Created by Tony McNamara for Hulu, ‘The Great’ is a historical comedy-drama that focuses on the trials and tribulations of the life of Catherine the Great, Empress of All Russia. As she takes the throne from her cruel and incompetent husband, Peter III, challenges both expected and unexpected crop up, testing her leadership, determination, and loyalties. The series sees Elle Fanning, Nicholas Hoult, Phoebe Fox, Douglas Hodge, and Sacha Dhawan in central roles.
The historical drama has received appreciation for its anti-historical stance, wickedly dark satire, and use of contemporary lenses to look at the turbulent socio-political environment of 18th century Russia. In particular, the rebellious characters that help Catherine rise to power — Marial, Orlo, and Velementov — are fascinatingly complex and entertaining. Marial, Catherine’s best friend and former maid, is especially interesting with her fiery personality, fearless demeanor, and fuzzy motives. Naturally, fans are curious to know if Marial is based on a real person. Let’s find out!
Is Marial a Real Person? Was She Really Catherine’s Maid?
No, Marial is not based on a real person. The series acknowledges that it is based on “an occasionally true story,” generously using fiction to examine historical facts pertaining to Catherine, her supporters and subjects. Thus, several characters in the show do not have real-life counterparts because they are simply products of creative imagination. “My first question to Tony McNamara, who wrote it, was ‘Is Marial based on a real person?,’ and he was like, ‘No,’ and also ‘the show is not historically accurate, so I wouldn’t really worry about it,’” said Phoebe Fox (Marial), in an interview with Brief Take.
Clearly, Marial, Catherine’s closest confidant and former handmaid, is fictional. Initially bound to a life of servitude due to her father’s mistake of trying to have sex with Peter’s mother’s mummified corpse, Marial is the reason why Catherine considers the idea of a coup in the first place. Disgusted by her lowly serf life and desperate to become a lady of the court again, it is Marial who informs Catherine that the death of the Emperor will result in the Empress taking the throne. Although not based on a real person, her character allows fans to peek at the lives of serfs as well as noblewomen.
While the real Catherine did have several handmaids who assisted her and reportedly even encouraged her to have lovers, none of them pushed her towards a coup. Thus, Marial is an amalgamation of the common folk as well as the nobility. In the show’s second season, we see Marial restored to her status as a lady of the court. She effortlessly wields her influence, does not back down from challenges, and is unapologetically sexually promiscuous.
Openly holding grudges and always offering the blunt truth, Marial is exactly the kind of woman that was feared by the orthodox and patriarchal society of 18th century Russia. Often, Marial tells Catherine to control her anger and proceed smartly, as she has personally experienced what happens to a lady unafraid of expressing her negative emotions and opinions. However, she also urges the Empress to commit crimes for the sake of the greater good.
Undoubtedly, exaggerated fiction and humor are used to drive home the injustices historically faced by smart, socially aware women. Based on McNamara’s 2008 play of the same name, the comedy-drama is unashamed in its mixing of fact and fiction. The character of Marial is endlessly entertaining and complex — is she a friend or a foe? Where does her loyalty lie? Marial betrays Catherine in order to save her own life and reattain her former social position.
However, Marial does not consider herself to be a traitor as her treachery in fact saved the Empress’ life. Additionally, Marial’s close relationship with the Patriarch is often a pain point for Catherine. However, the two women frequently find solace and strength in their friendship. The relationship between Marial and Catherine adds layers to the show, as the former is fully devoted to the Empress but also passionately independent at the same time.
Talking about it, Fox confessed, “Actually, in some ways, we’re [Fanning and Fox] quite similar to our characters [Catherine and Marial]. In the show, she [Catherine] starts off as this sort of optimistic bright-eyed young girl, and I’m this sort of dry-humored slightly older girl [Marial], and that is very true to life.” Thus, Marial is not based on a real person but is an interesting take on the bold, clever, and determined women present in Russia during the rule of Catherine the Great. Marial’s presence brings up intriguing questions about the nature of loyalty and also highlights the beauty of a strong female friendship.
Read More: Is The Great Based on a True Story?