The thirst for power is a rampant theme in period pieces, but Hulu’s The Great is having way more fun than your standard stuffy corset melodrama. It’s no wonder it has such a biting tongue–it’s written by The Favourite co-writer Tony McNamara, and he knows how to lace history with acid wit. Led by two calculated performances from Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult, The Great is one of the best shows of the year.
This origin story of Catherine the Great has had multiple versions just in the last few years (HBO’s literally titled Catherine the Great came out last year and starred Helen Mirren), but McNamara’s The Great isn’t focused on a stiff-chaired history lesson version of her coup to overthrow her husband, Peter III. It’s playful and giddy but takes hard swerves into dark territory. Is Catherine really ready to rule a nation that she wasn’t even born into?
When Fanning’s Catherine first stands before Hoult’s Peter, he dismisses her for being too short (“Send her back. Get me a tall one!”), and she has to get used to this type of behavior quickly. Peter has the attention span of a horny gnat, and his court is a frat boy Sodom and Gomorrah playground. If he doesn’t like something, he gets rid of it, and he constantly repeats his lame jokes to get forced laughter out every person within high-fiving distance. Catherine won’t give into the notion that she should just be used for breeding heirs, and she quickly sets her sights on overthrowing her dim and dangerous new husband.
There is a delicious balance held together by The Great‘s two leads. Fanning’s gentle, natural beauty is the perfect weapon to hide the Russian bear underneath. Catherine is surprisingly nimble in coddling Peter, but it’s tested halfway through the season when he gives into her idea of bringing science and art to court. Fanning looks at Hoult differently, and it shades their relationship as something much more complex than Catherine even anticipated. Fanning matures every time she takes on a new role and her Catherine is one of her absolute best. She’s girlish but has to learn to mature on the spot.
Hoult is a horny loose cannon, because that’s the only way he knows how to live. He continually sleeps with his best friend’s wife, but Hoult gives him a doofy charm that makes Peter resemble a dog you want to smack on the snoot for humping the couch. Everything surrounding these marvelous actors is sumptuous and well-crafted. The costumes, by Emma Fryer and Holly Waddington, are incredible.
The Great invites us you to view history in another way. Give into the raunchiness of it and you will find yourself rooting for this coup despite learning about it in high school. See you at court. Huzzah!
Hulu drops all episodes of The Great on May 15th.