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Series / The Great

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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. 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.

The series contains examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: Catherine the first was this for Peter, often making him cry apparently just for fun.
  • Aluminum Christmas Trees: A few of the bizarre fertility methods depicted in the show are (surprisingly) historically accurate, such as peeing on wheat for a pregnancy test.
  • 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 liberties the show takes is compressing the timeline as a) Peter was actually Peter the Great's grand-son, b) Catherine and Peter were married for eight years before they ever even had sex, and c) Peter wasn't actually Emperor when Catherine married him; eccentric Aunt Elizabeth was the one ruling Russia as Empress, and when she died Peter ruled for barely six months before Catherine launched her coup.
  • "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 he leaves so as to not infect anyone else, dying alone.
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  • 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.
  • 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 blush 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.
  • 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: Marial's nanny got pregnant out of wedlock and was stoned by the other villagers on the local priest's orders.
  • 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.
  • 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: Peter decides to torture the court when he suspects a traitor. One of the methods is getting your fingernails ripped out.
  • 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.
  • Good Adultery, Bad Adultery: Peter's affairs are portrayed as fueled by lust (and are often abuses of power), while Catherine's 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.
  • Huge Guy, Tiny Girl: Marial and Alexei Rostov. He lifts her off the ground when they hug.
  • 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 kill the nobleman they're trying to convince to join them in case he gives anything away.
  • 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 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.
  • 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).
  • 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.
  • 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".
  • 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.
  • Men Use Violence, Women Use Communication: At the negotiations, Catherine and the Queen of Sweden discuss the issues of having a free press while Peter and the King of Sweden come to blows.
  • 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 Mariel’s father, molesting Peter’s mother’s corpse.
  • Murder the Hypotenuse: Peter attempts this on Leo, after falling for Catherine and becoming jealous of her affection for the latter.
  • Never Learned to Read: As Catherine discovers, many of the people at court don't know how to read. 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.
  • Period Piece: Takes place in Russia in the mid-18th century.
  • Power Trio: Catherine, Orlo and Marial until Leo and Velementov join.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Reality Ensues: When Catherine first makes her bid for power during Peter's illness, it quickly becomes apparent that she was too caught up in ideas and didn'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. Needless to say, she makes such a bad impression that Archie says they better pray for Peter to recover.
  • Sacrificial Lamb: Vlad's death from smallpox and the burning of the servants shows Catherine that Peter will never commit to lasting change and doesn't care about his people, 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 is obviously parallel to 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).
  • Spiritual Successor:
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Your Cheating Heart: Almost everybody at the court sleeps with people other than their spouse, quite openly.


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