Review: The Great is a Witty And Irreverent Twist on History

History is nothing more than our attempt to reconstruct the things that happened long before we were born. We have hints and clues through which we create our own theories of what could have happened or how it might have happened back then. We will never know anything with certainty (not until the time machine is invented), so the most agreed upon theory is recorded in history books and passed around. But who’s to say we can’t concoct our own version of them?

If you are the kind of person who likes to strictly adhere to what has been written down, then Hulu’s ‘The Great’ might not be to your liking. However, if you are open to viewing history with a distorted but entertaining lens, then this is the show that you just can’t miss. In a similar vein to Yorgos Lanthimos’ ‘The Favourite’, ‘The Great’ is a funny, brutal, witty, exciting, irreverent, and at times, jaw-dropping watch.

The Great Plot

A young Catherine believes that she is destined for great things. When her broke father arranges her marriage with the Emperor of Russia, she thinks that destiny has finally arrived on her doorstep to whisk her away to the place where she has a loving husband with whom she will rule over a great country. All her dreams are shattered soon enough when she discovers that the man that she married is a horribly spoiled brat who has no value for his kingdom and people.

After a failed escape attempt, she finds herself trapped in a foreign place, longing for home. She is about to kill herself when her maid, Marial, tells her that in the event of the Emperor’s death, the crown falls to the Empress.

The Great Review

Tagging itself as an “occasionally true story”, ‘The Great’ begins with a “gorgeously optimistic” Catherine getting married to Emperor Peter of Russia. Elle Fanning’s portrayal of a young girl, with a naïve view of love, sex, marriage, and her status as the Empress, instantly gets you in the court of Catherine. You are charmed by her overly romantic views, while also feeling sympathetic for her because you know that all of her dreams are going to be crushed one by one, which is also something you look forward to.

Unlike the hardened and wise Catherine the Great of Helen Mirren’s HBO-version, Fanning’s Catherine is delightful, raw, and reckless. She is literate but uneducated in the ways of the world. She is too poetic for her own good. But she is also eager to learn and determined to establish her rule. In ten episodes, we see her go through several hard lessons and forced to make tough choices. While fascinated by the idea of having control, she also comes to know of the price that needs to be paid for such power.

Paired with her is the volatile and idiotic but powerful Emperor Peter. Nicholas Hoult inhabits the role with a tastefulness that, despite his villainy, it is hard to hate Peter. It becomes pretty clear, very soon, that he is unfit to be a ruler. His horrific acts make us wonder how someone in the court hasn’t already killed him, but he is not all negative. There are times when we wonder, as does Catherine, if, with the right guidance, he could be a benevolent and worthy emperor after all. But the show also balances this emotion quickly, lest we fall too much for his charms, however rare they might be.

All the characters in the show receive this complicated treatment. No one is entirely good or bad, not even Catherine. Everyone is just trying to survive with whatever serves them the best. Wading through treacherous political grounds and trying to be the first to laugh at their Emperor’s jokes, it is a complex web of servitude, loyalty, hatred, dependence, and love.

The performances are made stronger by the slapstick writing and fast-paced plot. Many moments sicken you, but it is also in them that you find some of the best comedic moments. The beautiful locations and intricate costumes wrap up all of it in excellent packaging. There are some places where it could have been a bit tauter, but for the most of it, ‘The Great’ is an excellent show that truly deserves your time.

Rating: 4/5

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