The Surprising Finale of Hulu's 'The Great' Sets Up More Bloody Fun
A change of heart leads to a tragic end that implies more drama to come in a second season.
This post contains spoilers for The Great.
For much of its first season, Hulu's The Great, a proudly ahistorical take on Catherine the Great, plays like an absurdist comedy. Elle Fanning's Catherine is supremely witty as she plots to overthrow her doofus husband, Peter III, played by Nicholas Hoult as an 18th Century douchebag who just lusts for parties. But danger is always lurking around every corner, and the last episode ends on a note of tragedy that transforms our heroine into a bona fide antihero.
The Great wears the fact that it is not based entirely on the actual record of Catherine's life baldly. Each title card features an asterisk that makes it clear that this is an "occasionally true story." So that excuses the fact that Catherine, née Sophie Friederike Auguste, arrived in Russia when she was 14, and married Peter III a year later when he wasn't even emperor yet. His aunt Elizabeth, here portrayed as a daffy confidante by Belinda Bromilow, was ruling at the time. Catherine wouldn't stage her coup of her husband until 18 years after her arrival in the region.
This is all to say writer Tony McNamara, who also co-wrote Yorgos Lanthimos' Oscar-nominated 2018 movie The Favourite, consolidated the events of Catherine's life to make for more bingeable television and a more thrilling character arc. In McNamara's version of events, Catherine starts out a wide-eyed 19-year-old with naive ideas about love and royalty. By the end of the season's 10 hours, she has become a ruthless would-be leader, her ambition crystalized by a heartbreaking decision.
At the outset of the finale, Catherine sets her plan in motion. It is her birthday, she is pregnant, and she is going to kill Peter. But that plan goes awry: First, Peter, newly smitten with his bride, surprises her with a visit from Voltaire, of whom she is in awe. Then, just as she's softening a little toward Peter, he clumsily lets slip that he has attempted to remove her lover Leo (Sebastian de Souza) from the equation. His plot to "accidentally" kill Leo failed, so Peter intends to hide him until Catherine's allegiances shift. All of Catherine's goodwill toward Peter slips away as he reads a fake letter from Leo, and she flies into a rage that reveals her intentions to murder him. He easily gets the upper hand, and is initially charmed by her anger. That is, until her friend and serf Marial (Phoebe Fox) -- pissed that Catherine ordered the killing of her friend the archbishop (Adam Godley) -- tells Peter of her conspiracy to overthrow him.
Peter offers Catherine a deal: Call off her men and he'll spare Leos life. She accepts, her romantic impulses winning out over her desire to rule. But then Peter tears the rug out from underneath her: He still plans to keep Leo imprisoned, and if she should rise up against him again, he'll execute her paramour. She is now left with a choice. Does she accept defeat in all areas, confined to a life under Peter's thumb? Or does she sacrifice Leo? Ultimately, it's Leo who has to go.
Nearly every episode of The Great ends with a close-up of Elle Fanning's face. It's a testament to her performance how much her expression shifts over the course of the series from the bubbly young woman full of optimism swinging as the series opens to the cold-hearted usurper willing to let her "great" love bleed out in service of an even greater cause. When she gives her military adviser Velementov the go-ahead, her cheeks are no longer rosy and her gaze is steel.
Leo is an entirely invented character, but his fate offers some insight into how McNamara and The Great team see Catherine. Historically, she's a woman who has been defined by her libido. There's that horse rumor, which on the show is refashioned into nasty gossip from women at court. But she lets the promise of romance quite literally die in favor of her dreams of ruling Russia. It's all set up for a juicy second season that may not follow the history books, but should be a bloody, bitchy delight nonetheless. Huzzah.
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