‘The Great’ is a Violent Delight

FSR chief television critic Valerie Ettenhofer reviews Season 2 of Hulu's quasi-historical series, calling the return ruthless, funny, and relentlessly entertaining.
The Great Season 2


In the first episode of Season 2 of The Great, a pair of kids stand on the palace stairs, kicking a severed head back and forth like a soccer ball. It makes dull squelching sounds as they pass it around. This might not be what 18th century Russia actually looked like post-coup, but this is certainly what Tony McNamara’s Hulu series looks like as it makes its ruthless, triumphant return.

Surprisingly, for those who know their Russian history, the head in question does not belong to Peter III (Nicholas Hoult), the gleefully deranged husband of Catherine the Great (Elle Fanning). The series has branded itself as factually questionable from the start — the asterisk in the opening credits reads “an occasionally true story” — and when Season 2 begins, heads rolling, it marks a near-complete departure from the history books.

In this version of events, in an act of either mercy or weakness, pregnant Catherine decides not to execute Peter. Instead, she places him under house arrest. This is a smart move for the series’ writers since Hoult’s full-throttle performance as the flippantly vicious man-child is extremely entertaining.

It’s less smart for Catherine. The first season of The Great followed the dangerous early days of her arranged marriage, culminating in her strategic overthrow of the Emperor. Now she looks like someone who can’t kill her enemies, which is the last thing the Russian people want in a leader. Dangerous whispers of doubt follow her through the court as the second season goes on.

There’s a certain dark attraction that blooms between Catherine and Peter after she overthrows him. He’s turned on by her boldness. She has to reckon with the fact that he’s the only man who doesn’t underestimate her. In the hands of McNamara (who previously co-wrote Yorgos Lanthimos’ searing political drama film The Favourite) the couple’s love story plays out in The Great like a sophisticated Punch and Judy routine. They kick and punch and stab at one another. They wage personal wars, prodding at one another’s insecurities with acts of pettiness and aggression. In moments of weakness, they emotionally hobble one another over matters of roast pigs and cunnilingus.

The vision of royal life we see in The Great is one of excess, overconfidence, and base instincts. It’s a recipe that’s ripe for twisted comedy. Catherine’s pregnancy in particular is fertile ground for jokes about the clash between the Age of Enlightenment and rudimentary science. Her advisors put a frog on her belly to help the baby grow and tell her the child might explode in the womb if she doesn’t have enough orgasms. She also develops pica and starts sucking on rusty nails served on a platter.

The series delivers absurd jokes with deadpan seriousness, and its foul-mouthed comedy isn’t beholden to regular limits of human decency. After all, Catherine is a historical figure whose claim to fame was a nasty bestiality rumor. Aside from joking about everything from incest to mariticide, Season 2 of The Great also plays fast and loose with human life. Catherine has ethical concerns about serfdom but has a hard time convincing the nobles that servants don’t enjoy having knives thrown at them. With every change she tries to implement, she must face dozens of grumpy old men who believe violence is the truest form of currency.

Rest assured, The Great is not a part of the “girlbossification” of history. Catherine isn’t revolutionary because she’s morally spotless. She’s historic because she’s interested in ushering in an era of reason that’s all but inevitable. Oftentimes, her overly-optimistic policy changes go drastically wrong, and the series seems determined to thicken her skin one tragedy at a time. The Great doesn’t consider Catherine a hero among brutes. She’s simply a woman in a too-white dress who hasn’t yet decided how bloody she’s willing to get it.

Fanning’s embodiment of Catherine is by now well-honed, and her nuanced performance elevates the series beyond slapstick and satire. In quiet moments, the Empress has taken to hitting herself in the face in an attempt to stave off tears. Each time she strikes herself, it’s as if her hand isn’t her own; the impact looks like it comes as a complete surprise. It’s an act of sobering disassociation that’s painful to watch. The series presents this habit without comment, but it’s a quiet reminder that even this flamboyant story beats with a human heart.

The Great works hard to keep us from growing attached to any of its fallible characters, but like Catherine with Peter, we might come to love them despite ourselves. The series itself is easier than ever to love, slipping back into its brutal, comedic beats and sustaining a sure narrative footing through all 10 new episodes.

In Season 2, The Great is as delightful as its characters are dysfunctional. Long may it reign.

Valerie Ettenhofer: Valerie Ettenhofer is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, TV-lover, and mac and cheese enthusiast. As a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects, she covers television through regular reviews and her recurring column, Episodes. She is also a voting member of the Critics Choice Association's television and documentary branches. Twitter: @aandeandval (She/her)