That Catherine the Great’s life was great at all is a testament to her resilience. At 16, the woman born Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst arrived in Russia to meet her betrothed: the emperor-to-be Peter III. When he turned out to be strange, cruel and an alcoholic, she did something unexpected. A mere six months into Peter’s reign, she staged a coup d’état to overthrow her useless husband and took the Russian throne by force. The Great, out May 15 on Hulu, gives us a cheeky and mostly true account of Catherine’s (Elle Fanning) rise to power.
The fact that it's a vodka-fueled farce and a feminist manifesto all at once is largely thanks to the stewardship of creator Tony McNamara, whose clever writing you might recognize from The Favourite. “I wanted this show to be funny and fast,” McNamara tells Bustle of why The Great subverts period piece norms. “I wanted to use language that wasn’t so polite and didn’t distance us from the people.”
Polite is the last word that would be used to describe The Great’s vision of 18th-century Russia. Men are constantly beating each other bloody in the halls, women aren't allowed to read, and the court is filled with petty drama. It’s clear that Catherine’s intelligence and progressive ideals don’t mesh well with Russia’s patriarchal society (not to mention Peter III’s frail ego). There’s a lot of humor in the constant barrage of swear words and sex, but the show never loses sight of the bleak reality women faced every day. “The world was chaos then — I mean, the world is always chaos — but I wanted to reflect that,” McNamara says.
Though The Great has the costumes, the servants, and other trappings of a traditional period piece, the obstacles its characters face feel contemporary and grounded (think marital issues, rumors being spread by fake friends, and lots of anxiety about the future). “We didn’t want it to feel like ‘people in history,’ we wanted it to feel like they are just like us,” McNamara says. At the center of all the chaos is Peter (Nicholas Hoult), whose omnipresent mommy issues and power complex causes discord wherever he goes. Catherine simply has to grin and bear it.
There’s something both darkly funny and very timely about watching women being continually undermined by men who don’t know what they’re doing. Mercifully, McNamara is ruthless in his treatment of nearly all the men in the show (“It might be because I have three brothers,” he laughs). Who is the most problematic of the drunk war general, the jealous best friend, and the patronizing archbishop? Tough to say.
Though McNamara has spent the last decade writing and rewriting this story — it started as a bawdy play in 2008 that got him The Favourite in the first place — he still finds Catherine endlessly fascinating. “When I was 20, I didn’t know how to keep a job and pay my rent, so how does a person who is 20 and doesn’t speak the language go to an empire and end up taking it over?” he wonders.
If you’re watching The Great, maybe you’ll find the answers — or at least a couple of jokes.