The Great is a 10-episode historical drama cum black comedy series loosely based on the life of Catherine the Great, Empress of All Russia from 1762 until 1796. And when we say ‘loosely based’ it’s probably more accurate to state that apart from the names of the characters The Great does not depict any true historical events whatsoever, except superficially.
Thus, think of The Great as a historical fantasy – yes, a contradiction in terms but apt for this imaginative series. Historically speaking, Catherine was a Prussian princess married off to Russian Emperor Peter III. Catherine would come to power following a coup d’état that overthrew Peter III and she would become the country’s longest-ruling female leader.
The Great covers the period before Catherine (Elle Fanning) becomes the leader of Russia and spends most of Season 1 plotting to overthrow her husband Peter (Nicholas Hoult). Catherine arrives in Russia as an idealistic princess looking forward to a fairy tale marriage but instead finds herself in a hellish nightmare.
Her husband Peter is an Emperor who indulges himself in the worst possible way. The series does not flinch in depicting how Peter abuses the people around him – from Catherine, to his Court to the ordinary people. There are copious amounts of sex, violence and gore on display in The Great, which sometimes makes for difficult viewing.
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The series utilises the supporting characters – basically the court of Peter – to good effect. Developing the characterisations well between the supporters of Catherine’s ambition to the opposers of the same. But even within these inner circles there are conflicts and untrustworthiness as self-interest tends to rule decisions and behaviours.
In this respect, The Great is less about historical accuracy and more about an exploration of human frailties against the backdrop of 18th century political society. Within the modern context, the series populates its characters with a diverse cast – much like Netflix’s Bridgerton – which is entirely forgivable considering The Great’s thematic thrust.
While most of the above is enough to recommend The Great with, what is annoying is that the series is too much beholden to its status as a continuing TV series and by the end of Season 1, it is unclear as to whether Catherine has achieved her quest of usurping Peter’s position. Probably to provide the viewer with another season of intrigue and debauchery but it does make for an overall weaker story.
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