Television

Hulu’s The Great Is Wrong on the Facts but Smart About History

The wonderful new series from the writer of The Favourite takes an even looser approach to its royal subject.

Elle Fanning as Catherine the Great in The Great, seen side by side with a portrait of the real Catherine the Great.
Elle Fanning and Catherine the Great.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Hulu and Kunsthistorisches Museum/Wikimedia Commons.

In some of its promotional material, Hulu has described its new Catherine the Great miniseries, The Great, which premieres on Friday, as “anti-historical.” The show’s title sequence appends an asterisk to its title: “An occasionally true story.” Created by Tony McNamara, writer of The Favourite, the 10-episode series stars Elle Fanning as Catherine and Nicholas Hoult (also of The Favourite) as Peter. It follows Catherine from her arrival at the Russian court, through her realization she’s married a dud, and then through her plans to depose Peter as Emperor. And it’s so fun that it may have ruined me for sincere historical fiction for the near future.

Just for the record, here are some of the things McNamara changed in service of heightening the show’s drama. On the show, Catherine arrives in Russia at 19 and launches her coup on her 20th birthday. In reality, Catherine arrived in Russia at 14, suffered through almost 18 boring years at court (unfilmable!), and gave birth to a child before ascending to the throne. On the show, Peter is a selfish, pathetic figure, in far over his head when it comes to matters of governance, but he’s also self-assured, handsome, lively, and quite good in bed—when he wants to be. In reality, Peter was dull and possibly impotent. On the show, Count Grigory Orlov is a key ally for Catherine but not a lover or a master planner. In reality, Orlov was Catherine’s own “favorite” in the years before the coup, which he led. On the show, a court rival concocts the rumor about Catherine having sex with a horse while she’s still new on the scene. In real life, this was a lie made up only later, during her reign.

Blah, blah, blah. Truly, it would get extremely boring to list all of the things, big and small, that the creator switched around to make this story work. To enjoy this hilarious show, as you did The Favourite (which also took some liberties with the record, particularly as regard its dance moves), you must cast aside any parts of your brain that want to nitpick about the substance of the story. I liked HBO’s Catherine the Great miniseries, which starred Helen Mirren and came out last year, very much. But compared with this deliciousness, that much more accurate take on the ruler, which seemed pretty entertaining at the time, looks dry and pedantic.

The Great’s alterations and embellishments make this more of a riff on history than a representation of it. You have to have a Peter who’s sexy and mercurial to make his odd-couple dynamic with Catherine work. Hoult practically sparkles as the entitled young man who’s always gotten everything he wanted. The series starts with a completely unpleasant Peter—he name-calls and bullies his advisors, tells Catherine not to speak in public, and has sex with his best friend’s wife right in front of him, without a care for his friend’s feelings. This man orders a banquet table set with heads of dead Swedes by each plate, then invites his guests to gouge the heads’ eyes out with their fingers. (Oh—fair warning—this show can be gruesome.)

Nicholas Hoult as Peter III, side by side with a portrait of Peter III.
Nicholas Hoult and Peter III of Russia.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Hulu and Hermitage Museum/Wikimedia Commons.

But as things move along, and Catherine feigns interest in Peter to try to gain influence over his thinking, Peter falls a little bit in love with his empress. In a rollicking scene, he tries out a new “tongue trick” on his bride, which she very much enjoys. After his aunt and the court doctor watch them have sex, counting every thrust and coaching the emperor on his timing in order to maximize fertility, the two young married people bond over the ridiculousness of the situation. There are times when you might wonder: Will this series commit the ultimate in alternate-universe deviation and leave the two in a state of détente, happily ever after? For a while there, I was rooting for it.

But despite all of these liberties in the matter of the rulers’ relationship, the show incorporates some themes in a way that, if not strictly “accurate,” explores the very real questions Catherine’s life raises. The actual Catherine was besotted by books and—to a degree that’s been debated since she died—influenced by continental Enlightenment thinkers and their ideas about equality, individual rights, and reason. On the show, we see Catherine trying out different ways to present these ideas to her co-conspirators and, eventually, to the others she hopes to bring over to her way of thinking. Fanning’s near-translucent skin—a character in and of itself, framed in those 18th century gowns—flushes red with excitement and her eyes go starry with conviction as she tries to get a general in the army to support her coup by selling him on freedom and rights. The general, meanwhile, wants nothing more than to get in her bed. Fanning plays the comic tension perfectly.

The miniseries’ humor often lies in this contrast between Catherine’s idealism and the reality of her situation. She tries to convince Peter that it would be a good idea to offer science, art, and education to his subjects. Her first efforts—the creation of a new educational institution—literally go up in flames after he realizes she intends to teach women to read, and orders the school building torched. That’s the move of a cartoon villain, and it’s not quite what this show has in mind. Much more hilarious is the sequence in which Peter decides to win Catherine back by holding a “Science Party” for the court. His idea of “science” turns out to be a series of experimenters doing “demonstrations”: lighting people’s farts on fire, electrocuting small children.

So much of the show’s comedy lies in Catherine’s struggle to articulate exactly what it is she thinks should happen to make Russia better. Fanning’s Catherine doesn’t seem quite sure what she means, half the time, when she talks about the books she reads. The ideas set her on fire, and they are certainly better than the theater of cruelty that is Peter’s court. At one point, the nobles set fire to a serfs’ village to control a smallpox outbreak while refusing to undergo inoculation, as Catherine recommends. It’s clear that this is a chapter of history that has to close, but how?

That durable comedic setup, the Battle of the Sexes—entitled, boorish Peter versus intelligent, hardworking Catherine—is at the heart of The Great. But there’s another kind of historical comedy here. Catherine is the new, struggling to be born; Peter is the old, fighting against change. The problem of emergent modernity has never been so funny.