By the end of Hulu’s The Great, you wonder how people have any capacity to rule…other people.
Compared to The West Wing, with its optimism and its president carrying the legacy of a near-perfect SAT score, or perhaps House of Cards, which features hand jobs to dying civil servants and throwing people in front of a subway, The Great seems to take a third track. It combines the ludicrous behavior of something like Animal House with the politics of running a country, and through it reveals something much more pernicious about the lives of every day people and the symbols they must embrace as leaders of a nation-state.
In Tony McNamara’s recounting of events, Catherine (Elle Fanning) did not really commit a coup for Russia. She claims as such for most of the show, until she meets Voltaire in a late season twist as a gift from her soon-to-be-deposed husband. She laments in how she’s “ruined everything” by not being able to kill Peter on her own. Instead, she yearns for her lover, Leo Veronsky (Sebastian De Souza), who is positioned outside surrounded by guards, waiting on Peter’s (Nicholas Hoult) orders to be shot unless Catherine calls off the military and stands aside to allow Peter back on the throne. “Who is he?” Voltaire states wantonly, sipping a coffee, “He is just a man.” His laced hand is flippantly dismissing Veronsky, perhaps foreshadowing the violent French Revolution some 140 years later. Catherine realizes that she has conflated the two spheres of her life, the personal and the political. She is not even Russian, true. But Veronsky is…
At the beginning of the show, Catherine is ecstatic to reach Russia, to lead in her romantic way she knows how, coupled with a king who would read democratic, idealistic literature with her from a robust library, and after a morning of peaches perhaps she might go down to the school and teach to wayward children and illiterate women. The truth was so far from that fantasy that the resultant shock almost had her rejecting Russia outright, until she was reinvigorated by the arrival of a lover in the form of Leo Veronsky, a bohemian who, paradoxically, never saw anything as political. Instead, each moment is the unfolding present, where the only surroundings he sees is that of the senses, where the personal is everything. In a twist of characterization, this makes Catherine more political rather than less.
Unfortunately, it also makes Leo rather naive to the plight that befalls him. Perhaps going hunting with Peter and his friends, all carrying guns, after the closeness between how Leo feels for Catherine and vice versa could not be more public, was not such a good idea after all.
For a while, Peter looked to be the great leader in the making. In the middle of the series, after a near-death experience where his best friend poisons him with arsenic from paint, Peter tepidly accepts Catherine’s policies of art and science “on campus” as it were. In a flash of inspiration, Peter tries out cunnilingus on Catherine, and her pleasure throws her for a loop, so much so that for a time she is almost convinced that Peter could be the real deal. He forgives easily those who malign him, something almost unheard of with pre-poisoned Peter. His cussing becomes playful. “Fuck off, you’re forgiven, I’m off to do science.”
It’s when reality rears its ugly head in the form of smallpox that the show changes in tone from Animal House to The Favourite, a far darker historical piece by Tony McNamara, and Catherine accelerates plotting her husband’s demise. Having the highs of cunnilingus stripped away like a fast-pulled rug to the lows of burning the sick and dying in the servant class not only reenergizes Catherine, but steels her servant Marial (Phoebe Fox), who realizes that with each pretty thing that Catherine is wooed by in her rise to power, more and more people die. Every personal choice made by Catherine has Marial’s deepest friends (and sometimes lovers) killed horrifically. By the end of the last episode, Marial’s betrayal comes after a threshold is crossed when Orlov tries and fails to kill Archie, the most symbolic display of The Enlightenment I’ve ever seen on television. Marial tells Peter of Catherine’s planned coup, which I suppose is tit for tat: I lose my lover, you lose yours. Archie also happens to be Marial’s cousin. Yet when shit gets personal, everyone loses.
Catherine’s betrayal at the end was intended to be political, but after a set of unfolding events, it’s clear her cold demeanor gives way to rage. Her attempt is first stymied by Voltaire’s arrival, but no worries, she will stall, get Voltaire out, and try again. It is when Peter reads a “letter” written by Veronsky that Catherine’s hair starts to rise. Seeing right through Peter’s obvious ploy at having her all to himself, Catherine rushes for Peter and is tripped up. Peter leaves to let her cool off and locks her in.
All of Catherine’s reasoning for betrayal is that of the personal. She wanted a marriage so different from what she got, and Peter’s willingness to kill her bear (first literally, second symbolically in the form of her lover) forces her to be personal. What should be troubling to any viewer by the end is how many political issues of their time (and likely ours) is only the map where our personal choices play out. Catherine’s ascent to the throne began with stinging emotional betrayal and hardship (and literally getting punched in the stomach). While Orlov (Sacha Dhawan) was there to put an intellectual spin on the matter, the taking of power proves Hegel right, that we really are slaves to our desires. As Jonathan Haidt wrote in The Righteous Mind, we are not judges, parsing out the merits of decisions with a distant eye. We are lawyers, acting first and then rationalizing with arguments and explanations later. Catherine may believe that she is resolutely different than her husband, but their choices by the end are closer than one might think. Having the two copy each other’s lines, most notably “I’m so glad you see what I’m doing here” proves the matter.
Another slight takeaway from the show is in the downfall of Leo’s way of life. For those who are not playing game theory with each encounter, and simply living life as it is presented, those are the ones most susceptible to punishment. It is easy to take advantage of people like Leo, as handsome and welcoming as they are, and that is a shame for society. In 2020, we may need more people like Leo, who accept people regardless of their past, without manipulation, and yet to not be political in the slightest is to invite demons to take away your peaches and your newly planted tree.
Can our political system escape this dichotomy? Hulu’s The Great answers with: not likely. In the foreseeable future, human beings are all we have to lead other human beings. Many of them are prone to poor decisionmaking because they have their own axes to grind. The real leaders need to be, rather than those ready to carry out missions of their own design, those who instead listen. Listeners to experts and evidence-based advice. When Catherine succeeded with the treaty between Sweden and Russia, it was because she navigated down the river of compromise, and found a way to illicit the idea of victory by finding incentives that both leaders liked. The only method of doing that was to be attentive and to listen to the plights of both sides.
While the show takes historical accuracy and throws it off a cliff, it manages to be greater than the sum of its parts by making politics witty, disgusting, surreal, and hilarious. The Great will stand as a biting rebuke of human history’s first attempts at representative rule. The show does slack some in the latter half, as the well-landed jokes from the establishing of the world and characters is traded in for cementing the themes and exacting Catherine’s coup. But the ten episodes put together is a wild ride that will unlikely be equalled as political commentary for some time. It also firmly places Tony McNamara as a writer to watch for years to come. He is like Gilmore Girls for the wicked: fast paced and with lots of swearing. I think if you are interested in sharp political wit and relish some raunchy comedy, The Great is a show you have to see.