Shook Me All Night Long

The Great: Season 3

I haven't talked much about The Great on this site despite having watched through the series as it has been released. It's a series that I've enjoyed but, I don't know, it just never occurred to me to actually review it here. It's weird. I haven't reviewed that many period pieces on this site (I've watched through all of The Crown and never talked about it once here) but still, I feel like I somehow let the readership down in this instance because, despite the series defying many ways of describing it, The Great is, well, great.

Nominally it's a show about Catherine the Great: her marriage to Peter III of Russia, her realizing that he wasn't the man she expected, and then, eventually, shoving him off the throne so she could rule as Empress of Russia. It's an interesting time in history, especially a woman taking over the throne by deposing her own husband, happened so rarely (this is the only instance I can think of, and I'm sure you could probably find only enough to count on one hand). A show documenting (in dramatization form, of course), this story would be interesting all on its own.

And yet, The Great isn't a proper dramatization. It isn't even remotely close to historically accurate. It purposefully describes itself as a "occasionally true story", and that's a much better way of putting it. The Great is a comedy, a farce that nominally charts the story of Catherine the Great (and she'd eventually be known), but mostly it's there to set up bizarre and hilarious situations as it documents the court of Russia as something of a comedy of errors. And as weird as that sounds, it works so well.

Over the course of three seasons (with the third season having just recently been released on The HulkOnce the brilliant Dr. Bruce Banner had dreams of making the world a better place by building super soldiers to act as a shield for all mankind. Then an accident at his lab bathed him in gamma radiation. Now he has a living nightmare, as a big green guy lives within, just waiting for the rage to take over so he can be free.), we watch as Catherine (Elle Fanning) moves to Russia to marry a man she'd never met (but had been told all about), only to realize that everything she had been told was a lie. Instead of the kind, intelligent, sensitive poet she had been sold, the Peter she actually meets is something of a boor. Crude and crass, Peter (Nicholas Hoult) legitimately only cares about food and fucking (his words) and, quite frankly, is a terrible emperor. The first season documents Catherine's growing frustration with Peter before, finally , taking the throne from him in something of a coup.

The second season follows her consolidating power while trying to figure out what to do with Peter. They eventually come to something of an agreement, with him willingly stepping aside so she can rule while he takes care of their recently born son, Paul. This is an arrangement that actually suits them both, for a time, before his friends at court get into his head and nearly ruin things. A coup is raised against Catherine, and fails, and Catherine attempts to kill Peter, stabbing who she thinks is her husband (but is, in reality, a body double of him, Yemelyan Pugachev, also played by Hoult) only to regret it after. Peter sees this, and, well, it does put something of a crimp in their relationship.

For this third season, we have the two lovers at, again, something of a crossroads. His friends at court still hate her and would love to have Peter back in power (largely because Catherine has some really strange ideas, like people should be educating, and free, and happy, and enlightened) so they could go back to partying as they always did. But Catherine has big dreams for her empire... if only the people would listen to her. She needs to find a way to establish herself, for real, as a ruler of Russia, and finally bring all the factions under her rule to heel. If only she could figure out how to do that...

The Great is a solid, comedic show and it gets by on the power of two factors: it's snappy writing and it great leads. Created by, and largely written by Tony McNamara, who based the series on his own 2008 play of the same name, The Great features absolutely fantastic script. Witty and hilarious, the show is a brilliant written satire, a farce of royal shows that doesn't even bother trying to be real or true. Oh, it has its own sense of reality, and it does violate a sense of the real world, but the show doesn't buy in for historical accuracy, and it's frankly much better for it.

Anyone that knows history could potentially be annoyed at all the liberties the show takes. Timelines are rearranged, characters are merged or swapped around, and much of the actual history is ignored in favor or telling a story that feels more "true" even when it's largely outright fabrication. But then, the show does say right at the outside that it's "an occasionally true story" (before amending that to be "an almost entirely untrue story"). It tells you up front just what it is, and bravely sticks to it because, well, it does make for a fantastic story.

If anything, this third season absolutely doubles down on being less accurate and more farcical. The actual history is all but ignored, with just a few characters kind of, sort of sticking to vague versions of their real selves. The farce is heightened even further (wait for the courtly dance that happens about two-thirds of the way into the season to see just how silly things can get), and it all ends with the Empress rocking out in her private chambers. The show knows what it is, and it's better for it, just committing to its own bit and not giving a fuck what anyone else thinks.

Of course, selling it as hard as they can are the two leads, Fanning and Hoult. These two are absolutely brilliant on the show, each absolutely committed to their characters (her a dreaming idealist, him an absolute cad you can't help but love), while sharing some absolutely steaming on-screen chemistry. This show absolutely wouldn't work anywhere near as well without these two in the lead roles, committed as they are to these characters. It will, frankly, be hard to think of Catherine the great without seeing Elle Fanning, and I could watch Hoult play Peter III anywhere and anywhen (Hulu, seriously, create a spin-off of Peter doing his own cooking show. I'd love that).

I will note, though, that the show really isn't for everyone. Beyond the historical inaccuracy, it's also ribald, dirty, and, at times, violent. It all works for the farce, and I think it's great, but this show is a far cry (not only in tone but also in content rating) from something like The Crown or Victoria. Anyone looking for a spot of historical drama they can watch with the family really needs to look somewhere else. The Great isn't that show and absolutely doesn't want to be.

For everyone else, though, this show is a must watch. The third season is its best yet (huzzah!), and I can only hope it gets renewed again (although the show does ends things is a solid enough spot that if it didn't get a fourth season I wouldn't be surprised). If you haven't watched it, go watch The Great. It is, of course, great.