Oh, it’s a strange old show, The Great. Oscillating between irritating, touching, funny and depressing, it is an uncategorisable drama that gleefully and obscenely takes liberties with Russian history. If it had aired a few decades ago it would have given viewers an aneurysm, so relentless is its swearing and so ‘down to Earth’ are its regal characters.
If you missed season one and are unfamiliar with the tone, think The Favourite, the 2018 film whose script was co-written by The Great‘s creator Tony McNamara. If you didn’t see The Favourite, just imagine posh royalty saying “fuck” a lot while smashing things or having sex. This is the sub-genre into which The Great falls.
The first season of the show was really very good – and showed us the naïve Catherine being taken to marry Peter, the emperor of Russia, quickly becoming miserable because of his abuse. Beaten and degraded, she was ready to kill herself by the end of the first episode, and ready to kill Peter by the beginning of the second. Near the end of the season, however, as she turns 21, she was pregnant with Peter’s child, despite his having gifted her a lover, Leo. As season two begins, it appears that Peter has killed Leo and Catherine is ready to wage a coup against her husband.
You can barely move for unlikeable but fascinating protagonists in modern fiction, with Succession full of horrible sociopaths and The Sopranos helmed by a murderous crime boss. But The Great, taking this note, makes the mistake of devoting hours to Peter, who is both unlikable and uninteresting. In playing the spoiled and violent leader, Nicholas Hoult struggles to make Peter come alive as a real person – all the more ironic because Peter the Great was a real person.
Both because she may have a wider range and because she is given far more interesting lines, Elle Fanning doesn’t suffer the same fate as Catherine. We are genuinely interested in the way that she is evolving – particularly in season two – and feel her frustrations at struggling to effect any change when she does become empress, having gained the upper hand over Peter and taking the crown from him.
Plenty happens to keep the viewer away from their phone: in the first episode alone there are kids playing football with a head, Peter lookalikes being killed, and the invention of the Molotov cocktail seeing flaming bottles of vodka thrown down hallways. The eighteenth century in Russia was a volatile place, a fabulous setting for drama, and the machinations of the court provide excellent fodder for The Great.
However, possibly because Peter is again given too much screen time, season two makes it difficult to truly care about a lot of the story. The writing, while frequently funny, is all too often unrealistic and grating: the dialogue seems to strive for a kind of old-fashioned authenticity but wants to eat its cake and have it too by filling every other line with swear words in order that it is considered edgy. This gets worse in the new episodes. Peter likening eating some blueberries to “a bluebird cumming in your mouth” is an example: not funny, interesting or accurate, it manages to simply make you wish you were spending less time with the second most important character in the show. There is only so many times you can hear a character say “fuck”, especially when the historical figures being portrayed – who certainly would have sworn – certainly wouldn’t have sworn so often. One exception is Adam Godley’s archbishop character Archie, a character so self-serving and manipulative that he is the source of plenty of laughs.
It’s a bit of a mixed bag, then, with fans of season one’s anachronistic comedy likely to be pleased with more of the same, and others rather more impatient with the show’s progression.
‘The Great’ season two is streaming on STARZPLAY via Amazon Prime Video