The Great

The Great - Season 3

Review by John Winterson Richards

The second season was to an extent marking time. Put into production after the greater than anticipated success of the first, which we were told initially was intended as a "limited series," it could not have been expected to have the originality of, er, the original, and it did not really take the story of the 18th Century Russian Empress Catherine the Great much further forward. It was more an excuse to hang out a bit longer with characters we had come to like. As such it was very entertaining, but it was in danger of outstaying its welcome.

The producers seem to have been aware of that, and, perhaps to show they mean business this time, Season Three starts with a literal bang in the form of the abrupt departure of a major cast member in its first episode. It is perhaps a little too abrupt, rather throwing away an interesting character and leaving his arc frustratingly incomplete. Of course, such things happen in real life, the life most of us end up leaving with our character arcs incomplete, and it was perhaps a useful reminder that the Court of Catherine the Great is a place where sudden death is always on the line after things were getting a little too cosy, but one still felt that the actor and his character both deserved better.

It is only a foretaste of things to come, including an even more significant, and ridiculous, departure. The manner of it seems so unworthy of the character that we are left wondering for some time if it was as permanent as it appears. This can be an effective method of building up dramatic suspense, but there has to be a definite "pay off." Merely trailing the possibility to no purpose is ultimately just plain irritating.

Part of the problem is that The Great has already established itself as the Boy Who Cried Wolf when it comes to "fake out deaths." There were two in the last episode of Season Two alone. There are three more in this season when characters seem to be on their way out only to survive without much in the way of real jeopardy or consequences. "I am dying." "No, you're not." "Oh." That is basically it - three times. This does not count as character arc.

This is not to say the season fails to entertain. It is as amusing as ever, but while the first season balanced the comedy with some genuine drama, the third, like the second, is mostly froth. We are supposed to share in what the characters feel as a big emotional moment, but it requires us to have worse memories than they apparently do.

The Great

Before getting into the problems with plot and characterisation, it is only fair to acknowledge what Season Two does well. The camerawork, production design, costumes, and use of locations are outstanding, exceeding even the cinematic levels of excellence set in the previous seasons. Whatever else, The Great deserves to be remembered as one of the best looking shows ever put on television. If it was expensive, the money is all there on the screen.

The Great season 3 review

The acting is also of a consistently high standard, and it is not the principal actors' fault that most of their characters remain in a holding pattern. There is, however, some welcome new blood in the form of two additions to the recurring cast who add value to the proceedings. It is good to see more of Henry Meredith as Maxim, Marial's precocious, shoe-obsessed 11-year-old husband: their interactions, which make them sound like a bickering old married couple, are great fun. So is Jacob Fortune-Lloyd, as Catherine's supremely self-confident new General, Petrov, who admits frankly that life is easy for him because he is impossibly handsome. The writers missed an opportunity by not giving his character the name Potemkin, the real Catherine the Great's most celebrated lover.

The Great season 3 review

The interplay between Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult as Catherine and her husband Peter is better than ever - which is where we get back to the problems. This is not supposed to be their love story, but it has turned into it. Enjoyable as this is, an objective critic has to say that it is blatant fan service at the expense of story and character. History is clear that Catherine deposed Peter with ruthless efficiency and he died in captivity suspiciously soon after. Of course, The Great has never cared much about history, but turning it into a romance puts both characters in a very artificial situation dramatically as well as factually.

The Great season 3 review

Catherine often comes across as weak, and even stupid, which rather misses the point of her whole story. Yet she remains intellectually arrogant. There is a lot of truth in a satirical play within the play that exposes her shortcomings brutally and tests her belief in free speech beyond breaking point. Once again, the script seems unsure whether it is inviting us to sympathise with Catherine or smile at how ridiculous she can appear..

The Great season 3 review

It is definitely inviting us to like Peter. Hoult makes this easy, but his evolution into an amiable, if slightly emasculated, house husband seems wholly inconsistent with what had gone before. Are we supposed to forget everything he did in Season One? Above all, are we supposed to forget what happened to poor Leo? It seems Catherine has. She never mentions him at all. His name eventually comes up, but only in the satirical play, and she actually seems more upset by a repeat of the old lie about the horse than by the reference to her forgotten lover. She is definitely a lot harder to like than she was in the first season.

The Great season 3 review

None of the other main characters in whom we have taken an interest shows much sign of growth. Catherine's "friend" Marial (Phoebe Fox) comes across more and more like an entitled leech. Her affair with the likeable but somewhat gormless Grigor (Gwilym Lee) is neither convincing nor involving. One cannot help feeling that his feelings for his wife, Georgina (Charity Wakefield), in the first season were far more sincere. At one point she looks as if Georgina might end up as Catherine's genuine BFF, which would be an interesting reversal, but the writers chicken out, and she returns to low grade plotting and the scheming to no credible purpose. The tragicomic General Velementov (Douglas Hodge) is sidelined, while "Archie" the Archbishop (Adam Godley) is reduced, like most religious characters on television these days, to a stereotypical villain.

The Great season 3 review

The only character who progresses, or rather shows more of another side to herself that has always been there, is Aunt Elizabeth (Belinda Bromilow), who at one point is on the verge of taking over because Catherine can no longer cope. A slightly chilling scene confirms what we have suspected for some time, that Elizabeth might indeed be the best person for the job. It is worth noting that this fictional Elizabeth is based very loosely on a real life Empress Elizabeth who preceded Catherine and paved the way for her, excelling her in some respects. However, The Great is about Catherine the Great, so our protagonist reasserts herself in the final episode and Elizabeth gives way to her, a little too compliantly one feels.

The very last scene gives Catherine a splendid "girl boss" moment, spoilt a little by a sadly predictable line about how it was not Destiny that made her but herself. One cannot help thinking that line would sound crass and arrogant if spoken by a man, and also that it is not really earned by the events we have just seen. For much of the season Catherine comes across as indecisive and many of the decisions she does make are bad.

Yet the scene itself, and in particular a wholly anachronistic dance, provides the perfect end to the show. This begs the question whether the producers and writers were aware that cancellation was likely. The number of unresolved character arcs among the supporting cast suggests otherwise. So was the way the entertainment news media seem to have been taken completely by surprise by the announcement soon after the season aired.

This in turn begs the other obvious question: why was such a popular show cancelled? After all, Hulu's schedule of original programming looks very bare without it. Of course, it all comes down to money and this was visibly not a cheap show to make, so popularity does not necessarily mean profitability. Disney's Byzantine corporate politics may also be at work. In a bizarre move, Disney purchased a controlling interest in Hulu on credit at the same time they were preparing Disney Plus. With the bill now due, and Disney Plus underperforming (as everyone but Disney and their financial supporters predicted), are Disney running Hulu down deliberately?

The Great season 3 review

Conspiracy theories aside, there are good narrative reasons why prolonging the show was always going to open it up to the Law of Diminishing Returns. As we pointed out in our initial review - of what is in retrospect Season One - Catherine the Autocrat was never going to be a sympathetic protagonist like the naive mail order bride she was at the start. For all its flexible attitude to historical truth, The Great could not continue to ignore some uncomfortable facts. Catherine the Great never really lived up to her professed ideals. She never freed the serfs - that was left to her great grandson, Alexander II, a century later: he was promptly murdered for his pains. While Catherine did promote education, especially for noblewomen, and vaccination, her epithet of "the Great" was a tribute less to her attempts at the modernisation of Russia than her aggressive programme of expansion. Since many of the most significant military conquests of her reign were in what is now the Ukraine, Catherine is no longer the role model she was in the West when the show began in 2020.

Judged purely as a work of drama, or even literature, the show would perhaps have done better to remain a "limited series" and to have ended with what is now Season One, but the commercial realities of television are what they are, and, in any case, if it had ended then, we would have missed out on a lot of fun in the last two seasons.

Published on September 21st, 2023. Written by John Winterson Richards for Television Heaven.

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