Billed as “an occasionally true story,” Hulu’s The Great loosely follows the rise of Catherine the Great (Elle Fanning) as she marries the depraved Russian Emperor Peter (Nicholas Hoult) and soon plots her inevitable coup. Although the series takes place in 1761, it gives a contemporary look at Catherine’s story, especially as her progressive ideals clash with the Russian royal class. Considering other past attempts to depict historical figures through TV shows, this is obviously where things go wrong.
The series, which premiered May 15, is disappointingly awful thanks to its more “modern” depiction of Catherine the Great. In our desensitized times, The Great is chock-full of sex, violence, and downright unpleasantness. What seems like every episode includes a sex scene, usually an affair since no one in this show has a good marriage. Gore is surprisingly plentiful in the show thanks to Peter’s fondness for having people killed, down to displaying their severed heads for his guests. Even the vulgarity is extreme with nearly 400 f-bombs spread across only ten episodes. Now, the real Catherine the Great’s life was hardly angelic, but the series apparently looked at her real-life political coup and thought “not dirty enough for TV.”
Then there’s Catherine’s progressive ideas. The real Catherine the Great did indeed hold progressive ideas regarding science and education for the time, but the series takes it up a notch. Now, Catherine is practically a social justice warrior fighting against the backwards, oppressive Russian royals. It starts with a desire to build a girls’ school, a plan that is literally burned to the ground by Peter. Then, it escalates to ideas of free press and scientific discovery. Unfortunately, this draws the ire of the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Archbishop, dubbed “Archie” (Adam Godley). She ends up arguing not only with the awful wealthy class, but with the Church itself as the show continues.
Most notably, in the seventh episode “A Pox on Hope,” Archie tries to dissuade Peter from listening to Catherine about variolation against a smallpox outbreak. Catherine argues for this new scientific practice, but Archie hates it for seemingly no reason other than the fact that Catherine suggested it against the Church’s authority.
Catherine: The smallpox. We must discuss it.
Peter: I’m eating raspberries, so must we?
Catherine: Variolation. We should consider it with open minds.
Archie: We will not consider it at all.
Catherine: We treat the court, and then we do not have to burn all the serfs. If we can save our people, our court from death, why would we not?
Peter: It’s a good point.
Archie: Because we are God’s creatures to kill as He wishes.
Peter: Uh, what is it? This…vario thing?
Catherine: You take a small amount of pus from a victim and infect yourself. Your body learns the disease, and resists it when exposed later.
Peter: You give yourself smallpox. That seems mad.
Archie: Well said, Emperor. And our research abroad shows that it often kills, and is known to cause outbreaks.
Catherine: It is not perfect, but-
Archie: How will the Emperor convince his people to swallow smallpox? And when they die, or outbreaks break out, what then?
Catherine: We must lead them. That is how.
Archie: I had a vision of you. To bring you here. And I’ve often pondered why. But today, I see clearly. It was to bring forth a war. A sweet-smelling, beautiful woman that hid a devil that meant to destroy us, so that we would heed God’s call to rise up, and cleanse Russia.
Catherine: That’s just fucking mad.
The show was obviously filmed before the Covid-19 outbreak, so this plot is only a coincidence. However, they don't waste any opportunity to portray the Church as evil and backwards. As if the show wasn’t already terrible.
And, of course, there are the Donald Trump comparisons, because nearly every show nowadays needs one. Reviews of the series are quick to equate President Trump with the violent idiot Peter because orange man bad. Peter shoots people, displays severed heads at parties, and even tortures his own allies, yet that doesn’t stop some reviewers from remarking on the “parallels” between him and Trump.
InStyle's coverage waxed:
In fact, the character so closely mirrors the current Commander in Chief that the series feels prophetic of Trump’s coronavirus response nearly two centuries later. For instance, while Peter is drawing up battle plans with generals, he spitballs, “What if we snuck up on them in the dark?” When a smallpox outbreak hits the castle, he briefly flirts with Catherine’s science-backed inoculation idea before going ahead with the original protocol of simply setting all infected and possibly-infected peasants on fire. Receiving word someone is plotting a coup, he takes the practical step of just torturing everybody. Trump’s public musings on disinfectant as a virus cure, his outright rejection of scientific expertise, his practice of summarily firing and pillorying anyone he views as a threat, all are represented here.
Once again, we’re reminded that while real-life can be stranger than fiction, it’s nothing compared to the progressive version of both. With vulgar actions, disrespectful behavior, and blatant political smearing, The Great proves to be anything but when it comes to quality.