The season premiere of Hulu’s Original The Great about Catherine the Great’s rise to power in mid-1700s Russia does what historical fictions are meant to do: draw parallels.
Catherine (Elle Fanning) arrives from Prussia embarrassingly excited to be married, drinking in the typical Disney fairy tale of what it means to be thrown into royalty. After arriving, her high hopes are quickly snuffed out when she is received by Peter III (Nicholas Hoult) who turns out to be an odious man who, among other things, claims to be an excellent shot when hunting rabbits (though he misses every one), has “fights” where he punches his subordinates without warning (and kicks them in the balls), punches her wife in the stomach in private (after getting slapped by her in public), burns a school that Catherine had in mind as a sanctuary for literacy for women. In an ominous warning, he keeps his mother in a sealed container above ground for all to observe. Catherine contemplates suicide and instead is convinced by her “girl” that post-traumatic growth could be in order. “The line of succession is not male only,” the servant says.
Historical fictions typically fall into one of two camps. Either they attempt to be as rigorously and historically accurate as possible, and the tone is subordinate. On the other hand, a show might pursue a totally anachronistic structure, pursuing an entertaining tone, at the risk of bending the viewer’s credibility in the research of the source material until it breaks the spell.
The Great falls easily in the latter camp, with last year’s Catherine the Great by HBO falling slightly farther back towards “accuracy.” A brief example from The Great: according to Wikipedia, Catherine had already met Peter at age 10, and found him “despicable” from the start, claiming he was a boy who still played with toy soldiers and drank too much. In the first episode the accuracy is dropped to allow the arc of demoralization for Fanning’s Catherine to take center stage. Her loving hopes for Peter are dashed and expunged from her memory. It works for television, but is bad history.
But, if the show sends a viewer to investigate the memoirs of Catherine the Great, is anachronism really all that bad?
That is an issue for another time, because instead what you gain from such an approach is its relevance to now.
The Great, like other fascinations with Catherine in the growing support of rights and power for women in the growing #MeToo movement, is also an indictment of men and masculinity. I mean literally in one such scene, Catherine is walking with her new confidante down a hallway, and they have to split to avoid a fight between two men that shows no sign of resolving. Peter’s obsession with play knows no bounds, and he spends his time seamlessly transitioning between sex, wall ball, shooting rabbits (or trying to), and coming up with awful jokes he forces his fratboys to laugh at. Catherine’s literate and democratic approach to rule is totally unheard of to Peter, who sees no definition of “improvement” in his playbook for ruling, as he believes what he has been given has been ordained, and is therefore a priori perfect.
Because it is too easy, one can easily imagine Donald Trump as a likely parallel. While of course the presidency and the monarchy are too far culturally to politically link the two, personally there is so much to account for. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago visits during his first term set records for time off, and while other men who have taken to the role of the presidency have found themselves aging considerably in their portraits, Donald Trump seems superhumanly resilient, even after the amount of Big Macs he eats and television he watches. Peter, or should I say Nicholas Hoult, looks incredible of course, boyishly navigating the monarchy with relish and verve. But the legacy of masculinity, with its groping of women, its illiteracy of social topics and embarrassing asides, culminates in what is most poignant for American men: the way in which we hop from hobby to hobby, until we buy a motorcycle at age 50. It’s all there.
Just as much as The Great holds up Catherine as a paragon for the future democratized world we have today, it is also an indictment against toxic masculinity, the kind we thought had been abolished in the 20th century for a more cosmopolitan kind. Is it possible to be confident and yet vulnerable, literate yet humble, and open yet meticulous? Is it possible to be socially intelligent, and yet charismatic? I would argue that, yes, the ideas are out there, but whether men go and grab them is anybody’s guess.
I’m looking forward to the rest of the series, as so far the show has caught my attention as being not as far from the 24 news cycle as I thought.