It took The Great halfway into its first episode to grab me. Catherine (not yet the great), played by Elle Fanning, had been working towards building a school in the Russian palace in order to teach the ladies of the court to read. Upon finding out that the school was to teach women, her husband, and Russian Emperor Peter the 3rd (Nicholas Hoult), is furious. We smash cut to the building into flames. It’s an undeniably funny moment, but then the Camera switches to Catherine, legitimately distraught. What follows is a series of on-a-dime tonal shifts, rattling back and forth between the humorous sociopathy of the Russian court, and the crushed hopes of Catherine, culminating in a legitimately menacing display of domestic violence.
What made the constant whiplash so compelling, paradoxically, was the consistency. Peter doesn’t change his mannerisms to suit the tone, but because his actions begin to threaten things we care about like Catherine and her happiness, he goes from a spoiled moron to a legitimate monster. And then in the next scene when he’s forgotten about the night before, he’s back to being the oafish man-child without missing a beat.
Part of this high-wire act is down to the world that the show creates. The royal court is an absurd display of decadence and depravity populated by scheming socialites, ineffectual progressives, religious zealots, and a pervasive sense of checked-out nihilism. Seemingly everyone wants things to be different, but they’ve given up any hope of commitment to seeing the world change. That’s where Catherine comes in. Fanning is excellent, gradually moving from wide-eyed waif to a legitimate player in the court as she slowly puts together a plan to kill her husband and take his place as empress.
Where the show could have gone wrong is making her overly competent. Catherine’s purpose in the plot is as a symbol and an opportunity; she’s next in line to take the throne if her husband dies, and as a foreigner bringing new (read: progressive) ideals into Russia she can represent the start of a new era. But for much of the series she’s still naive. She expects that people will risk their lives for the promise of a better life on the trust of an unknown girl claiming to represent Russia, or that she could gradually sway Peter away from the inhumanity inherent in his rule as an emperor. At one point, Peter, sensing her unhappiness, assigns her a lover to lift her spirits, and she spends a good amount of time distracted from the plot enjoying his company and distracted from her plotting. But the arc of the series bends away from that. As it progresses, Catherine becomes better at divorcing her feelings from what needs to be done, gradually becoming the ruler that she claims Russia needs.
The supporting cast is also fantastic. Sacha Dhawan’s Orlo is a progressive incrementalist that would be right at home in the ALP, claiming that by convincing Peter to allow men to grow beards, he will open the door to greater reforms on personal freedom. Gwilym Lee and Charity Wakefield play Grigor and Georgiana, Peter’s best friends and in the case of Charity, his lover. The constant friction between their legitimate friendship with the emperor, their knowledge that his sexual relationship with Georgiana is part of maintaining their status at court, and their desire to have their own relationship outside of his influence, is one of the more compelling storylines in the series. Sebastian De Souza is perfectly charming as the lover assigned to Catherine, their shared awkwardness at being paired up soon blossoming into romance as they discover a shared love of the arts and a distaste for court life.
I mentioned Nicholas Hoult’s performance earlier and he plays Peter like the villain his character in Skins would be if he had more power and fewer brain cells. Even as he’s bragging about his ability to eat pussy (I swear his enunciation of the word is funny enough on its own), or failing to shoot rabbits in front of retinue of other nobles, there’s always the possibility of danger lurking at the edge of the scene. Nothing is stopping him from taking offence and ordering people stripped of their title, beaten, or locked in a chest and thrown into a lake. But even behind that power he remains an insecure boy, raised to think his behaviour is normal, and desperately trying to carve out a legacy in the shadow of his distant father.
There are a few problems here and there. My main issue was the pacing; it felt like occasionally (more in the later episodes) the plot was being held up by the need for Catherine to grow as a person before it could continue, while some of the best moments are the ones where she gets swept up in a complication that she has to solve as a person in her own right, not just as a symbol or figurehead. Peter, for all his humour and occasional complexity increasingly has less and less to do as the show progresses, his antics go from screwball complications to the conspiracy to an expected roadblock to be avoided.
The Great doesn’t quite live up to it’s name in my opinion, but issues of pacing aside it’s a solid three-star series that’s worth checking out. Even if the series isn’t blazing a new trail in gender politics, the core conflict of the show is engaging enough, and drawn with such humour, that it’s hard to not enjoy.