all the places you’ve been.