I’m going to admit something embarrassing. Before watching HBO’s new miniseries Catherine the Great (premiering Oct. 21), I didn’t know that the urban legend about the empress’s death (horse, harness, crash) wasn’t real. That moldy old pornographic fantasy is exactly what her many detractors, who circulated stories about Catherine’s legendary sexual appetites throughout her life and after her death, wanted me to think of when I hear her name. Misogyny! It sure does stand the test of time.
Good news, then, for Catherine’s image. The four-episode miniseries centers, celebrates, and complicates the empress’s robust late-in-life sexuality. Helen Mirren was born to play a biting, intelligent, fierce empress—in fact, this casting veers close to a cliché, but don’t worry, Mirren is great here. In the bit of 18th century history that this show draws from, the teenage Prussian princess, who rose to power after conspirators killed her horrible husband, Tsar Peter III, ruled Russia for three decades by dint of her formidable wit. Catherine did indeed have a string of lovers, a fact that writer Nigel Williams—also the author of a 2005 miniseries starring Mirren as Elizabeth I—embraces. But the show also illustrates how Catherine’s sexuality and her famous intelligence fed one other. Catherine the Great falls into every trap that awaits a biographical miniseries cramming decades of the complex life of a ruler into a handful of hours. Its treatment of political history is confusing; there are a lot of “Two years later … ” time jumps; it overrelies on luxurious set decoration and costuming; it has a very Game of Thrones–ish opening credit sequence. But none of that matters! Watch it for the romance and you won’t be disappointed.
The relationship between the historical Catherine and Grigory Potemkin, a brash, honest, pleasure-seeking minor nobleman and army officer who rose to become an unofficial consort and co-ruler of the empire, is the heart of the series. Catherine the Great means to be a story about a woman in power, but the best parts of the show are about the ways that her power enriches her love, and vice versa. Potemkin, as played by Jason Clarke, is a handsome man, but also a very charismatic one; in him, the well-read and impatiently witty Catherine finds her match. The show does something unfamiliar with its casting choices and stretches the historical age gap, which was just one decade, in the woman’s favor. What a revelation to watch the 74-year-old Mirren flirt with the 50-year-old Clarke on-screen! It’s not just about the sex, though there are some steamy scenes. This couple laughs loudly and often. They write each other excellent letters. When they profess undying love to one another, you believe it.
The historical Catherine and Potemkin were only together for a few years before Potemkin left court to govern Russia’s southern provinces, but they managed to remain close, maintaining a partnership only rarely sullied by jealousy and suspicion. In the show’s portrayal, you get the sense that Potemkin might be Catherine’s only true friend. But Catherine the Great’s belief in Catherine and Grigory’s affection doesn’t mean that it shrinks from showing Catherine with many of her other lovers—all impossibly handsome young men with broad shoulders. Courtiers titter behind Catherine’s back, making up stories about her epic sexual needs, but you can see how the forcefulness of her personality, and her complete embrace of her own political savvy and intellectual power, draws people into her orbit.
In one scene, Catherine sits with two young male secretaries, dictating letters (there’s a lot of letter writing in this show, which is accurate; 18th century empires required extensive administration). Catherine tells the two clerks to put part of what she’s just said in italics, and one of them asks which part. The other young man—the hot one—knows right away: “You just have to listen. You can hear the italics in her voice.” You know right away he’s going to end up in her bed—which he does. Power, said another elderly politician, is the ultimate aphrodisiac. Italics come a close second.
Although you should watch Catherine simply to enjoy the rare reverse May-December pairings, the show isn’t by any means perfect. It’s hard to avoid a chronological mishmash when you have to present a few decades of Russian history to an audience that knows very little about the ins and outs of the Russo-Turkish wars of the 18th and 19th centuries, not to mention the peaceful 1783 annexation of Crimea. Potemkin is constantly going off to fight Turks for some reason or other—sometimes he is happy about it, and sometimes it makes him sad; poor Potemkin!—and there’s some debate raging in various council meetings about whether Russia should align with various European countries, but it’s all a big muddle.
I could forgive this historical murkiness more readily if it didn’t interfere with the central pairing that makes this show so lively. The viewer hardly knows whether to cheer for Catherine and Potemkin and their imperial goals. We ship them, sure, but do we want them to get what they want? To its credit, the show doesn’t hide the fact that people who have a lot of power and desire to have more can be total jerks; kingdoms and empires aren’t all gowns and gold leaf. At one point, Potemkin thanks Catherine for giving him the chance to “kill Turks.” Catherine takes her baby grandson from her daughter-in-law, recapitulating the familial abuse of power that her mother-in-law committed when the old empress took Catherine’s infant son, Paul, away to be raised apart from her. (Paul grew up to despise his mother—tragedy upon tragedy.)
But it’s confusing to hear of Catherine’s intelligence and curiosity and then see her respond, late in life, to news of the French Revolution by ordering all French books burned—even those by her former correspondent Voltaire, whom, her friend and lady-in-waiting reminds her, “you used to love.” The story of Catherine’s early idealism and late-life conservatism seems fascinating, but is but a faint presence compared with the romantic tale that dominates. Ah, well. At the very least, the ghost of that horse is gone from my mind forever.