The Great, a rollicking historical satire and occasionally true story about the rise and reign of Catherine the Great has never shied from darker humor. It’s best viewed as a comedy first and a historical fiction second; it takes generous liberties with names, timelines, and events as it wishes. It’s ridiculous and over the top. Huzzah!
We follow Elle Fanning’s Catherine as she tries to bring enlightenment and order to the murderous and animalistic Russian court first while married to Nicolas Hoult’s Emperor Peter III and later as Empress herself. She’s helped and hindered by a sprawling cast of allies and frenemies, who either agree with Catherine’s Enlightenment-based reforms like human rights or prefer Peter’s approach of eating, fucking, and killing in the palace. The series mines this terminal disagreement between the two and though the show is adept at keeping the plots and capers fresh, it slowly settles into a sitcom rhythm broadly similar to Parks and Rec: an exuberant, blond idealist struggles to drag a resistant community into a better way of life who governs with/despite a dark-haired food-loving traditionalist who often challenges the idealist. There are many significant differences between the two series, one being that in The Great the opponents are married.
The show has put the couple through coups, wars, visits from the mother-in-law, and betrayals great and small. The Russia of The Great is a casually fatal place where murder is the resolution for all sorts of grievances. People (and animals) are killed quite often on the show so while I’m used to a certain level of character death here, a death toward the end of season three stood out.
Be warned that there are spoilers on the other side of this gif of my favorite character.
Peter dies. A few people die in season 3 of The Great, actually. Orlo was accidentally and unknowingly shot dead in the woods and is believed to have fled the country. Pugachev, Peter’s dirty dead ringer who starts a revolution posing as Peter, is shot in the head by a child lord named Maxim which means we had to watch Hoult die twice. Those characters are dearly missed, but Peter’s death set itself apart.
Peter trudged up to the Russian/Swedish border with Velementov and deposed Swedish king Hugo to retake the country back from their democratically elected government. Catherine intercepted him and, after tempting him with delicious food and a fuckfest carriage ride home, they had a reckoning of their marriage, but also of their opposing worldviews. Catherine wants to do progressive things like outlaw murder and promote national literacy. Peter wants to kill, fuck, and eat the finest things he can. He’s a libertine and a hedonist who adheres to strict traditional hierarchies and is attracted to displays of dominance and violence. Despite all that, they truly love each other. Catherine tells him that if he invades Sweden, he cannot return to court. He rides back across the frozen river and as he turns, beginning to voice second thoughts, the ice opens and swallows him and his horse. Catherine lies in the snow, stunned and tearful. When she rises, she cannot accept reality and begins a manic phase in which she vehemently avoids acknowledging Peter’s death and instead throws pre-dawn parties and games to occupy herself. Catherine eventually accepts reality and processes the loss, transforming in the process. Peter said it himself: he’s the only one who accepted and loved the many aspects of Catherine, even those he didn’t understand, even when she hated him.
The Great is a heightened cartoon so you wouldn’t expect pathos to fly well and yet the show finds a way. This is thanks in large part to Hoult who nails this absurd role every which way. His boyish, almost doll-like looks make him the perfect casting for a depraved royal. Hoult is perfectly mercurial: pouting one moment, wrathfully wielding a knife the next, and wickedly seductive after that, with jokes every step of the way. With the nature of the show being so wacky, it works, especially with details like Peter’s proto-foodie flavored salt antics and visions of his dad played by Jason Isaacs. It’s a big performance that would overwhelm lesser actors. He has a great time doing it too.
In a similar way to how Catherine has a somewhat civilizing effect on Russia in general, so too does she somewhat civilize Peter. This could’ve been a Flanderization of the character, but the trick was in how he changed. After Peter and Catherine’s child Paul is born, he discovers a nurturing side and dotes on Paul, carrying the baby around in a delightfully anachronistic-looking carrier, feeding him, and trying madly to cure his sickness. Peter did it all his way though: the baby food is the finest foie gras and Peter tastes from each of Paul’s wet-nurses’ nipples to find the cause of the cholic. It’s wholesome, for him. They found ways for the character to grow in ways that felt true to them. Genuine love, his way.
While I dearly miss Peter and how much chaos he sowed on the show, his death makes sense. Season 3 illustrated over and over how despite his intentions, Peter makes decisions that countermand and undermine Catherine. It made the case that Peter would consistently ignore the advice to respect Catherine’s decrees like “no murder.” Dying as he seems to be coming around is sharp irony, but fitting for this show.
With Orlo and Peter dead, Katya exiled, and Archie seemingly banished as well, the cast and its dynamic might renew. With abundant love for the character and their actor’s wonderful work, I think Peter’s death is a good thing for the show. The character went out in a brutally ironic fashion that fits the show and character. If The Great continues, there are many aspects of Catherine’s post-marriage life that would be fun to explore. I bid a fond farewell to Peter and look forward to what future antics we get up to with Catherine and the gang.