Review: Let’s Talk of Catherine the Great and Tony McNamara’s Occasionally True Story
Polina Ignatova | Lancaster University
Issue 01 - September 2020
'Grand Duke Peter Fedorovich, Grand Duchess Catherine Alexeyevna', by Anna Rosina de Gasc, 1756.
Nicholas Hoult as Peter III and Elle Fanning as Catherine the Great in Hulu's The Great. Avaliable on Hulu's streaming service.
ony McNamara, the creator of a new American period drama The Great and the screenwriter for The Favourite, has a recognisable style: when academic substance becomes too inconvenient, he resorts to sensational perversion. While McNamara’s decision to depart from retelling the actual historical events has opened an exciting potential for surprise, each episode of The Great is painfully predictable.
The main problem with McNamara’s show is that having refused to rely on historical events, he has failed to provide a substantial alternative. The setting consists of the done-to-death stereotypes about Russia: from the balalaika music to the statue of Peter the Great riding a bear. For some reason, everyone exclaims ‘Huzzah!’ – obviously not a Russian saying – which by the third episode becomes intolerably irritating.
The characters are written with the same lack of effort as their environment. The opportunistic maid Marial (Phoebe Fox) and Peter’s lover Georgina (Charity Wakefield) are Russified clones of Abigail and Lady Sarah from The Favourite. Emperor Peter (Nicholas Hoult) is the embodiment of pure vice and degeneracy.
The greatest injustice, however, has been done to Count Orlov (Sacha Dhawan) – the ever-bullied constantly-whinging dork. Severely mispronounced by the cast as ‘Ollo’, the surname Orlov originally belonged to the Orlov brothers, notorious for their love of fist-fighting. Grigory Orlov fathered Catherine’s illegitimate son. Alexey Orlov, who bore a scar across his face as a memory of a drunken fight, dragged the future empress out of her bed on the morning of her coup d’état and sneaked her from Peterhof to St Petersburg. He was also responsible for Peter III’s subsequent death.
Young Catherine (Elle Fanning) is portrayed as practically impeccable, though McNamara would not be himself if he avoided vulgarity. The series explores the joke that Catherine the Great had had sex with a horse. This anecdote emerged soon after the empress’s death and stopped being funny back in the 19th century. Refusing to acknowledge Peter’s virtues, McNamara has also failed to recognise Catherine’s dark side – namely, her ruthlessness on the way to the Russian throne. The real Catherine would never beg Peter not to die because she did not feel ready to rule the empire, neither she would pause her coup to have a cry on her lover’s shoulder. (For the full story of Catherine’s accession see J. T. Alexander, Catherine the Great: Life and Legend).
The dull, one-dimensional characters McNamara has created make it impossible to explore the complexities of the struggle for power at the 18th-century Russian court. Catherine and Peter got married when they were sixteen and seventeen, respectively; Peter III was half-German and had arrived in Russia only a couple of years before Catherine. For seventeen years Catherine’s main enemy was the formidable Empress Elizabeth of Russia, portrayed in the show as a cray cray butterfly mummy (Belinda Bromilow).
We do not know to what extent Peter III was an idiot – most evidence comes from Catherine’s memoirs, who described him as such to justify her usurpation of power. He clearly was not a sadistic maniac shown in the series. During his short rule Peter pardoned those repressed by Elizabeth, abolished the secret police, proclaimed religious freedom, and freed the landowners from compulsory service. Some scholars view the latter move as a step towards the abolition of serfdom.
At the same time, as Peter grew weary of Catherine, the latter ran the risk of losing her life or being locked away in a monastery as a slightly better option. Fear for her own safety was Catherine’s main motivation for seizing power, and unfortunately determined her decisions moving forward. After forcing Peter to abdicate, Catherine clearly did not intend to keep him alive. Two years later she authorised the assassination of Ivan Antonovich – another contestant for the Russian throne. As Russian aristocracy was not enthusiastic about Catherine’s liberal ideas, she had to abandon them, and the last years of her rule could be characterised as an absolute monarchy slipping into despotism.
The conflict of The Great omits these details and can be summarised as Catherine arriving to save the savage Russians from themselves. Unsurprisingly, it fails to provide enough material for the eight hours of the show.
There were positive moments. The series’ focus on Catherine’s interest in healthcare (she indeed got vaccinated for smallpox in order to create a positive example for her subjects) and education is a breath of fresh air. It was nice to see some diversity at the Russian court. People of colour were present in Russia at least since Peter the Great’s time, the most famous being Abram Gannibal, a military engineer and a great-grandfather to Russia’s celebrated author Alexander Pushkin.
But overall McNamara is not interested in his characters or in his story – he does not waste time creating an exciting plotline or the personalities with whom one can empathise. Claiming to be a taboo-breaking dark comedy, The Great does not provide adequate context for the series’ numerous explicit scenes to make them meaningful or indeed, comedic. By offering low-quality content and hoping the audience will swallow it, The Great is a sad example of money-making hands-down attitude prevailing in the modern entertainment industry.
Dr Polina Ignatova has recently completed her PhD in history at Lancaster University and is particularly interested in how knowledge was generated and received in the Middle Ages. She is currently working on developing her thesis into a monograph, provisionally titled 'Raising the Dead: The Meaning and Purpose of Restless Corpses in Medieval English Narratives'. She is also looking at the ways aquatic organisms were studied in the Middle Ages and hopes to develop this research into a postdoctoral project. Click here to find out more.
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