The first thing many of us remember about Catherine The Great—the empress who brought the Age of Enlightenment to Russia and sparked a Soviet renaissance—is that she was known to have made love with a horse. This is, of course, a vicious sexist rumour started by British and French publications of the late 18th century trying to dull Catherine’s legacy. This is obviously addressed in Tony McNamara’s dizzyingly brilliant series The Great—a Hulu series at long last available in India, streaming on Amazon Prime Video—where a young Catherine (played by a magnificent Elle Fanning) is appalled to hear these nasty whispers about bestiality.
We can also say—with almost as much certainty—that the real Catherine did not, in fact, utter the words “Sometimes I’m so fucking clever, I have to take a breath not to become dizzy”. Rumour rightly begets rumour, and McNamara’s superlative series has an asterisk on the title card: “An occasionally true story,” it says, and, reaffirming the point in its second season, “An almost entirely untrue story”. This defiant anachronism is something to celebrate, for when it comes to history or mythology, how are we entirely certain of anything? God may look like the bearded cricketer W.G. Grace, as shown in Monty Python And The Holy Grail, or like Alanis Morissette, as shown in Dogma—or both. We don’t know, and the laugh is all that matters.
The Great is a swashbuckling satire that plays history for laughs while unravelling a story of conquest and ambition. It’s brutal and sexy and funny, and wondrously unhinged. It’s reminiscent of Sofia Coppola’s boldly bubblegum 2006 film Marie Antoinette—about another queen best known for saying something nobody heard her say—but The Great has more character, more style, and makes more of a point. Antoinette’s infamous “Let them eat cake” finds an echo when Catherine steps over bloodied bodies to hand out macarons to wounded Russian soldiers. The moment is a nonsensical photo-op, like Kendall Jenner handing a Pepsi to a police officer, and Catherine is cartoonishly out of place. (Realising one soldier has lost his fingers, she persists: “I’ll just pop it in your mouth? It’s pistachio, if that’s helpful.)
It is bewildering just how many diverse television itches The Great scratches: I was reminded of Game Of Thrones back when it was good, of The Crown back when it was well-written, and most importantly of the all-time great Blackadder— but with more violence and a banging soundtrack.
The show is about a stupid emperor, a weak country, a bad marriage — but also hope, destiny and enlightenment. It has the best leading pair on television in the effervescent Fanning and Nicholas Hoult, who plays Peter III with baffled bravado. (“Huzzah!” he often says, nimbly turning cheer to threat or promise or even a self-doubting question.) The writing is artful and sly— when a choir of little girls is introduced at court as being from Chernobyl, an ambassador remarks that they’re glowing—and, as one character on the show says to the endlessly quotable Catherine, “I want to embroider every word you just said on to a cushion.”
Catherine’s is not an easy lot. A sheltered German girl married off to a Russian oaf— the incompetent son to Peter The Great—she realises that she will be a royal victim if she doesn’t take matters, and, indeed, the country, into her own hands. Fanning is a generational talent, equally brilliant as a wide-eyed fangirl in A Rainy Day In New York or as an alarmingly ambitious model in Neon Demon, and she plays Catherine with an electrifying intelligence. She realises how out of place she was on that battlefield with the box of macarons, and Fanning’s eyes shine infectiously bright with idealism as she plots a coup we know she will eventually win. (This may, however, take a while. As she insists, she can’t possibly kill in front of Voltaire.)
It’s tremendous fun to watch this excitable woman find her métier. Point a finger at your own peril. This empress bites.
The villain of the piece, Peter, is too stupid to be the villain of the piece. Growing up in the shadow of an outsized, legendary father, he is confounded by his entitlement. He expects everyone to laugh at his jokes, applaud his genitalia and regard his plans as divine, and whenever this does not happen—partially because his wife is smarter than him—he can’t process it. He genuinely does not know better. Hoult strikes a miraculous balance between haplessness and savagery, making Peter not only cruel but romantic. He frequently does the unforgivable, yet his naïveté is too pure for us to scorn him entirely. Maddening.
Despite the name bestowed on Peter’s father, it is his wife who is The Great. That is an epithet she earns, and the show gives us an imagined peek into the malevolence and machinations she must summon along the way. Conquest is messy business, nasty enough to remind us that greatness is not for all to aspire toward, that the great are never content—and vice versa.
One of my favourite facts about Catherine The Great is that she did, impossibly enough, invent the roller-coaster. This is shown in an episode and appears to be one of the show’s most fanciful moments, but it is true: she added wheels and grooved tracks to sleds, and eventually even installed a roller-coaster at her summer palace. History is stranger than fiction. It almost invites embellishment. For the record, there’s nothing wrong with making stuff up—as long as you leave the real books alone.
Older, wrinklier and more vulnerable, comedian John Mulaney returns to the stand-up stage with Baby J (Netflix). The show works because, despite all the confession and soul-baring, Mulaney is still brutally funny.