One of the many masterstrokes of Tony MacNamara’s Oscar-nominated script for “The Favourite” was a recognition that the personal and the political are inextricably linked — particularly in the royal realm. Those best positioned to thrive under the rule of a capricious leader are those who can both recognize and capitalize on the narrow gap between feelings and policy. But that film’s fluid understanding of how power gets accumulated and exercised under a monarch’s reign seems largely lost in “The Great,” MacNamara’s new Hulu series about the rise of Catherine the Great (Elle Fanning) to seize Russia’s throne from her buffoonish betrothed, the emperor Peter (Nicholas Hoult).
At the outset, the show operates primarily on two parallel but separate tracks: palace intrigue and political procedural. A scene of Catherine enduring the inane antics of Peter and his supplicants will quickly pivot to her private chambers where she plots the seeds of his demise with a circle of close confidants. This slightly disjointed feel begs the question throughout: is “The Great” a comedic show with bursts of drama or a dramatic show with bursts of comedy? While the show contains a multitude of compelling moments in each range, it never fully stakes out a claim for its identity (nor simply collapses the boundaries between the two modes like Yorgos Lanthimos did in “The Favourite”).
It also does not help matters that the show’s humor lies squarely in the realm of the juvenile, eschewing the highbrow literacy of MacNamara’s last project in favor of pithy Seth MacFarlane-style giggles at historical anachronisms. “The Great” is still funny; in fact, it’s often hilarious. But the show first gravitates towards the lowest hanging fruit—the off-handed curse, the nasty insult. In other words, anything for a quick chuckle. When the show opts for an extended joke setup, such as a long track of a naked Peter gliding through the halls blithely oblivious to the effect that his birthday suit has on the people with whom he converses, the gag feels like it arrived from a different project altogether. While the silliness proves amusing to start, the gulf between the highbrow ambitions of “The Great” and its relatively lowbrow execution creates bigger problems down the line.
Much of the genre confusion in “The Great” stems from a lack of definition around Catherine herself. The conceit of the show is that she will rise from the naive princess bequeathed to the Russian empire, grow and earn the titular adjective appended to her name by the end of the season. But the true nature of Catherine and whether she was prepared to usurp power upon her arrival—or was merely prodded into action by her disgust with Peter’s unenlightened rule—remains opaque throughout the show. The best explanation “The Great” can muster is that Catherine is a true believer in progressive reform; a particularly memorable episode cold open features her climaxing in conjunction with rattling off government-subsidized education programs. If there’s a driving force motivating her behavior, the show never pinpoints it.
Fanning does her best with what she’s been given, which is an inconclusive portrait of an emerging leader. As a performer, she’s a nimble navigator of the wide range of emotions Catherine must cycle through. She sells it all with gusto, but there’s only so much she can rise above the contradictions and indecisiveness of the material, however. Some of the show’s most riveting moments come from the collision of the character’s youthful idealism clashing with the stern realities of Peter’s mercurial, patriarchal rule. The discomfort she feels in such situations manifest in the regularly composed Fanning appearing noticeably frantic and fiery. It’s here where “The Great” feels unpredictable — daring, even.
But there’s a tricky conundrum present throughout “The Great”—the balance between the desire for enlightened reform and bloody revolution. Catherine wants the results of the former but gets a little squeamish using the means of the latter. Refreshingly, the show resists giving her any perfunctory feminist posturing as she struggles with her desire for independence and self-actualization in an environment where her primary responsibility is to produce an heir. But with the exception of an episode late in the season that plays around with Shakespearean-style soliloquy, we rarely get insight into the machinations that motivate her decision-making. The ambiguity of Catherine’s journey towards leading a coup borders on outright ambivalence.
The push towards forcibly seizing control derives primarily from the whispers of her attending maid, Marial (Phoebe Fox). She’s fallen from standing as a lady into the servant’s quarters and latches onto any potential vessel that can provide her upward mobility. Marial’s desperation comes into sharp focus in later episodes, and it provides a jolt to the escalating action that plods along casually at the outset. But, far too often, “The Great” reduces her to spouting off a sassy retort to Catherine or throwing cold water on her ambitious ideas with a stinging one-liner. Her treatment is indicative of a larger pattern in the show’s wide array of supporting characters, most of which add little to the narrative except minutes onto an episode’s runtime with their subplots. These figures become necessary as Catherine must win allies in the palace to have backing for a coup, but up until that point, they largely serve as window-dressing.
Even as Catherine consolidates more support for her potential reign, the action does not truly heat up until a shift in Peter’s character necessitates his relationship with Catherine moving away from the show’s comedy and towards its drama. Hoult and Fanning convincingly convey the instability that comes from the ever-shifting ground beneath their characters’ feet. Were “The Great” more laser-focused on the couple’s chemistry, the final episodes could have landed with an even greater impact. Instead, it’s a rushed (albeit welcome) hastening of an inevitable plot wrinkle that could have built steam over the course of the season.
The dynamic screen presence of Nicholas Hoult will come as no surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention since at least 2009’s “A Single Man,” and this show marks a significant step up for the actor. “The Great” is a ten-part testament to Hoult’s commanding star power, and the brightness of the wattage he brings is all but blinding. His ability to transform Peter into something more than a collection of quirks, tics, and zingers makes for a tremendous showcase of his prodigious talent in creating exhilarating and multifaceted characters.
There’s a method behind Peter’s madness, something Hoult makes clear without showing all his work or telegraphing his choices. While overwhelmingly sophomoric in disposition, Peter never reads as a one-note manchild. He’s self-centered but never sociopathic. Hoult brings a cocksure swagger to the role without coming across as detestable, an effect he achieves by playing Peter like a jaded rockstar oozing effortless sexuality. But there are also hints of emptiness and inadequacy that situate the character firmly within the realm of royalty as Peter contemplates where he fits in the great constellation of Russian rulers. He’s prone to fits of self-doubt triggered by the gap between how he perceives his own lacking performance as emperor and the adoration he receives from supplicants (who, of course, have no choice but complete obsequiousness).
It simply cannot be overstated the impact that Nicholas Hoult has every time the creative team has the good sense to put him on screen. He’s running laps around the rest of the cast with his charming screen presence and elevation of what might play as a stock oaf character in less capable hands. “The Great” is absolutely worth watching for Hoult alone, and for the scattered moments throughout each episode in which the writing or acting rises to his level. [B-]