“The Great” season two matches the energy of season one, serving up witty, dark humor and a playful — albeit historically inaccurate — depiction of one of history’s most famous female rulers.
Created by Tony McNamara (“The Favourite”), the dramedy focuses on a young Catherine the Great’s (Elle Fanning) rise to power — from innocent teenage bride to empress of Imperial Russia.
Season one followed Catherine first coming to Russia and her subsequent plans of a coup to overthrow her dim-witted, violent husband Peter III (Nicholas Hoult), while season two focuses on her succession to power, difficulties ruling and first pregnancy.
New additions to season two include Catherine’s mother Joanna, portrayed by the incredible Gillian Anderson (“The Crown,” “Sex Education”), and the late Peter the Great played by Jason Isaacs (“The Death of Stalin,” “Sex Education”) who’s perhaps most well-known for his portrayal of Lucius Malfoy in the “Harry Potter” franchise.
What sets “The Great” apart from other period pieces is its tone and genre. While most period pieces tend to lean toward melodrama, the show’s more of a dramedy. Its clever and often modern humor juxtaposes with its 18th century Imperial Russian setting and aesthetic.
It’s obviously historically inaccurate, even marketing itself as being “occasionally true” under the title. This separates it from period shows such as the CW’s “Reign” which tended to take itself too seriously while also being wildly ahistorical.
While being mostly untrue to history, “The Great” does include some real Russian traditions such as illustrating how the Orthodox Church was closely intertwined with the monarchy and superstition.
Russians are oftentimes known to be superstitious, and “The Great” has an episode that focuses on it. While a crocodile is loose in the palace, everyone is convinced it’s a bad omen — except German-born Catherine. The whole scenario makes for a hilarious yet culturally relevant plotline.
One show-stopping aspect of “The Great” is the costuming. Season one designer Emma Fryer used the silhouettes of the 18th century but added modern touches in the fabrics, textures and detailing. While season one Catherine wears light and airy colors and textures, during and after the coup in season two she starts to wear bolder, more vibrant colors.
To match Peter’s kooky playboy energy, Fryer dresses him in what looks to be elements inspired by a ‘70s punk rocker — lots of animal prints and furs, necklaces and pearls.
The women of the imperial court dress more akin to the French fashion one might find in the court of Marie Antoinette. Historically, Russian nobles were indeed known to be Francophiles, dressing in French fashion and even speaking French in court.
For her coronation as empress, Catherine comes dressed in what Peter deems something a “grandmother” would wear — an elaborate gold gown and ornate headdress. Season two costume designer Sharon Long sought inspiration from traditional Russian fashion that was worn prior to the Russian court’s French influence, such as the elaborate headpiece, lots of beaded necklaces, the shape of the sleeves and the ornate gold detailing.
When the noblewomen poke fun at what Catherine wears to her coronation, Catherine’s best friend Marial remarks, “You look like a French whore at the end of a long night, so I think she wins.”
The daughters of the noblewomen have the complete opposite response, however. Coming to Catherine with their hair done up like hers at her coronation, the inspired young ladies ask if they can attend her new school for girls so they can be more like her.
While their mothers are opposed to them becoming educated, Catherine vehemently encourages it. This is true to history, as she was known to be a patron of the arts, sciences and promoting the educational system during her reign.
Season two also features an enemies-to-lovers romance between Catherine and Peter. While Catherine despises Peter in the first season, especially after he had her lover Vronsky (Sebastian de Souza) murdered, Peter subsequently fell madly in love with her despite the coup.
As season two progresses, however, Catherine also develops unlikely feelings for Peter that she can’t deny, especially as her pregnancy with her son, Paul, progresses.
Fanning and Hoult’s chemistry as Catherine and Peter respectively is impeccable — particularly on Hoult’s end. He makes the audience root for Peter to win Catherine over despite all his flaws as he slowly develops a character arc, making his performance a standout one on the show.
To indulge in this raunchy, royal dramedy, stream both seasons of “The Great” on Hulu.