'The Great' Keeps Living Up to Its Name in the Period Comedy's Delightfully Darker Third Season

Huzzah! This satirical take on Catherine the Great's reign keeps proving a savage and witty charmer.
Sarah Ward
May 12, 2023

Television perfection is watching Elle Fanning (The Girl From Plainville) and Nicholas Hoult (The Menu) trying to run 18th-century Russia while scheming, fighting and heatedly reuniting in ahistorical period comedy The Great. Since 2020, they've each been in career-best form — her as the series' ambitious namesake, him as the emperor who loses his throne to his wife — while turning in two of the best performances on streaming in one of the medium's most hilarious shows. Both former child actors now enjoying excellent careers as adults, they make such a marvellous pair that it's easy to imagine this series being built around them. It wasn't and, now three seasons in with its latest ten-episode run arriving on Stan and Neon from Saturday, May 13, The Great has never thrived on their casting alone. Still, shouting "huzzah!" at the duo's bickering, burning passion and bloodshed-sparking feuding flows as freely as all the vodka downed in the Emmy-winner's frames.

This devilishly loose and amusing parody of Catherine the Great's reign first found life on the stage, with its Australian creator Tony McNamara initially unleashing The Great's winning havoc upon Sydney Theatre Company in 2008. His process: stepping into the past, throwing familiar figures and events together, then shaking them around to make his own satirical story. Earning him a BAFTA and an Oscar nomination for co-penning The Favourite, too, that approach clearly resounds with the playwright, screenwriter and producer. Here, it results in a savage and witty charmer that ponders which tales end up echoing through history, and why, while also tearing into royalty and wealth's sense of entitlement and privilege — eating the Russian rich and powerful, and making it an exquisitely moreish meal.

In season one, the former Princess Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg of Prussia travelled to Russia to marry the gleefully frat boy-esque Emperor Peter III, a plan on his part that'd have history-making repercussions. It's meant to solve her family's financial woes and give him an heir, but her idealism plus his arrogance and immaturity prove a Molotov cocktail. Swiftly, she's plotting her way to the top job, to enlightening her adopted homeland with progressive ideas and to far-from-harmonious wedded life. In this "occasionally true story", as The Great has happily badged itself from its very first days, there was never any question that Catherine would overthrow Peter; the details, however, don't simply spill into the handsomely staged and colourfully costumed series from reality.

Season two saw the show's main couple still waging war on each other, including via soldiers and within the venomous royal court. As their various hangers-on kept jostling for relevance and importance — including Peter's lifelong pals Grigor (Gwilym Lee, Top End Wedding) and Georgina (Charity Wakefield, Genius), his aunt Elizabeth (Belinda Bromilow, Doctor Doctor), Catherine's former servant Marial (Phoebe Fox, The Aeronauts) and co-conspirator Orlo (Sacha Dhawan, Doctor Who), the country's resident Archbishop (Adam Godley, Lodge 49) and military head Velementov (Douglas Hodge, I Hate Suzie Too) — it also had Catherine pregnant, her acid-tongued mother (Gillian Anderson, The Crown) make a visit and its central marriage come to stabbing blows.

Now, in a new batch of instalments all either written or co-written by McNamara, Catherine and Peter begin the third season sure about their love for each other, but just as flummoxed as ever about making their nuptials work. She's attempting to reform the nation, he's the primary caregiver to their infant son Paul, her efforts are meeting resistance, he's doting but also bored playing stay-out-of-politics dad, and couples counselling is called for. There's also the matter of the royal court's most prominent members, many of whom were rounded up and arrested under Catherine's orders at the end of season two. From Sweden, exiled King Hugo (Freddie Fox, House of the Dragon) and Queen Agnes (Grace Molony, Mary, Queen of Scots) are also hanging around after being run out of their own country due to democracy's arrival. Also, Peter's lookalike Pugachev (also Hoult) is agitating for a serf-powered revolution.

In lesser hands, The Great might've been a mere soapy diversion (when it comes to jumping back into the past, eagerly ignoring the facts and merrily dishing up straightforward melodrama, see: Bridgerton). But this series remains one of the sharpest programs currently airing as well, thanks in no small part to its astute insights. Each subplot, whether it's Catherine and Peter's conflict over ordaining Paul as next in line to the throne by divine mandate, or the chaos caused when Catherine legalises divorce (including for Marial and Grigor's affair), or the especially sycophantic Arkady (Bayo Gbadamosi, War of the Worlds) and Tatyana (Florence Keith-Roach, Juliet, Naked) doing whatever it takes to stay in court, unpacks today's social and political ideas as much as its setting's. When Pugachev starts riling up crowds at big rallies spent attacking Catherine, for instance, thinking of recent headlines happens instantly.

The Great has always been as magnificently absurd as it is smart and biting, a blend that also doesn't stop now. Since episode one, Bromilow has carved her place alongside Fanning and Hoult by playing Elizabeth as delightfully fanciful but steely, while The Gallery's Henry Meredith steals almost every scene he's in as Marial's 11-year-old shoe-loving wannabe-assassin cousin and husband Maxim. But season three skews darker, too, which is also a terrific and intelligent turn. Indeed, in a show that's never been shy about a body count (when Catherine wants to criminalise murder in this run of episodes, neither the court nor the people respond warmly), it's positively bold about adding to its casualties, contemplating the choices that grief inspires and exploring raw emotions.

It was true in season one, never in doubt in season two and an established fact with season three: The Great keenly, heartily and truly lives up to its name. In fact, the show's latest go-around is a case of something great becoming even greater — and more addictive and irresistible — in its willingness to get bleak, its joyous mix of ridiculousness and drama, and its superb main performances. Fanning relishes Catherine's complexities again and again, leaning stunningly into heartbreak and leadership's heavy toll. Flitting between suave and rough-and-tumble, Hoult couldn't be having more fun in his dual parts. When they're together, their scenes are ceaselessly electrifying. McNamara gives season three an exceptional ending, complete with a nod to Australia, after ensuring that The Great has been forever changed by this supremely bingeable return; here's hoping, though, that there's still more greatness to come.

Check out the trailer for The Great season three below:

The Great season three streams in Australia via Stan and in New Zealand via Neon from Saturday, May 13.

Published on May 12, 2023 by Sarah Ward
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