Roughly halfway through screening the third season of Hulu’s foulmouthed and fabulous series The Great, I paused for an extended snack break. I thought I had a good grip on where the show was headed, and it seemed to be in a familiar direction; highly fictionalized versions of Catherine The Great (Elle Fanning) and Peter III (Nicholas Hoult) would alternately love and loathe one another forever while their court and the Russian public alternately loved and loathed them as well. There would be backstabbing, florid insults, and a whole lot of comedic debauchery. When I came back with snacks, though, The Favourite scribe Tony McNamara’s delightfully messed-up vision of history suddenly shifted on its axis, throwing the show’s status quo out the window for the back half of the season that added new emotional shades to a story in danger of stagnating.
The result isn’t the best season of The Great (that would be season two, an acidic anti-love story that ends with a delightfully cruel spin on The Graduate’s bus scene), but it is the season that might have the most individually great moments. The season picks up just after Catherine attempted to kill Peter, instead stabbing his double five times. Incidentally, the double, Pugachev (also played by Hoult) lives and becomes the season’s main villain, undermining Catherine and Peter’s authority by spreading some classic word-of-mouth misinformation. The main duo, however, end up stronger than ever, with Hoult and Fanning delivering performances that are alternately playful, romantic, ferocious, manic, and silly.
While its dysfunctional central couple is as good as ever, The Great’s supporting cast spends much of the season stuck in a scheming rut; Catherine’s former friend Marial (Phoebe Fox), newly enlightened Georgina (Charity Wakefield), pining priest Archie (Adam Godley), and delightfully eccentric aunt Elizabeth (Belinda Bromilow), among others, all play the same game of musical chairs they’ve been working on since the show’s beginning, alternately supporting Catherine and undermining her. After three seasons, the show can no longer survive on the drama of shifting loyalties, and some of the latest chapters’ scripts seem to know it too as characters’ political allegiances sometimes change with little rhyme or reason.
That being said, the narrative tectonic shift whose ripples spread through the back half of The Great season 3 helps the show’s ensemble in a big way. Both Bromilow and Gwilym Lee, who plays Peter’s right-hand man Grigor, put in their best work yet in a plotline that allows several characters to go rather creatively mad. Fanning, too, is game for the challenge; she’s blossomed in this role over the years, meeting Hoult’s comedically edgy, often surprisingly dark performance beat-for-beat before taking the spotlight in a new way this season. Later episodes, including a triptych that shows the way three key characters deal with the fallout of a major court upheaval, see Fanning stretch Catherine to her breaking point and make it look easy. The show’s cameras are quick to give Fanning a close-up, and she uses every one to maximum expressive effect.
The Great may be running on fumes when it comes to double-crossing courtly drama, but it still offers an abundance of absurd comedy. One of the best parts of the new season, believe it or not, is Marial’s (platonic) child husband, Maxim (Henry Meredith). Introduced last season as a particularly fucked-up political alliance (he’s also Marial’s nephew), Maxim could’ve been a character who appeared once or twice before melting into the background. Instead, the show lets Meredith be singularly hilarious. Maxim is obsessed with shoes, quick to get angry, and really, really wants to make the phrase “Maxim-esque” happen. The longer he sticks around, treated sometimes like a buddy of the men in court and other times like the kid he is, the more inexplicably funny his presence becomes.
There’s a deep vein of black-hearted humor that The Great has tapped into, and it doesn’t seem close to running dry. In one episode, Catherine makes divorce legal, then must quickly add a half-dozen caveats after abandoned women start leaping from windows. In another, she meets emissaries representing both American and British interests in the Revolutionary War and is charmed by the American ideals on display – so much so that Peter has to choke the representative out to feel manly. The Great alludes often to genuine ideological advancement but without any real satirical edge; McNamara clearly has more fun splashing around in the muck of the era than actually trying to get Catherine to change it.
There lies the problem The Great may face going forward. If the show’s power grabs grow tiresome, and Catherine’s repeated attempts to bring Enlightenment to the country are never quite as entertaining as her people’s insistence on staying stupid, violent, and hilariously horny, what’s next? The Great would have made a perfect trilogy, but its ending leaves some doors open. History might march on, but will The Great stay great? For now, at least, it mostly still is, thanks to wicked scripts, a major twist, and an always-game cast.
The Great season 3 is currently airing on Hulu. Watch the season trailer here.