Hulu’s Catherine the Great: Huzzah!

By now, those of us who are still paying attention, at all, to world affairs, given the circular nature of our collective disregard for the lessons of history and the need to revisit the scene of our crimes over and over again, Marxist buskers with tiny golden cocaine shovels blathering on everywhere you go about controlling the golden means of production, realize that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has its reasons. Lots of reasons. Not just one madman theory.

Among the reasons in play (at least, in my mind) are Putin is a Napoleonic asshole; Biden’s covering up his own corrupt doings in Ukraine by coaxing the kitty to the catnip; Zelensky is a Jew and history tells us that a kristallnacht can never be far behind these unfortunate diasporic people; the MIC needs something to do, now that the colossal waste of US taxpayer money and time (20 years) in Afghanistan is over; the American dollar, as global reserve, is about to be usurped by Russian and Chinese subversion, leading to the loss of pre-fab ‘middle class American lifestyle’ exports by way neo-liberal policies, and it’s now or never on the global hegemony front for the US, meaning all-out ‘limited’ war to save the PNACkers asses.

And from whom do we garner our information about world events? The MSM that seems intent on endlessly milking their cashbull Trump? Lefty outrage rags? Personal history readings — from the POV of the winners or the losers (i.e. the People)? From facile, cynical, jaded wags like me, at the event horizon’s edge looking to take minds with me, oversupplied with the grist for lampoon? Who or what informs us? It’s a Socratic question. How do you know what you know? You’ll have to get off the social media juice — get sober to answer that. You need to get the fuck out of Plato’s Cave and away from the shadow play of implied dark doings. Fawk! This is supposed to be the Age of Aquarius, let’s act like it.

Well, look at me, old man, little wrinkly, preening what’s left of his outrage like some fucking moronic oceanic Prufrock still expecting the mermaids, singing each to each, to show up as they promised they would at the bar — muses with tits — bringing their girly wisdom of the ancient sea to me, for free, tee-hee. I’m here today to bury Paul, not praise him, as John Lennon would say backwards. I want us to look at Russia in a new light, by way of a newish Hulu series about how the Russian Empire came to be (and, really, about how all empires came to be back then (and probably still do (if you know what I mean))). The series is The Great. And it is great fun to watch, and I want to tell you why — succinctly — fuck Caesar for a day. Et tu, Brute? Just say gesundheit and bury your shiv deeper in the mofo’s solar-phobic plexus, then sit and have some much deserved lefty fun for a while. Be prepared to laugh, when you get off your high horse and discover it was once an item with Catherine. Well, that’s what they said.

The best idea of how the producers approached the series is right there in the full title: The Great: An Almost Entirely Untrue Story. They don’t even pretend that anything but the broadest strokes of ‘what happened’ are re-imagined here. It was a world of empires where men were mean and not yet adjusted for pluralistic relativism with bennies, just like the historical drama Game of Thrones (remember that traumatic scene?), where psycho kings and princes would do anything — sacrifice anyone, even their own kin, with whom, you know, you suspect — for more and more power, even whorespower. The Wikipedia entry for The Great says it best:

The Great is a satirical, comedic drama about the rise of Catherine the Great from outsider to the longest-reigning female ruler in Russia’s history. The series is fictionalized and portrays Catherine in her youth and marriage to Emperor Peter III, focusing on the plot to kill her depraved and dangerous husband.

That’s the poop; it’s all you really need to know before watching, as the series is a very loose interpretation of historical events, although it never descends to the depths of Monty Python camp, or, heavens, F Troop (remember the hilarious Hekawis?) or, mon dieu, the Nazis for Dummkopfs version of say-what history known as Hogan’s Heroes (fat fuck Sgt Schultz: I know nutding). There’s heaps of sex licit and ill-, and volumes of funny foul language, and potshots at the power of the Russian Orthodox church, pee-ons to serfdom. History would just get in the way of the fast-paced surprises (a crocodile shows up in the palace, ouch) and quips, one-liners, and quirky characters developing before your very eyes. Who needs history?

Seriously, for a moment, all you really need to do in preparation for watching this romping series is absent thee from your felicitous Marx studies awhile and read the Wikipedia entries for Peter III and Catherine the Great. Some of the stuff in the entries is kind of sumptuous to read. For instance, Wikipedia tells us that she was born into the ruling family of Anhalt in the Prussian empire as Princess Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg, but the series producers mercifully shortened it to Catherine. The historical milieu that would have shaped her precociously developed (making it up) world view is described by Wikipedia, a link-driven system of irrepressible truth-telling, this way:

The more than 300 sovereign entities of the Holy Roman Empire, many of them quite small and powerless, made for a highly competitive political system as the various princely families fought for advantage over each other, often via political marriages.

Again, Catherine’s marriage to her second cousin (more than a mere French kissing cousin in this series of sloshbuckling tongues) is surely a political marriage, if Wikipedia’s inclusion of Cat’s first impression of P3 when they first met is any indicator:

Sophie first met her future husband, who would become Peter III of Russia, at the age of 10. Peter was her second cousin. Based on her writings, she found Peter detestable upon meeting him. She disliked his pale complexion and his fondness for alcohol at such a young age. Peter also still played with toy soldiers. She later wrote that she stayed at one end of the castle, and Peter at the other.

Why did she marry such a cad? Sophie had no choice. She wanted the power and the glory that came with being empress of Russia. The culture of Russia, then (remember it’s pre Tchaikovsky and Dostoyevsky) is ridiculed throughout the series — seen as a poor olio of serf suffering (natch), illiterate noble women (you know what that means), sado-machismo men, and a palace full of people who, though often quipplesome, talk too much, or, if doomed to the service sector, too little (we want to hear of their small, historically insignificant travails). And there you are, dear viewer, stuck in the middle with your viewer-response theory, wishing the help would unionize and that a Hellfire missile would take out the grown up mean girls in award-winning satin dresses who spend all day smoking, snarking and fucking and fucking around. (Wouldn’t you?) And for you Putin=Russia haters out there, such endless, ringing put downs, such schaden-Freud doings of the culture will seem cathartic and the series a Feel Good vibe for when you get back to your Marx gospel.

Another good thing about quickly parsing the Wikipedia entries is you’ll find surprising information that you may have either forgotten or are seeing with your own eyes for the first time. Most everybody knows that the Chinese came across the Bering Strait and soon became the Ind’gens we found here when we decamped from New England and headed west in search of wealth and prestige. That’s right, that first Thanksgiving at Plymouth we were being served up by forbears of Mao Tse Tongue! What terrifies me — what keeps me pacing in my dreams at night — is what happens if the Chinese say that America is theirs, like Taiwan. Will we have to fight the Indian wars again? Will we be able to recruit any Blacks willing to be Buffalo Soldiers? How you like that peace pipe? The Chinese will say, when they come to claim. But that’s a whole other Wikipedia entry. (Here it is, but please stay with the tour group.)

Similarly, and more to the point, the Russians came over the Strait. In fact, they basically ‘owned’ Alaska (nobody asked the Chinese Ind’gens who were there first — explaining their millennia-long bad blood and shared keen interest in ‘obtaining’ aphrodisiac grizz testicles.) See (but not now) “Russian America was the name for the Russian Empire’s colonial possessions in North America from 1799 to 1867.” Wiki says, “Catherine the Great, who became Empress of Russia in 1763, proclaimed goodwill toward the Aleuts and urged her subjects to treat them fairly.” Think Ukraine after that. The Russians practically wiped out the Aleuts by getting them hooked on the sugar of the barter system that allowed them to drink prodigious amounts of vodka on the natural rocks. And they found giant beavers there who could have bridged the Bering gap, but who just didn’t give a damn. And according to Wikipedia, they got so cold there, they went on to check out Hawaii.

But more relevant to the series review, Wiki does an excellent job of presenting us with the Peter III that we find streaming on-scream. Check this shit out, man:

Nature had made him mean, the smallpox had made him hideous, and his degraded habits made him loathsome. And Peter had all the sentiments of the worst kind of a small German prince of the time. He had the conviction that his princeship entitled him to disregard decency and the feelings of others. He planned brutal practical jokes, in which blows always had a share. His most manly taste did not rise above the kind of military interest which has been defined as “corporal’s mania,” the passion for uniforms, pipeclay, buttons, the “tricks of parade and the froth of discipline.” He detested the Russians, and surrounded himself with Holsteiners.

So, there it is. These two outsiders, Peter and Catherine, one of German stock and the other, let’s face it, Polish, inheriting power in Russia through blood, hated the place. In the series, Catherine does her best to “enlighten” the local yokels, which is to say all of them, and forces the women to read against their wills. It does grow on them though. And soon Balzac is a delight at the court. Wikipedia is a wonderful instrument to wield.

The Great, which just finished its second season and has been re-upped for a third, features some outstanding ensemble acting and crisp, flippant language. Haughtiness, arrogance, profound sexual profligacy. Stars include Elle Fanning as Catherine the Great; Nicholas Hoult as Peter III of Russia; Phoebe Fox as Marial; Sacha Dhawan as Count Orlo, based on real life Count Orlov; Charity Wakefield as Georgina Dymova; Gwilym Lee as Grigor Dymov; Adam Godley as Archbishop “Archie”; Douglas Hodge as General Velementov; Belinda Bromilow as Aunt Elizabeth; and, Bayo Gbadamosi as Arkady. Take a bow, guys.

Elle Fanning starred in Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, Mary Shelley, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and, The Nutcracker: The Untold Story. I can’t say that I was all impressed with her presence in some of those movies. Mary Shelley should have been dynamic and a tour de force to celebrate the promethean theme that she brought to life and which has proven to be the most enduring theme of the last couple of hundred years. Man, the technologist and raiser of the dead, with implications for cloning and AI. Man, the God and controller of Nature. Man, the Monster. But she truly gets the character of Catherine — viv-a-vis her mission to bring the Enlightenment to the nobs of Russia, as well as her confronting quest to tame the savage German heart of Peter, a wolf. The self-indulgence in their relationship is to die for. Sumptuous and a feast for the eyes. And speaking of Peter, he’s played by Nicholas Hoult, who has starred in such wonderful flix as True History of the Kelly Gang, Tolkien, the always relevant Watership Down, and Rebel in the Rye, the story of J. D. Salinger.

To get a tasty sample of the hasty puddings to be had throughout the series, consider the following dialogue between Catherine and her companion in a dream, Angeline (Liv Hill):

ANGELINE: I overheard my father talking last night. He said your father is a fool, that you have practically no money and that you will soon lose everything.

Catherine smiles, unperturbed.

CATHERINE: I don’t think that is true. We had strawberries last night.


CATHERINE : They are an expensive fruit and I always equate them with optimism and happiness.

ANGELINE: You are a very naive girl. It is a constant embarrassment to me.

CATHERINE: I just see the good in things. You should try it. There is so much good, Angeline. This morning I found a bird in my pocket.

She takes a bird out of her pocket.

I hadn’t even noticed it climb in there. Just heard it chirping happily.

Catherine smiles broadly as the bird flies off.

ANGELINE: Oh my God, you are a child.

CATHERINE: Also not true. I am to be married.

This is scene 1, Catherine’s asleep in the carriage on her way to meet Peter. What’s set up here is the bon vivant spirit sent up by Voltaire in Candide — this is the best of all possible worlds, but if God did not exist we would find it necessary to invent one. This blithe optimism will be often upset by grim reality and Elle Fanning will prove to be equally adept at switching to bawling comically with big gushing cries. (…but she breaks just like a little girl-hirl-hirl…) Full script for the episode is at if you want to peruse the writing.

Speaking of Voltaire, not content to merely read the Father of the Enlightenment’s books (which is all she did inreality), Hulu’s Catherine invites him to visit and spread some aphoristic coinage to the culture poor peasants around her. Voltaire is played by Dustin Demri-Burns, and he shows up in Season 1, Episode 10, “The Beaver’s Nose.” Here, Catherine and her aide de camp conspire to kill Peter immediately, when Voltaire shows up:

Another great scene S1E9, “Love Hurts,” comes after a body “shows up” and Peter decides to torture everybody at the court — including Catherine — to get to the bottom of it, Black humor at its best, reminsicent of the TV series Black Adder, with Rowan Atkinson. Absolute power lampooned:

What could be more devastating at court than to see the future manicured Empress have a bad nail day?

A third scene involves the Turkish sultan come to negotiate Russia’s “surrender” to the Ottoman Empire. They exchange pleasantries. Then Catherine takes umbrage at the arrogant Sultan’s cheek and his collection of ears around his neck and next thing you know, wham:

And, as if that weren’t enough of a teaser to watch, consider that there are multiple subplots running that tie it all together marvelously well. Peter has a tight relationship with his good bud, Grigor (Gwilym Lee) — they do everything together, including Grigor’s wife, who has sex with often, and often in front of Grigor, who, uh, soldiers on with his feelings. Catherine’s sidekick, Marial (Phoebe Fox), is a noble reduced to penury and service at the court, but proves useful to Catherine as a cheeky advisor, observer of the court, and co-conspirator in the plot to “coup” (verb) Peter. The Archbishop, “Archie,” played by Adam Godley, fills nicely as the naughty shepherd of God’s sheep, and serfdom. And Velementov (Douglas Hodge) is superb as a drunken head of the military always ready for action, including “couping” Peter.

All in all, it’s a romp festival of laughs, but you must be willing to endure raunchy language and decidedly pre-postmod un-PC takes on values. Shows up the flaws in the “old way” of looking at things. And finally, and again, you could see it as a tonic for the horrific events in Ukraine. Highly recommended.


John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.