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"My father used to say when a woman wants to kill you, you're in business."

Catherine: Ever since I was a child, I felt like greatness was in store for me. A great life, I felt. Like God himself had spat me forth to land on this Earth and in some way transform it. That I was here for a reason, a purpose.
Marial: Why did He make you a woman, then?
Catherine: For comedy, I guess.
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The Great is a 2020 Hulu original series about the rise of Catherine the Great (Elle Fanning). Catherine arrives in Russia an idealistic Plucky Girl and marries Emperor Peter (Nicholas Hoult). Upon realizing that Peter is a terrible husband and an incompetent emperor, Catherine begins to wonder if she can do a better job ruling Russia, and starts to plan a coup to put herself in charge.

It is written by Tony McNamara, who also wrote The Favourite, and favors comedy over historical accuracy, to the point of being billed as "an occasionally true story". The show also features Adam Godley, Phoebe Fox, Sacha Dhawan, Gwilym Lee, Sebastian de Souza, Bayo Gbadamosi, Charity Wakefield, and Belinda Bromilow.

The series premiered on May 15, 2020.


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The series contains examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: Catherine the first was this for Peter, often making him cry apparently just for fun.
    • In episode 4, it's revealed that she would literally get a priest in when Peter was a child and ask said priest if he had a soul. When the priest said yes, she wondered what God was thinking when he made Peter.
    • In episode 6, while talking about his fever dreams, Peter says he dreamt his mother was taking bites out of him; his aunt tells him she only did that once and it was a small piece.
  • Adaptation Relationship Overhaul: In Real Life Grigory Orlov, whom Count Orlo is based on, was Catherine's lover at the time of the coup. In the show, after Catherine drunkenly attempts to seduce him, their relationship remains firmly platonic and Sacha Dhawan, Orlo's actor, describes them as 'like brother and sister'.
  • Aluminum Christmas Trees:
    • There really was a ban on beards in Russia at one point as the country was brought in line with Western European models and fashions; men were often forcibly shaved if they weren't part of the clergy and refused to either go clean-shaven or pay an appropriate tax. However, this was a law decreed by Peter I and so happened some decades before the show is set, rather than being put into place very recently.
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    • A few of the bizarre fertility methods depicted in the show are (surprisingly) historically accurate, such as peeing on wheat for a pregnancy test.
    • Aunt Elizabeth (Empress Elizabeth in real life) did very much enjoy wearing male attire, as it suited her figure.
  • Arc Words: "All is bliss in the court of Peter."
  • Artistic License – History: Admittedly, the series is "based on historical facts, sort of." The biggest liberty the show takes is compressing the timeline — and in all fairness, the real House of Romanov experienced a rapid turnover in the early to mid-18th century, with five different emperors/empresses in sixteen years, that could have been hard for viewers to keep track of and isn't really necessary to the story that the show's trying to tell. note 
  • Badass Bureaucrat: Orlo, eventually, as he goes through hell on the frontlines and grows ever more hardened and determined, eventually attempting to assassinate Archie. He doesn't succeed, but it's a valiant effort.
  • Batman Gambit: Catherine's plan is exposed and an infuriated Peter comes to her with a knife. She cuts open her dress to expose her belly and declares that she is carrying his son. Peter loves Catherine too much, and is immediately so happy at the prospect of being a father he decides not to kill her. Just as Catherine had thought would happen.
  • Black Comedy Rape: When Catherine first approaches an as usual very drunk Velementov with the intent on persuading him to help her with the coup, he instead thinks she is suggesting they copulate and pins her to the floor, despite her protests, and only stops when he accidentally urinates on the two of them. Later, Catherine and Marial ask each other about their respective days and both insouciantly respond that they “avoided a rape,” and bleakly remark that women are doomed if someone ever invents something easier to undo than buttons.
  • "Blackmail" Is Such an Ugly Word: When Velementov and Leo botch the attempt to get Gorky on their side, he casually says that it's "interesting information," which, of course, has all the implied threats.
  • Break the Haughty: Peter tries to do this to Marial's family by making her and her father into serfs as punishment for her father's crimes.
  • Caged Bird Metaphor: In the scene where Catherine first meets the vapid, illiterate, hopelessly sheltered ladies of court, a cage of cramped songbirds can be seen prominently displayed behind her and heard chirping.
  • Contamination Situation: Vlad is shown to have contracted smallpox. As he's a servant who is friends with Marial and Catherine, whom Catherine has been teaching to read, Catherine desperately tries to ensure more modern methods are employed to help him as opposed to letting him die or being burned by the doctors of Russia. Vlad, upon reading about the illness, knows that he will die, and doesn't want to infect others so leaves so as to not infect anyone else, dying alone.
  • Composite Character: Marial is a composite of Catherine's various maids and friends and Velementov of the military figures.
  • Costume Porn: The show boasts a plethora of gorgeous period clothes.
  • Court Physician: Doctor Chekov is the physician in service to the Russian royal family. He is quirky and very deadpan, but also willing to act as a Torture Technician if Peter so demands.
  • Dead Guy on Display: Peter shows Catherine his mother's dried out corpse, when he keeps in a glass fronted cabinet. At one point Catherine's forced to eat a meal while faced with the severed heads of Swedish soldiers, and at another Peter rants to his court while surrounded with the hanging bodies of people he's just had executed.
  • Decadent Court: At one point, a courtier tells her friends that she made blusher by pricking her servant's finger and rubbing the blood on her cheeks, at which point another courtier remarks that there's no point in not owning these people if you can't do what you want to them. Catherine finds this attitude reprehensible.
  • Desecrating the Dead: A recurring element.
    • Leo's body is beheaded, and his head mumified by Peter as a gift for Catherine.
    • In Season 2, Peter's mummified mother falls out of it's case and pretty much shatters on the floor. As Peter tries to desperately put her back together, her skull breaks into multiple pieces in his hands.
  • Dishonored Dead: Peter and Elizabeth hold a funeral for Alexei Rostov after his failed assassination attempt - he's buried in the woods outside the palace, without any of the ceremony owed to someone of his status and without his family there. They only attend to see if anyone else comes - Marial does, but they don't see her hiding because she's savvy.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: A frequent occurrence. The rules for murder in Russia are rather lax, so a lot of people tend to kill each other.
    • Marial's childhood nanny got pregnant out of wedlock and was stoned to death by the other villagers on the local priest's orders.
    • In Season 2, Peter knifes Tarzinsky in the back, as retribution for being called a "Dickhead". Catherine is the only person who doesn't see this as perfectly reasonable.
  • The Dog Bites Back: Everyone in the coup against Peter save for Leo joins because they're utterly fed up of his cruelty towards them - Catherine because he mistreated and nearly drowned her, Marial because he reduced her to a servant for something her father did, Orlo for being forced to facially disfigure Rostov, and Velementov because Peter constantly insults and belittles him.
  • Dramatic Irony: In the penultimate episode, Peter exempts Catherine, Grigor and Georgina, and his Aunt Elizabeth from the torture and interrogation about any attempts at his assassination, on the grounds that he trusts the four of them. Catherine has of course been plotting a coup as well as his death for months, and Grigor is the one who poisoned Peter, nearly killing him, in an impulsive act of jealous anger, with Georgina finding out and keeping it secret after the fact.
  • Ear Ache: Marial to Lady Svenska when the latter orders her to be beaten for trespassing.
  • Eat Dirt, Cheap: Catherine's pregnancy in Season 2 lead to her develop of continuous craving for dirt. At first she starts eating it off the ground in secret, but then decides to just roll with it and has Elizabeth serve it to her on fancy plates with a silver spoon.
  • Everybody Has Lots of Sex: It’s quite common to see people having sex in or around the palace regardless of who’s around. Threesomes, orgies and many fetishes are casually had or spoken about as past or future experiences to be had.
  • Expecting Someone Taller: Upon meeting Catherine in the first episode, Peter complains that Catherine's portrait made her look taller.
    Peter: Send her back!
  • Fingore: Catherine bites the first couple knuckles of the archbishop’s fingers, the same fingers he used to check her virginity. However, she doesn't bite them off, just maims them, and they end up healing.
    • Later on, Peter decides to torture the court when he suspects a traitor. One of the methods is getting your fingernails ripped out. Catherine later volunteers for this, so that she can gain the loyalty of the court. She gets one fingernail torn out.
    • In Season 2, Archie actually loses a finger for good.
  • Gilded Cage: The palace is initially this for Catherine. As empress she can have any material thing she wishes, but the nobles are unwelcoming, change is slow to come, and her husband is cruel.
  • Girl Posse: Madame Svenska has a gaggle of court ladies who form her entourage. They initially attempt to befriend Catherine, but she looks down on them for their vapidness, cruelty to servants and stupidity. They turn very nasty later on.
  • Give Me a Sign: Archie explicitly tells Peter, and the court, about his "messages from God." He does say he can't just get answers for Peter's questions and that they just come to him (he gets some psychedelic help when he's pushed). He does manipulate these messages in creative ways, although he gets caught.
  • Go Mad from the Isolation: Peter does not do well by himself. In Season 2, Catherine has him locked in a room by himself for a few days, and he slowly unravels.
  • Good Adultery, Bad Adultery: Peter's affairs are portrayed as fueled by lust (and are often abuses of power), while Catherine's romantic liaison with Leo is not only encouraged by her husband but also the result of her being deeply unhappy in her marriage.
  • Green-Eyed Monster:
    • Grigor Dymov is choking with jealousy whenever Peter takes sexual liberties with his wife. Made even worse by the fact that his wife doesn't really seem to have a choice in the matter, and goes along with it to make the best out of the situation.
    • Georgina herself gets uncharacteristically jealous after Peter becomes closer to his wife and stops sleeping with her. This ends up making Grigor even more jealous.
  • Kick the Dog: As punishment for murdering Tarzinsky in Season 2, Catherine has Peter locked in his room by himself. This would be bad enough for him. But then she adds salt to the wound by wheeling in his dead mother's mummified corpse to stare at him.
  • Kissing Cousins: Catherine and Peter. Second cousins, to be precise.
  • Knife Nut: Marial has a penchant for daydreaming about stabbing Peter in the neck.
  • Happily Married: Peter believes his parents fit this trope while alive, as he recalls his mother's face lighting up whenever his father entered the room.
    • Grigor and Georgina Dymova love each other very much, with the only wedge in their marriage being the Emperor's complete lack of sexual boundaries in regards to Georgina. It's implied that although Georgina enjoys the privileges that come with their position as Peter's closest friends and mistress, she doesn't really have the option of saying no to him.
  • He Knows Too Much: After Leo slips up and gives Catherine's name away in relation to the coup, he and Velementov nonchalantly kill the nobleman they're trying to convince to join them in case he gives anything away.
  • Heir Club for Men:
    • Catherine assumes Russia, much the same as European monarchies and titles, is a case of 'male heirs come first' — but Marial enlightens her: "It is not a lineage. Russia. It does not go to an heir if there is not one. If the emperor dies, it goes to the empress." note 
    • Later on, Archie tries to persuade Elizabeth to overthrow her nephew and take his place, even though in this story she's Peter the Great's sister-in-law rather than his daughter; again implying that no one cares too much about lineage as long as the ruler in question is competent.
    • That being said, everyone plotting in Catherine's coup is still worried about any alternate male heirs, enough so that Aunt Elizabeth murders Peter's illegitimate young half-brother Ivan to remove any chance of his being a threat to Catherine's claim to the throne.
  • Hidden Depths: Leo's father was this according to his son - he had a reputation as a Casanova at court, but he was also a good father and a great believer in appreciating the finer things in life, like art and nature.
  • Historical In-Joke: A girls' choir from Chernobyl is said to be glowing.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Peter's mother Catherine is portrayed as a cruel and cold-hearted woman who emotionally traumatized him. In reality, she died a short time after Peter's birth.
  • Huge Guy, Tiny Girl: Marial and Alexei Rostov. He lifts her off the ground when they hug.
  • Hunting "Accident": Peter, Grigor and Arkady try to kill Leo by taking him on a hunting trip, but fail. A noble also tries this to claim his brother's estates, but Orlo catches on and stops him from claiming the money (the brother, unfortunately, is already dead).
  • Idealized Sex: Catherine's view of sex before sleeping with Peter for the first time. Of course, sex with Peter is less than ideal.
    Catherine: My mother has explained everything. [...] The man caresses you softly, pressing his lips to yours. Your breasts and skin awaken and shiver with palpitating joy. Between your legs quivers and moistens with longing. He enters you and you become one. Your bodies meld, your souls mesh. As a sensation takes hold of you, you fall into a black sky filled with the shiniest of stars. You float for a time in ecstasy, before waves of pleasure push and pull you back into your body. Your body ushers forth yelps, and sometimes song, before he and you explode within, collapsing together, spent and unified. Then, you lay together, laughing softly, weeping occasionally with ecstatic joy, and finally, he wraps his arms around you, whispers poetry softly into your ear, and you fall into a... delicious sleep.
    Marial: Yep, that's pretty much it.
  • I Love the Dead: How Marial's father earned Peter's wrath. During a drunken evening when Peter was about to get hot and heavy with his mistress, Marial's father thought it was a good idea to begin copulating with the mummified corpse of Peter's mother right in front of him. Understandably, Peter was absolutely livid.
  • I Reject Your Reality:
    • Peter honestly cannot grasp the fact Catherine does not love him, insisting on their great love.
    • The season 2 premiere makes it clear Peter is in utter denial on how he's been deposed, throwing parties and insisting he has Catherine "trapped."
  • Made a Slave: Marial and her father; thanks to his indiscretion, they were stripped of their noble rank and made serfs, essentially reducing them to pieces of property.
  • The Magnificent:
    • Discussed in episode 3; Peter ponders what epithet he would like attached to his name (as his father was "Peter the Great"). He considers "the Masterful", "the Terrible", "the Fun", and eventually "the Me".
    • Lampshaded when Archie bestows Catherine with the (self-chosen) epithet "The Great".
      Peter: It seems... arrogant.
      Catherine: It is if you are not great. If you are, it is just calling things what they are.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident:
    • Peter plans this to kill Catherine in a tragic carriage accident, but decides not to go through with it.
    • When Aunt Elizabeth threatens Archie to get him to fall in line with Catherine, he comments that she cannot brazenly kill him. She agrees, but says no one would think twice about something like a poisoned biscuit or a statue that topples at the wrong moment, and hints that she's all too good at arranging such...unfortunate incidents.
  • Men Use Violence, Women Use Communication:
    • At the negotiations, Catherine and Agatha, the Queen of Sweden, discuss the issues of having a free press while Peter and Hugo, the King of Sweden, come to blows.
    • Before Catherine's coronation, everyone from Peter to Velementov to Orlo tries to get what they want with violence despite her insistence to use intelligent and peaceful communication.
  • Moment Killer:
    • Marial and Vlad are about to have sex when he takes his shirt off and reveals a smallpox rash.
    • In a flashback, Georgina and Peter are interrupted by Marial's father, molesting Peter’s mother’s corpse.
  • Ms. Fanservice: Elle Fanning has a flattering wardrobe, and she has a few revealing scenes, even going nude in one.
  • Murder the Hypotenuse:
    • Grigor stirs arsenic in Peter’s food in an impulsive attempt at killing him, out of jealousy over his trysts with Grigor’s wife.
    • Peter attempts to do this to Leo after falling for Catherine and becoming jealous of her affection for him.
  • Never Learned to Read: As Catherine discovers, many of the people at court don't know how to read, including Marial and the other ladies. This is true for the servants too, including Vlad, who Catherine teaches to read which ultimately leads to him reading the truth about his smallpox and resigning himself to his inevitable death.
  • Not in This for Your Revolution: Marial wants Peter gone, but her involvement in the coup is motivated mainly by self interest - namely, having her status returned to her and leaving serfdom. She's less interested in Catherine and Orlo's revolutionary ideas.
  • Period Piece: Takes place in Russia in the mid-18th century.
  • Pretty in Mink: Catherine and the court ladies wear gorgeous furs and fur-lined capes on their outings. Even Marial's outside jacket has a fur trim.
  • Professional Sex Ed: If Grigor is to be believed, Peter and his dad interviewed courtesans to see who would be his first.
    Peter: Yes, it was good to be 11, wasn't it?
    Grigor: Happy days.
  • Psychopathic Man Child: Peter is this to an almost perfect degree, at once childlike and incredibly menacing, he kills on his whims.
  • The Queen's Latin: The Queen's Russian in this case. Everyone speaks English with British accents in 18th-century Russia.
  • Questionable Consent: While Georgina enjoys the social clout her relationship with Peter brings her, it's also implied that she can't really tell him no because of the power dynamics at play.
  • Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: What Orlo, Catherine, Leo, Velementov, and Marial become by the tail end of the first season. Lampshaded by Velementov when he realizes who's in her coup — a drunk, a bureaucrat, a maid, and an empress.
  • Sacrificial Lamb: Vlad's death from smallpox and the burning of the servants shows Catherine that Peter will never commit to lasting change if it isn't popular with aristocrats, bringing the coup forward as a result.
  • Sadistic Choice:
    • In the season finale, Peter tricks Catherine into one of these: either she stops her plot to overthrow him, or her lover, who she truly loves, will die. With a heavy heart, she eventually chooses Russia over love.
    • Catherine finds herself facing one when Peter falls ill. She's desperately craving the position of empress, but in order to secure her position she needs to kill little Ivan, Peter's bastard half-brother. She can't bear to do it. Aunt Elizabeth unexpectedly murders him for her, much to her horror.
  • Sick Episode: 'A Pox on Hope', where Vlad comes down with smallpox, along with many of the servants.
  • Silk Hiding Steel: Most of the women at court, but special mention goes to Catherine and Georgina.
  • Similar Squad: When Peter and Catherine meet for peace talks with the Swedish king and queen, the Swedes' dynamic obviously parallels theirs. They have a childish and self-centered king (who immediately gets on with Peter), a more down-to-earth queen (who has a conversation with Catherine on the pros and cons of free speech), an elderly alcoholic general (who commiserates with Velementov on the state of the war) and an intelligent advisor (similar to Orlo, the sane man in negotiations). However, Hugo the Swedish king does seem somewhat more intelligent and certainly more principled than Peter, and he and his wife Agatha do seem to genuinely love each other.
  • Spiritual Successor:
  • String Theory: Catherine keeps an enormous cork board hidden in her room, with all her plans laid out.
  • Teeth-Clenched Teamwork: A side effect of Catherine's group of coup consiprators being a Ragtag Bunch of Misfits - each of them has differing aims and motivations, which increasingly leads them into conflict. This is most notably seen when Leo joins the coup - Marial and Catherine are happy to work with him, but Velementov and Orlo view it as a mistake and make their disapproval clear. It also comes across in their attitudes towards Archie: he's a beloved father figure to Marial but a threat to Catherine and Orlo, and the latter's decision to kill him as part of the coup is part of Marial's motivation for betraying Catherine to Peter.
  • The Food Poisoning Incident: Catherine eats an oyster to get herself in the mood for seducing Orlo, and it backfires on her very quickly.
  • The Snack Is More Interesting: An accidental side effect of Leo joining the coup is that he brings snacks, which Orlo complains are distracting them.
  • This Is Reality: When Catherine first makes her bid for power during Peter's illness, it quickly becomes apparent that she has been too caught up in ideas and doesn't know very much about the realities of Russia. She was unaware of the famine in the Urals, underestimated the deeply traditionalist Russian system and wanted to end the war immediately without realizing that Russia would lose the territories which had been conquered by Sweden. She makes such a bad impression that Archie says they had better pray for Peter to recover.
  • Three Plus Two: Catherine, Orlo and Marial until Leo and Velementov join.
  • Travelling at the Speed of Plot: Peter manages to have Voltaire visit Catherine as a birthday present, even though it was clearly a recent idea and it would have taken several months for a summons to get to France and to return with Voltaire.
  • Toilet Humour: At one point Marial is woken up by a woman defecating in front of her in the servants' quarters.
  • Torture Is Ineffective: Peter decides to torture the entire court to find out who's trying to kill him. Obviously none of the conspirators crack, as they know he doesn't suspect them and will be stopping after 15 minutes.
  • Translation Convention: The characters speak and read English (including learning the English alphabet instead of Cyrillic) in mid-18th century Russia.
  • Troubling Unchildlike Behavior: One gets the feeling that something is off with young Ivan, Peter's half-brother. He scrawls violent scenes on his walls, asks for wine and swears a great deal. The fact that he is raised in isolation and not allowed to go outside might have something to do with it, though.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: It says it right in the subtitle, which acknowledges its many inaccuracies. Historian Rebecca Onion wrote a review praising the series and saying that an accurate portrayal of Catherine's arrival in Russia would have been very boring since her rise to power and the coup came years later. Also, the real Peter wasn't nearly as compelling as the show's fictional version.
  • Vodka Drunkenski: A lot of vodka is consumed over the course of the series, which is set in a Russian court.
  • What an Idiot!: The in-universe reaction of Peter's generals to his idea of a sneak attack against the enemy. As calmly as they can, they point out the minor issues of how the forces would have to cross a river eleven feet deep, and getting boats to that area is a logistical nightmare. They also dryly state that the enemy camp is across a wide-open field making it impossible to do a "stealth" attack in the morning. When Peter suggest simply doing it at night with men in black, the generals can barely keep their obvious disdain quiet.

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