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Sharp Writing, Fantastic Leads Keep The Great in Power

Hulu’s best series “The Great” returns this week with a ten-episode second season about power, politics, and sex. At the end of the acclaimed first season, Catherine the Great (Elle Fanning) enacted a successful coup against her husband Peter III (Nicholas Hoult) but struggled to fully depose him because of increasing feelings for the big lout and the fact that she’s pregnant with his child. Season two opens not much later with Catherine now struggling to bring the kind of progress to Russia of which she dreamed while also wondering what the Hell to do with Peter. In some ways, the second season is a sharp mirror image of the first wherein it reverses the power dynamic. If season one was about an idiot who was incapable of really leading his people, season two is about a genius who struggles with the same thing in her own way.

The wickedly smart and funny writing by Tony McNamara (“The Favorite”) anchored the first season but the show doesn’t work without the brilliant performances from Fanning and Hoult, who seem even more confident this season. For the first stretch of the year, it’s a more restrained version of “The Great” that plays with a much smaller cast (which could be COVID-influenced), but it really allows Fanning and Hoult to find new shades to these characters before the program gets more familiar about midway through the season. Fanning imbues Catherine with the uncertainty about both her leadership abilities and what to do with Peter while Hoult creates new subtleties in Peter, almost making him sympathetic before puncturing that feeling with reminders of his callous idiocy. Most of all, the chemistry between Fanning and Hoult is arguably the best on television. Not only do they riff perfectly off each other in scenes but they have a physical spark that so much modern fiction lacks.

“There is the poetry of what we want and the blood & grind of how we get it,” says Orlo (Sacha Dhawan), really capturing a lot of what “The Great” is about. McNamara is constantly unpacking the way human fallibility derails national ambition. It’s about how sex impacts politics and power, but also about how Catherine’s idealism doesn’t always lead to positive results. The sixth episode, arguably the best in the show’s history, is a perfect distillation of this idea, leading to the most serious ending of any episode as Catherine learns that Peter’s brand of playful politicking can only work for leaders who have no concerns about human cost.

The tightened scope of season two allows for some rich supporting performances as well, especially Phoebe Fox as Marial and Douglas Hodge as General Velementov, two of Catherine’s closest allies. In episode seven, “The Great” introduces perhaps one of the greatest casting coups of all time when Gillian Anderson joins the show as Catherine’s mother. A whirlwind of withering criticisms, Anderson perfectly spikes the punch bowl of this political party, completely understanding the assignment.

To start, I’ll admit that this season of “The Great” felt a little slight compared to season one. It’s not as funny overall, given how Hoult’s previous ability to generate laughs came via his being in a position to feed his unbridled libido and other desires. And yet it’s a season that grew on me as its tone shifted. The first season was about a person in power who was deeply unqualified to wield that power, leading some to read it as an allegory for the last presidential administration. The second season still feels current in that it’s about what happens when that person is gone, but still roaming the halls, causing trouble and threatening to reclaim the throne. 

Whatever political subtext one wants to read into it, “The Great” remains one of the smartest shows on TV, one of the few programs that can thrill with a clever turn of phrase or unexpectedly rich conversation. It’s just a joy to live in the world of a show with characters who are this richly drawn, spitting such smart dialogue around the room. Huzzah!

Eight episodes screened for review.

 

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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