Straight out of the gate, The Great is upfront about its blatantly ahistorical content. ‘An occasionally true story’ reads the disclaimer and if anything, that grossly undersells it. In much the manner of buses and threes, there’s been a sudden glut of prestige TV dramas about Russia’s Catherine The Great; it’s easy to see why: a queen overthrowing and murdering her husband, overcoming the ingrained sexism of one of the most chauvinist societies in Europe to seize total autocratic power, and leading Russia into a golden age through her political nous and sheer chutzpah (all the while taking and discarding lovers left, right and centre) feels less like history than a racy bestseller.
However, for the non-Russian there is a problem of a complete lack of context. Far be it from me to impugn the British education system for being broadly uninterested in every world event that didn’t involve Hitler, but prior to watching The Great my knowledge of Russia’s longest serving Tsarina almost exclusively consisted of her purported love of….well let’s just call it ‘equine husbandry’ and draw a veil over it shall we? In Helen Mirren’s stolid passion project characters had to continuously announce who they were and what was happening in Russia with an aura of not so faint desperation so that the audience weren’t totally at sea. Catharine isn’t one of Henry VIII’s wives and therefore to most of the world she’s just that queen with the stallion fetish.
The Great deals with this lack of historical context by ripping history up whilst blowing a raspberry. Springing from the sardonic pen of Tony McNamara, co-writer of Yorgos Lanthimos’s 2018 masterpiece The Favourite, The Great is a caustically funny romp that switches between the kind of arch wit that could flay skin off an unfortunate back and shockingly funny crudeness. Basically, it’s The Favourite redux with the insane Queen Anne replaced by a priapic idiot who treats ruling a country like an incredibly elaborate drinking game. The Catherine who arrives at the Court of Tsar Peter III in 1761 is a wide eyed, headstrong nineteen-year-old whose naivety is counterbalanced with an almost messianic feeling of her own inherent importance and ability to shape the future of the nation she has just married into. Admittedly by 1761 the real-life Catharine was 32, had been married for 15 years and was the mother of two children, but that’s showbiz for you.
Peter III, played with deranged relish by Nicholas Holt (who is carving out quite a niche for himself as anachronistically sweary hate figures in Tony McNamara comedies), is not a good king. He’s an over-sexed child with the power to have anyone hideously dismembered for looking at him funny, who keeps his dead mother on display in a glass sarcophagus in the main hall. After ‘introducing’ the desperately smiling Catherine to his mummified mother he casually remarks “someone should work out what goes on between a chap and his mother, there’d be money in that”. Desperate for ‘larks, japes and weird sex’ to the exclusion of all else his personal court has degenerated into a nightmarish bacchanal where dessert is served accompanied with severed heads, as if Salome had opened a franchised restaurant. Whilst he is desperate to emulate the modernising and militaristic triumphs of his father, Peter the Great (admittedly The Great cuts out an entire generation of Romanovs here but let’s just move on) his attempts at building a modern Russia are limited to banning beards. By the time Catherine arrives, his regime is only holding together out of drunken inertia. Unsurprisingly he treats Catherine appallingly, from blithe sexism to unintentional insults and actual physical violence. The newly minted Tsarina briefly considers suicide, but once her sardonic servant Mariel (a fantastically sharp Phoebe Fox) makes the pointed observation that if Peter dies Catherine will inherit total control of Russia, it doesn’t take very long for the Enlightenment enthusiast to start thinking knives and necks.
After a notably grim (though still rife with black humour) opening episode that establishes the need for Catherine to kill her new husband, the series picks up a rapacious comic pace that refuses to let up. Potentially straight-jacketed by the straight-woman role compared to the fantastically uninhibited Hoult, Ellie Fanning more than holds up her end as Catherine by mixing her arch repartee with a teenage arrogance, that sees her embarrassingly crash back to earth as her rosy ideals buckle against murderous realpolitik. McNamara’s satire is red not only in tooth and claw but in its politics, with the evils of absolute monarchy frequently on display in notably disturbing and bloody sequences. Whilst the ever present threat of violence is one thing, often the tone drifts into the Lynchian: Catherine feeding limbless soldiers macaroons as part of a Princess Diana-esque royal outreach programme before posing for a portrait literally standing on the broken bodies of bayonetted men, or serfs walking on their hands and knees and being tossed table scraps like animals. It’s didactic and sometimes hard to watch but serves as a brilliant counterweight to the deliberately mannered ‘Jane Austen on crack’ dialogue. The Great is ridiculous but this element of violent surrealism has a way of demonstrating that the stakes are deadly serious in a very literal way. As a result it’s hard not to get carried away with the life-and-death politics of it in a way that you simply don’t with political comedies like The Thick of It. Perhaps the threat of sudden death is what’s really needed to make politics exciting. At any rate, much like its namesake The Great is great.
The Great is available on Starsplay.