I will now praise The Great, Hulu’s charming nightmare of a miniseries about Catherine the Great, in its own language:
’Tis a fucking good jape! It felt like eating a cupcake out of a warm pussy on a waterbed made of Champagne, watching it. Also, I thought I might be sick. Indeed, what is life for, if not dipping your cock in the choppy waters of prestige television? Mentally, obviously. Huzzah!
The Great stars Elle Fanning (truly, annoyingly, sensational in this) with Nicholas Hoult as her husband Emperor Peter, a mad frat king with the nuclear codes. The series, out now, follows Catherine in the year before she succeeds her husband and becomes sole ruler of Russia. (Sorry for the spoiler, but it did happen 258 years ago.)
Prepare to be both amused and deeply disturbed by the series.
“How was your night?” Catherine asks her maid in one scene.
“Avoided rape,” the maid responds. “You?”
“Same. If anyone ever invents something easier than buttons, we are all in trouble.”
The 10-episode series is billed as “an occasionally true story” and is very, very proud of being a satire. Some of the things that happen in it are true; many of the things that happen in it are not. Many, many of the things that happen in it are about badgers. It’s funny, revolting, and way too long. Like the 2019 Emma Stone–starring Oscar nominee The Favourite, which was also cowritten by Tony McNamara, The Great bastardizes the history of European royals to give us a shit-streaked gold mirror to view our own grotesque behavior. It has the jokes-per-second ratio as Veep, the aesthetic of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, and enough violence and sex to make Game of Thrones look like Blue’s Clues.
The Great begins as Catherine, a lemon-haired German teen who enjoys sunshine and swing sets, travels hundreds of miles to an icy foreign land, where she is to be married to a stranger. When she arrives in Russia, she kisses the ground, determined to be a wise and good leader. She soon learns that she is not there to rule—or even to speak—but to serve as a decorative womb.
“I am of gentle heart and massive cock,” says Emperor Peter, shortly before gifting his new wife a bear, having sex with a court lady in front of her, punching Catherine in the stomach, shooting the bear, arranging for his wife's murder before thinking better of it and presenting her with a lover (Sebastian De Souza, do a PlayGirl spread, I entreat you) instead.
Elle Fanning and Sebastian De Souza
Upon getting to know Peter, Catherine resolves to kill herself. Instead, with the encouragement of a street-smart maid (Phoebe Fox), a bumbling court adviser (Sacha Dhawan), and her enormous ambition and optimism, she decides to kill Peter and rule over Russia herself, wielding democratic values. “Ever since I was a child, I felt like greatness was in store for me,” she announces. “Like God himself had spat me forth to land on this earth and in some way transform it.” The show follows that rickety journey, sometimes distracted by its own silliness, but building to a marvelous crescendo in the final episodes.
The central questions of The Great seem to be: Is it better to be comfortable or to be free? What constitutes genuine social progress? Can change be good if it comes out of violence? Would it be good, diplomatically, to cut the Swedish ambassador's head off and return it to his country filled with Swedish meatballs and lingonberry jam?
These are all exciting questions. And the way they’re asked is amusing, when you’re not gagging on your own refluxed stomach acid because it’s all so vile. Some of the best lines: “Can anything be shot from a gun?” Peter asks, loading a frog into the barrel of a gun. “And, if it lives, have we invented a new form of travel?” A perfect diss: “There are plates of food your husband likes better than you.” And a life lesson: “Let me make one thing clear: Where one’s heart lies and who blows their lump are two very different things.” The sight of Catherine in a fabulous fur-trimmed brocade coat, gingerly stuffing a pistachio macaron into the bloodied mouth of an armless soldier, surrounded by corpses, is particularly haunting.
But I wonder how many people will see The Great less as a satire about power and more as an inspiring story of a strong woman who believed in herself, seized power, and was generally a #girlboss? The Great never makes itself out as a history lesson, but that would be an especially misguided takeaway. Catherine the Great’s rule was not a win for feminism anymore than Kim Yo-jong becoming supreme leader of North Korea would be cause to break out the Rosie the Riveter apparel.
As a white American, it’s rare for me to have a personal beef with a celebrated Western leader—I have marveled at the leadership of Queen Elizabeth I, who burned Catholics alive, and felt my heart lift at heroic images of George Washington, who kept my fellow citizens’ ancestors as human chattel. But my life was directly impacted by Cathrine the Great—as empress, she forced about 40% of the world’s Jewish population, including my family members, into, essentially, a giant ghetto, which then existed for 126 years.
In fact, Catherine, who really had planned to free Russia’s serfs, gave up that dream the moment she realized that doing so would alienate the nobles who made her rich. She spent her reign not only making life worse for serfs, but also forcing more people into serfdom. Abandoning her youthful progressive values in favor of unrestrained power, Catherine’s reign, historian Zoé Oldenbourg-Idalie estimates, did not benefit 95% of Russians.
In many ways, The Great, which avoids that unpleasant reality, is not transgressive, but true to its period piece, big-budget TV origins. Romantic sex is had in missionary position, fully dressed and under the covers. The casting is just color-blind enough to have actors of color in the 19th-century Russian story, but not so color-blind that they get to play the emperor, the empress, the archbishop, the general, or foremost courtiers. There is one scene in which Catherine gets violent revenge on a creepy man so satisfying that it caused my heart to make what I can only describe as the Lady Gaga in "Shallow" noise. But The Great is most successful when it abandons girl power in favor of a more subtle critique of white feminism. Catherine wants to be a feminist, but she wants power more.
“They are the future,” Catherine fumes in one scene, as the printing press she has introduced to court is wheeled away.
“Why do people say that?” the Russian religious leader, seriously called “The Patriarch,” snaps at her. “As if the future is by its nature better than the past. Or a progression, rather than a setback.” Our future is better than our past, in some ways—if you are found guilty of treason in 2020, for example, you won’t be cut open, stuffed with baby rats, and sewn back up. But aren’t women still treated as decorative wombs? Hasn’t the gun problem gotten worse? The war problem? The horrific poverty? Don’t we, like Catherine, want equality—up until the point that it takes anything away from our own comfort?
Elle Fanning and Phoebe Fox
“Be careful, it has unleashed both beauty and horror,” the Swedish queen tells Catherine, of implementing some measures of democracy. “The full gamut of people’s fucked-up-ness and hate.”
Our grandchildren will probably struggle to understand anyone who thought any late-night shows delivered incisive satire of the president and his cabinet. They might prefer The Great, Hulu's more subtle attempt. Peter—who, through Hoult, brings to mind Hugh Grant in his prime—isn’t immediately recognizable as a stand-in for Trump until the scene in which he forces his general to give up his war medals so Peter can wear them, insists that everyone loves him, and makes people clap for his idea before he’s said it out loud. But opponents of despotism don’t escape uncriticized either. We seek enlightenment, to quote a surprise character who appears in a giant wig in the last minutes of the show, but we continue “to flail in the dark.”
The Great is for anyone in the Venn diagram overlap of people who want to cosplay as Marie Antoinette and people who want to see someone cum, vomit, and shit themselves at the same time. You will not laugh until you cry, but you will laugh until you cannot sleep.
And once again I say: Huzzah.
Jenny Singer is a staff writer for Glamour. You can follow her on Twitter.
Source: Read Full Article