If you’re someone who likes their historical dramas to stick to the facts, The Great probably doesn’t rank highly on your list of favourite period pieces. However if, like us, you take your true stories with a dash of panache, then it’s almost certain that you binged the first series of the Elle Fanning drama in a matter of days. One of the best current examples of how a serious story can be made wildly entertaining, the royal tale is now back for its second instalment, continuing Catherine the Great’s meteoric rise to become empress of Russia in the 1700s.
Before we dive into the new series’ shenanigans, let’s take a walk down memory lane. In the season one finale, Catherine’s designs on a coup were going pear-shaped. Her plan to stab her husband, Peter (Nicholas Hoult), in pursuit of a less violent Russia (ironic) failed when she was easily disarmed. Assuming his wife’s hatred was due to him kidnapping her lover, Leo, Peter was informed of Catherine’s plans to dethrone him by her bestie/servant Marial, who also let slip that Catherine is pregnant with his child.
Furious about the coup and hidden pregnancy, Peter was somewhat calmed by the promise of a male heir and willing to negotiate an abdication with Catherine. Using Leo as leverage, Peter demanded that Catherine call off the coup if she wanted to see her lover live. Catherine agreed to throw away her plans of ruling Russia but soon realised that she must make a sacrifice for the greater good. And so she ordered army leader Velementov to continue the fight, knowing full well that it may end up with her one true love murdered by her husband.
Okay, so now we know exactly where we stand, let’s talk about the trajectory for season two. Picking up right where we left off, we see Catherine engaged in a standoff with Peter, the respective sides holed up in different wings of the palace. The war (as it is now being called) seems to have come to a standstill as Peter indulges in his usual opulent lifestyle of five-star meals and making strange animals fight in a barrel. On the other side, Catherine is still preoccupied with her search for Leo, much to the annoyance of Orlo and the like. Eventually she agrees to a final attack, sending orders to kill Peter and his dwindling gang of high society cronies.
In the opposite wing of the palace, Peter remains unfazed by the escalating situation. This is largely due to the intense love he still has for Catherine, stating that her murderous plans have a lot of “wit and elegance”. Unfortunately for him (and his allies), his own strategy is much less sophisticated, resting on using lookalikes to test how quickly he will get killed if he leaves base. None of this really matters to Peter, who has become entirely absorbed by the idea of a son. Lovingly referring to his unborn child as ‘Paul’, Peter’s commitment to fatherhood gives Catherine the perfect leverage to finally overpower him.
However, with occasionally sympathetic feelings towards her husband, Catherine begins to have seeds of doubt. Her grand plans for a new, peaceful Russia are complicated by her desire to avoid bloodshed where possible. Without her best friend turned mortal enemy Marial by her side, her (slightly) softer side begins to interfere with her determination to murder her husband. On top of this, she’s dealing with doctor’s orders to sage her vagina alongside intense cravings for soil. Pregnancy and overthrowing a throne, it seems, are a terribly tricky mix. “If God really loved women, we’d lay eggs,” she muses.
Where the first series caught us off guard with its slapstick humour and absurdist dialogue, the second season is all about leaning into the madness. Following Catherine on her journey towards greatness, the series positions astute women against a backdrop of power-hungry men, with each party made progressively madder by the other. Coupled with the eccentric fashion, grand sets and a ridiculous fondness for the word ‘huzzah’, this makes the show as silly as it is succinct.
Perhaps the biggest news attached to this series of The Great surrounds the one and only Gillian Anderson, who joins the cast as Catherine’s German mother, Joanna. The phrase ‘blonde bombshell’ might have been made for this very moment. Seemingly disagreeing with Catherine’s plans to bring Russia into a new age, the relationship between the pair looks to be fractious, to say the least, as Catherine’s position is undermined by her family ties.
As it reminds us in the opening credits, The Great is an ‘occasionally true story’, allowing the script to run wild without a commitment to absolute accuracy. This may annoy the history buffs in the room but the show’s playfulness with the timeline of events is what makes it such an enjoyable watch. Beyond nailing the difficult political climate (and marriage) that Catherine was forced to contend with, the world of 1700s royal Russia seems to be fair game for elaboration – and we, for one, couldn’t be happier.
The Great season two is streaming on STARZPLAY via Amazon Prime from Sunday 5th December.
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