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‘The Great’ Season 2 Review: New Ruler, Same Impeccably Sharp Blend of Power, Pleasure, and Pain

Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult continue to be incredible in this Hulu comedy that seizes Russian history for its own outrageous and poignant purposes.

The Great -- “Alone At Last” - Episode 203 -- Catherine’s grief over the loss of Leo during the coup finally catches up with her. Peter’s part in Leo’s death, and the discovery that he just murdered a noble, causes Catherine to lock Peter in his apartments with only his mummified mother for company. Catherine (Elle Fanning), shown. (Photo by: Gareth Gatrell/Hulu)

“The Great”

Gareth Gatrell/Hulu

No one in “The Great” is living a particularly healthy life, and that’s only partially due to the fact that this loose version of Russian history fixes its gaze on the 18th century. Empress Catherine (Elle Fanning), her recently deposed husband Peter (Nicholas Hoult), and the assembled imperial court are all teeming with such self-destructive tendencies that it’s difficult for them to sort out their own lives, much less the country they ostensibly rule.

The show’s Season 2, now available on Hulu, has an even more claustrophobic feel than its first. That’s not nothing considering the series starts with Catherine plopped in a strange new aristocratic ecosystem where she’s brought to be little more than a breeder of heirs. But following a successful coup against Peter initiated in the waning moments of the first season’s finale, Catherine has taken her place at the top of the Russian food chain. Now the hard part starts.

There are a number of notable changes at the palace, perhaps chiefly the absence of Catherine’s lover Leo (Sebastian De Souza), presumed dead as part of her marital war for power. Marial (Phoebe Fox), Catherine’s former maid and best friend, now finds herself as an independent noble, even as her relationship with the Empress has soured. Overall, Season 2 continues the labyrinthine process of strategy-building, only this time for Catherine to put in place her desired reforms for the people of Russia rather than angle for the crown.

In spirit, though, this is the same excellent brew of debauchery and pain and fleeting tenderness that marked the show from the start. If anything, Peter’s lessened authority has upped the ante on the amount of carousing and semi-public trysts among he and his remaining acolytes. Locked up in their chambers, Peter and his loyal followers are in an even tighter cocoon of indulgence than they were when they had the ability to make an official decree every now and again.

The Great -- “Dickhead” - Episode 202 -- Catherine, Orlo and Velementov begin their rule of Russia and unexpected obstacles appear for her. Peter is on a journey of self-improvement under house arrest but convinces Catherine to let him attend her coronation and hand over his crown. Archbishop (Adam Godley) and Peter (Nicholas Hoult), shown. (Photo by: Gareth Gatrell/Hulu)

“The Great”

Gareth Gatrell/Hulu

This new state of power only reinforces how impressive Fanning and Hoult are in these roles. Catherine has to win over the ruling classes of countries beyond just her own, and Fanning plays such a specific mixture of confidence and frustration throughout that process. “The Great” has always felt like a magic trick, taking a dagger to the apathy of out-of-touch .001%ers while also giving them room to show the occasional relatable personal struggle, too. In the same way, Fanning helps the show paint Catherine as a commanding leader without merely giving her an empty girlboss arc. There are painful lessons when her own whims and fiats don’t line up with the reality of the lives of people she’s meant to understand. Fanning’s Catherine is stubborn toward a specific end, one that inspires confidence in key corners, but doesn’t always shape her newly claimed country in ways she intends.

Meanwhile, you can almost see Hoult’s giddiness coming off the screen as Peter has been freed from all remaining sense of responsibility. Peter still has a certain petulant streak, but in the moments when he claims to have all he needs, it’s hard not to believe him. Hoult proved through the show’s opening episodes that he could spin the most outrageous claims and desires into simple statements of fact. With the impending arrival of Peter and Catherine’s son, Hoult gets to add the layer of a glowing father that’s a real treat whenever it surfaces.

Peter downright beaming with joy at the mere prospect of being with young Paul and Catherine dreaming of the future of her adopted Russia become minor salves for the wounds still left behind by the coup. Military leader General Velementov (Douglas Hodge) is still itching for a fight, whether it’s against the Ottomans on their doorstep or dissidents within Russia itself. Imperial adviser Orlo (Sacha Dhawan) is still wary of residual resentment in the court, all while trying to balance the new Empress’ ambitious agenda with the realities of a feudal society. Ever the silent schemers, both Aunt Elizabeth (Belinda Bromilow) and Archie the Archbishop (Adam Godley) plant their respective whisper campaigns amongst both the coup-ers and the coup-ed. (It’s to each of their credit that Bromilow and Godley are so effective at playing shrewd planners and vulnerable confidants, perfect examples of the show’s ability to switch from frivolous to genuinely heartfelt at a moment’s notice.)

It’s trite at this point to say that “The Great” actually speaks more to the present than the past, but series creator and lead writer Tony McNamara weaves through Season 2 some key ideas about the nature of progressive governance. In order to enact her desired reforms, Catherine has to first go through the rigamarole of appeasing the Russian nobles (effectively having to address her big-money Super PAC donors first). She’s also in a race against time, to prove that she’s a leader capable of systemic change before Paul arrives and her enemies have an easy means of restoring the old guard. Priorities become an issue as certain pet projects do little to address the problems facing those not born into luxury. And there’s the constant theme that simple changes of favor at the top of this hierarchy have drastic ramifications for any untold number of people who don’t have a seat anywhere near the table.

The Great -- "Alone At Last" - Episode 203 -- Catherine’s grief over the loss of Leo during the coup finally catches up with her. Peter’s part in Leo’s death, and the discovery that he just murdered a noble, causes Catherine to lock Peter in his apartments with only his mummified mother for company. Marial (Phoebe Fox), Catherine (Elle Fanning) and Aunt Elizabeth (Belinda Bromilow), shown. (Photo by: Gareth Gatrell/Hulu)

“The Great”

Gareth Gatrell/Hulu

Of course, “The Great” is also far from a poli sci lecture. Those absurdities of power come through in the show’s odd menagerie, beyond Elizabeth’s pet butterflies and the occasional roving bear. There’s the frog used in diagnosing Catherine’s pregnancy (deployed in part by the new imperial doctor, played by the blisteringly funny Julian Barratt) and the arrival of an odd reptile that sends the palace’s political and clerical interests into overdrive. “The Great” also shares plenty of DNA with a high school comedy, with all its secret crushes and friend interventions and petty grievances. It’s just that here, some of those complications get sorted out at the end of a deadly weapon.

The added proximity in this season only heightens the question asked of everyone in “The Great”: What are you willing to give up? For many, it’s sacrificing privacy. Others shed their ideas of what a fruitful marriage looks like. The rare ascetics in this freewheeling pleasure palace are left to ponder what a greater power might be asking of them. None of these people seem to have a clear idea of what love really means to them, but isn’t that always the point?

Remarkably, “The Great” itself has had to give up very little. Free from most worries about anachronisms and fealty to actual historical events, McNamara and his fellow writers can remold characters and entire textbook chapters for their own purposes. Production designer Francesca Di Mottola keeps this playground of upper-crust extravagance decadent in places and restrained in others. These palatial apartments are home to all the convoluted, messed-up feelings and loyalties that you’d expect from a giant communal living space, one that also happens to steer the fortunes of millions beyond the castle grounds. It’s a place of elegance and rot and backstabbing and — if all goes to plan — maybe even a little hope. Keeping all these things constantly front of mind and close to heart is what makes “The Great” worth returning to again and again.

Grade: A-

“The Great” Season 2 is now available to stream on Hulu. 

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