‘The Great’ Is History for These Trump-ed Up Times

The Hulu series wears dark shades of the current U.S. presidency.

Elle Fanning as Catherine and Nicholas Hoult as Peter III in The Great (Photo: Hulu)

The Great is supposed to be a comedic re-imagining of the rise of Russia’s Catherine the Great, but as I watched the 10-part Hulu miniseries, I kept forgetting I wasn’t watching the current U.S. Presidential administration unfold in 18th-century Russia.

There’s the vain, arrogant, self-centered emperor, Peter III. He wears strange-looking hairpieces and rules recklessly and capriciously. Peter is convinced his subjects adore him and think he’s doing an excellent job as emperor. That empowers him and fuels him as effectively as the jumbo breakfasts he scarfs down in a number of scenes. He’s so the type of guy who would brag about grabbing women by the pussy.

Anyone who has been paying attention to American politics during the last four years will recognize him immediately. The biggest difference is that as played by The Favourite’s Nicholas Hoult, who deserves an Emmy nomination for his efforts, he’s brutal but so charming and goofily endearing you almost hope his inevitable downfall will be a gentle one.

When his sweet, unassuming Aunt Elizabeth (who in actual Russian history was Peter’s ruthless predecessor at the top) finds out about the coup his wife, the foreign-born (in Germany, rather than Slovenia) empress Catherine (Elle Fanning), has been plotting, she promises her silence in exchange for one request: “Please don’t kill him.” I have to admit, as horrified as I was by Peter’s sociopathic behavior throughout the 10 episodes, I was actually kind of relieved when Catherine assured Elizabeth she wouldn’t.

Poor Catherine. That’s one miserable bride. She must tolerate her husband’s indifference and infidelity, because, well, what else can she do? She’s dewy and naive in the beginning, but as the series progresses, she gains a steely confidence and begins orchestrating her husband’s demise. If only a certain first lady were so clever.

There are assorted sycophantic lapdogs who certainly hate the emperor and everything he stands for, but they don’t want to lose their position in his government. Sound familiar? The Archbishop wears his disdain on his black sleeve, but even he, for the most part, stays in line. Surely, however, he wouldn’t have approved of Peter tear-gassing peaceful protesters outside of the palace in order to pose with a bible in front of a church across the street.

We get a pandemic (smallpox) that threatens the Russian population and a leader who seems more concerned with his reputation and the size of his manhood than his dying constituents. When his wife suggests inoculating the masses by exposing them to a small portion of the virus, he shrugs it off and blasts science. Where have we recently seen that attitude?

The Swedish king is his political nemesis, and they get into a Dynasty-style catfight while trying to negotiate peace terms. I can’t imagine the current occupant in the White House daring to fight his own battle, Peter’s bluster and pugnacious attitude are oh-so familiar.

Photo: flickr

There’s even a gruesome scene where a black man is murdered by a roomful of white people taking turns gouging him as the emperor looks on. That scene was the hardest one for me to watch for all of its echoes of Derek Chauvin with his knee on George Floyd’s neck.

I have not read anything where Tony McNamara, the Australian creator and writer of The Great who also wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay for The Favourite, alludes to it being an allegory for the current political climate in the United States. I suppose he would have to be particularly prescient for that to be the case. His play on which The Great is based premiered in 2008 in Sydney, and the series went into production in 2018. How could he possibly have known about the future pandemic and George Floyd’s murder back then?

SPOILER ALERT! The miniseries is “an occasionally true story” based on actual historical events, and its endgame mirrors reality: Catherine assumes power. Alas, in The Great’s melodramatic twist, she must give up the love of her life (not Peter, of course) to achieve her goal.

The people of the United States already have made far greater sacrifices than that. Let’s hope that in the end, we, too, find ourselves with a capable new leader. Huzzah.

Brother Son Husband Friend Loner Minimalist World Traveler. Author of “Is It True What They Say About Black Men?” and “Storms in Africa” https://rb.gy/3mthoj

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