Though better known for partitioning Poland and touring Potemkin villages, Catherine the Great was also an accomplished writer, and not just of political tracts. She wrote fairy tales for her grandchildren, libretti for nine operas, and a book of proverbs, not to mention her memoirs (which took up three volumes). Catherine was particularly accomplished, however, as a writer of comedies: She wrote 14 in all, including an entire trilogy of plays condemning the rise of the Masons in Russia, two of which carried the unsubtle titles The Deceiver and The Deceived. She published a satirical journal under the pen name “Babushka” (grandmother), where she mocked (or instructed, she would say) courtiers on manners and carried out literary disputes with her critics about the role of satire and comedy in rooting out vice and sparking reform. In her correspondence with the luminaries of the Enlightenment, she similarly encouraged wit and even dirty jokes. In praising her for getting vaccinated against smallpox (a very “modern” and risky decision at the time), Voltaire remarked that she had gotten “inoculated with less fuss than a nun taking an enema.”
That is why when I first saw the trailer for Hulu’s new series, The Great, I was excited to learn it was a comedy, and from the screenwriter of The Favourite, Tony McNamara, no less. Last year’s HBO drama series Catherine the Great, starring Helen Mirren, felt over-serious and sentimental, lacking the sense of the ridiculous and over-the-top pageantry that dominated Catherine’s court (and royalty on the whole, for that matter). That show took Catherine’s self-fashioning as an “enlightened despot” at its word, rather than acknowledge how hypocritical and self-congratulatory the empress in fact was. The real Catherine did things like celebrate her smallpox inoculation not with quiet reflection about the benefits of modern medicine but by having a ballet performed in the court in her honor. It was called Prejudice Overcome, and it involved dancing chimera (symbolizing smallpox) being stopped from eating children by Minerva (a stand-in for Catherine).
Hulu’s The Great unfortunately reserves all the bravado and bombast for Peter III, Catherine’s husband, played by a dashing Nicholas Hoult (The Great is proudly and profoundly ahistorical, but this upgrade for the famously homely Peter is especially jarring to anyone familiar with the record). Elle Fanning’s Catherine is a young, bookish, doe-eyed princess, eager to tell everyone she meets about the works of Rousseau. When she does decide to wrest power from her husband, it is with the intention to ascend the throne to put an end to serfdom and senseless wars, to erect schools and an art museum. It will be a “coup of ideas,” she insists to her co-conspirators. The dirty work of regime change, the realpolitik of running an empire, and the good jokes are largely left to the other characters.
Why has Hollywood suddenly taken an interest in Russia’s longest-serving female ruler? The appearance of two series about her in six months could be coincidental—a symptom of “Peak TV” and the breakneck pace at which the industry is producing streaming content. However, the near-identical framing of these shows, wherein Catherine serves as a fresh feminist antidote to the cruelty and caprices of men in power, suggests empress-mania is more about contemporary political frustrations with sexism in politics than the intrigues of imperial Russia. (Catherine was actually the fifth woman to sit on the country’s throne in the eighteenth century.) The Great, for all its delights, feels too anxious to convince us that women make better, more competent rulers, a baseless expectation that unfairly holds women to a higher standard and gives viewers less to laugh at.
When the show begins, Catherine, a young Prussian princess from a poor but noble family, is brought to meet her new husband, Peter III. Peter here is violent, stupid, and crude: He openly brags about eating figs out of other women’s vaginas, holds a dinner with the heads of slaughtered Swedes as centerpieces, is permanently drunk, and shoots Catherine’s pet bear in front of her. He runs a debauched and brutal court and is a mercurial military leader, starting an ill-advised war with the Swedes out of a sense of wanting to one-up his father and because they are, he tells his men, “blond, moose-buggering, lingonberry-gorging, humorless fucks with a seaport we would do well to have.”
Enter Catherine: young, fresh-faced, and reformist. “You’re so beautiful,” Peter’s Aunt Elizabeth (Belinda Bromilow) tells her, “It’s like the sun has floated into our court and exploded.” Catherine, we are continuously reminded, is more emphatically European than the uncouth Russians at court who pronounce touché as “toosh,” are skeptical of science (until an experiment involving a small dog and a parachute convinces them otherwise), and beat insubordinate serfs. Catherine, conversely, reads Descartes and Voltaire; is steadfastly pacifist; and treats her domestic serf, the foul-mouthed Marial (Phoebe Fox), with the same regard as a lady-in-waiting. Quickly convinced that her husband is ill-suited to lead Russia out of its supposed backwardness, she decides to stage a coup. “Ever since I was a child, I felt like greatness was in store for me,” she confides in the wise-cracking Marial, who questions why God would make her a woman if that were the case. “For comedy, I guess,” Catherine shrugs.
Catherine’s coup is helped along by Peter’s buffoonery. Growing dissent among various factions of Russian society, from the military to the church to Peter’s inner circle, builds over the series. In “War and Vomit,” Peter’s lack of battlefield experience comes to the fore: He is unable to distinguish a river from a field when planning an assault on the Swedes—“Who paints a river green?” he complains later, in bed with his mistress Georgina (Charity Wakefield). In later episodes, the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church (Adam Godley) becomes exasperated by Peter’s lack of piety, and Peter’s best friend, Grigory Orlov (Gwilym Lee), grows tired of sharing his wife with the emperor (this is a fun twist on history, as it was, in reality, Orlov who carried on an affair with Peter’s wife, Catherine).
Meanwhile, Catherine plots behind the scenes with the help of Marial and an intellectual bureaucrat named Orlo (Sacha Dhawan) to consolidate power, though their efforts are usually stymied. Catherine’s unpopularity with the women at court is a potential problem, particularly after they begin to spread a rumor that Catherine had sex with a horse before getting married. Hoping to diffuse the situation, Catherine laughs it off: “I wanted to, but the horse said no and ‘Neigh means neigh.’” It is all very cutely funny, but one craves some of the violent machinations we saw from McNamara’s female characters in The Favourite. Too often, what we get in The Great feels like a nice girl’s guide to staging a coup.
Throughout the series, we see Catherine slowly usher in some of the changes that would define the actual Catherine’s reign, from the proliferation of print media (Fanning’s Catherine brings in a printing press that Peter mistakes for a fig juicer) to inoculating herself with smallpox to show the court it was safe. She tells Peter’s aunt of her excitement at the new changes, exclaiming “In no time, Russia will be a wonder, and a powerhouse of thought and ideas, unrivaled in the world.” Elizabeth, the true comedic empress of the series (in an earlier scene, perhaps the funniest of the show, we see her masturbating to a statue of Peter the Great), replies, “You really are spectacular. I want to embroider every word you just said onto a cushion.”
Indeed, it is the sanctimony surrounding Catherine that holds The Great back from realizing its full potential as a satire. Fanning’s Catherine is tentative in the face of bloodshed and hands out macaroons on the battlefield (“It’s pistachio, if that’s helpful”), while the real Catherine would go on to become a ruthless autocrat with a rapacious appetite for territory.
It is certainly understandable, particularly now, to want to
praise a leader, a woman at that, who believes in science, values the arts, and
takes an active interest in public health, but what made Catherine interesting
and indeed funny, was just how often she undercut her own best qualities with shamelessness
and shocking hypocrisy. It also made for some of her best one-liners. When chided
by Diderot for falling short of her promise to implement Enlightenment ideals
in Russia, she famously wrote back: “You
only write on paper, but I,
poor empress, have to write on human skin, which is incomparably more irritable and ticklish.”