By Briony Havergill, Third Year, Film & Television
When season one of The Great aired on Channel 4, I didn't know what to expect. Created by Tony McNamara (co-writer of The Favourite) and marketed as the ‘occasionally true’ story of Catherine the Great’s rise to power, The Great proved to be a difficult thing to get my head around.
At times it is a hilariously vile satire of the aristocracy, illustrated with some of the most vulgar gags I have ever seen on screen. At other times it is a sensitive and affecting exploration of love, grief, and all the other hard-to-articulate challenges of the human experience. Season 2 has continued this baffling duality, blending comedy and tragedy so seamlessly that any episode can provoke both tears and laughter.
Beginning where season 1 left off, pregnant Empress Catherine (Elle Fanning) is battling her husband, Emperor Peter (Nicholas Hoult), for the throne of Russia after having mishandled a coup d’état. Both are aided by supporters; for Catherine, she has her best friend (and former maid), Marial (Phoebe Fox); the nervous but intelligent bureaucrat, Count Orlo (Sacha Dhawan); and the oft-drunk leader of the Russian forces, Velementov (Douglas Hodge). Peter has his childhood friends, Georgina Dymova (Charity Wakefield) and Grigor Dymov (Gwilym Lee). Watching both sides carefully are the Patriarch of the Russian Church, Archie (Adam Godley) and Peter’s Aunt Elizabeth (Belinda Bromilow).
None of these characters are good people, all of them deeply flawed in ways ranging from the outlandish to the abhorrent, yet all of them are remarkably likable. This is partly due to the considerable acting talent of the ensemble, and partly due to the witty, warm and well-delivered scripts.
The cast and crew trust the audience to engage with and root for even the worst characters (Peter’s redemption arc in season 2 is littered with pitfalls), and this creates a viewing experience that feels very much as if you are in on the joke. You find yourself wanting them to succeed, even if their motives and morals are skewed.
There is a real sense that Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult dedicated themselves to exploring every facet of Catherine and Peter, and so every scene with just the two of them feels electric, which is fuelled further by the palpable chemistry between the pair, with Episode 9, ‘Walnut Season’, as the best showcase of this.
It would have been easy to mistime the development of Catherine and Peter’s relationship, rush the pacing, or make it seem like a violation of Catherine’s character given the horrors Peter subjected her to in series 1. However, between McNamara, Fanning, and Hoult, they manage to create a pairing that is not only fascinating to watch, but endearingly sweet as well. It is an odd success.
If I have to find a flaw with season 2, it is that it lacks the momentum of series 1. Without the defined goal of ‘kill Peter and take Russia’, the narrative often feels directionless. However, the characters, acting, script and costumes are so faultless that there needn’t be a sole direction at all.
Ending on a cliffhanger that left my jaw dropped, The Great, once again, has lived up to its name. I will be awaiting news of a third season with eager anticipation.
Featured Image: IMDB
Do you feel The Great lives up to its title?