Hulu’s The Great is a fascinating character study of a fictionalized yet still ambitious Catherine The Great (Elle Fanning). Catherine wants to push Russia forward by using science, logic, creativity, and non-violence. At every step, her novel ideas are met with varying degrees of skepticism and anger by a court that is comfortable in its backward ways.
Created by The Favourite’s Tony McNamara, the first season of The Great focuses on Catherine’s coup to overthrow her narcissistic and cruel husband, Emperor Peter (Nicholas Hoult). The second season dwells on the aftermath of her coming into power while pregnant with his child.
The new episodes vividly portray the Empress’ numerous challenges while also depicting the people who make up her kingdom. A crocodile is running amok in the palace? The residents believe it must be an omen from God that Catherine is the devil. The situations seem nonsensical until they’re not, but caustic humor isn’t as central this time around. There are still plenty of thrilling zingers and visuals, but The Great blossoms into a show with a big heart and, inevitably, heartbreak for its protagonists and viewers.
The show presents a young, strong female leader who is vastly underestimated by almost everyone around her. Catherine wants to change some of the country’s horrific customs to make way for a better future. But she’s burdened with not being taken seriously and trying to gain respect, lest she risk being taken down by a chaotic and vengeful mob.
Catherine’s continued tensions with the mean ladies of the court, the soldiers itching for war, and Peter II loyalists is entertaining and ultimately galvanizing, too. But she doesn’t turn into the 18th-century equivalent of a girlboss, sending out fake preachy letters in lieu of hashtag-filled Instagram posts. Catherine surrounds herself with strong women, mainly best friend Marial (Phoebe Fox), who goes from maid to noble again, and stealth season-two MVP Elizabeth (Belinda Bromilow), Peter’s aunt, who provides advice and much-needed candor.
The expanded focus lets both Marial and Elizabeth grow individually and makes room for a well-developed friendship among the trio. The Great is rooted in Catherine’s strong beliefs and unyielding optimism, but doesn’t shy away from portraying how these qualities lead to her political naïveté. She doesn’t realize when she is being lied to or used as a pawn. As Catherine matures on the job (often with the help of Elizabeth), she becomes a more multidimensional person. She learns to adapt and live in the gray area that comes with ruling over a ruthless nation.
Fanning is luminous as the Empress, and it’s not just because she’s adorned in gold jewelry and bright period costumes. The actor’s gravitas commands attention. It’s an emotionally turbulent time for Catherine. The expectant mother is grieving over the loss of her lover, Leo (Sebastian de Souza), denying her feelings for the imprisoned Peter, and dealing with pregnancy hormones and horniness. The threat of war looms. Fanning’s performance through it all is devastating, especially in her scenes with Hoult.
The lead duo’s relationship evolves from tumultuous frenemies to a more concrete romance. Season two of The Great thrives as a dark rom-com with grave consequences. Peter and Catherine are polar opposites, but the once vicious ruler is determined to change for his wife and soon-to-be-born infant. Hoult delicately treads the line between utterly loathsome, stupid, and charming; he doesn’t get to be as boisterous as he was in the first season, but even his relatively subdued performance here is infinitely enjoyable.
The arrival of Catherine’s mother, Joanna (Gillian Anderson), crucially shakes up the dynamic between the married couple. Turns out, Peter isn’t the only one with mommy issues. Anderson aces her latest imperious role; she is just as lavish and wild as the show as a whole.
The first half of the season does demand patience—each of the first five episodes is an hour long, laying the foundation for the drama to unfold. Episode six, “A Simple Jape,” wherein Catherine tries to liberate the servants, finally leads to hard-hitting consequences. The supporting players in Peter’s orbit are mostly just comic relief, all besides Grigor (Gwilym Lee), who gets a notable twist in his love story with wife Georgina (Charity Wakefield).
More significantly, one of Catherine’s biggest supporters, Count Orlo (Sacha Dhawan), gets sidelined. Count Orlo is mostly restricted to worrying about his queen’s actions, sadly limiting the actor to a more one-note performance, in contrast to his breakout role in the first season. Archbishop Archie’s (Adam Godley) arc derails mid-season as he changes from a formidable foe to a man lost on his spiritual path. But without sufficient context or buildup, his story falls flat.
These drawbacks are just blips; The Great remains a titillating period piece, with marvelous costuming to boot. The show continues to comment on the political landscape of the past and the present with sparkling wit. The devastating agony of the characters is palpable by the end, making The Great a rewarding journey worth all the “huzzah”s.