The second season of The Great, the Hulu period comedy loosely based on the rise of Russia’s Catherine the Great, ended in tears and bloodshed.
That’s because Elle Fanning‘s empress-on-the rise threw most of her court in prison and stabbed her husband Peter (Nicholas Hoult) in the back as retaliation for him sleeping with her mother (Gillian Anderson) — an act that did not have any lasting consequences both because the wounds weren’t that deep and because the man she attacked was actually Peter’s professional body double, Pugachev (also played by Hoult).
So Hoult’s Peter is not wrong in Season 3 when he tells whatever counts for a marriage counselor in 18th century Russia that “apparently marriage has … challenges.”
But even though the couple are seeking professional help, Catherine still has a lot of rage to contend with this season. As much as she tries to make progressive in-roads by legalizing divorce and suggesting everyone (even peasants) has an equal voice in building her democracy, she faces set-backs.
She also has to navigate what can be another political landmine: female friendships. Catherine’s closest confidant Mariel (Phoebe Fox) was part of the royal roundup last season and some — like Peter’s former paramour Georgina (Charity Wakefield) — might see this as an opportunity. She also has to deal with foreigners asking her for things, such as outcasted royal Swedish interlopers Hugo (Freddie Fox) and Agnes (Grace Molony) who just won’t leave her castle and visits from both American (Ed Stoppard) and British (John MacMillan) ambassadors who each want her to fund their war against the other.
When Rotten Tomatoes asked Fanning about expressing Catherine’s emotions, she smirked and said “I love playing rage.”
“I think that Catherine’s always going through so much emotionally,” Fanning added. “After the events of what happens this season, she really unravels. And so there’s a rage, but it’s also almost like a mania.”
She added that series creator Tony McNamara has made a point of showing parallels between the frustration women may have felt then and ones that are still talking points now. And that these are not opinions limited to empresses.
“I think all of those females in our show; they experience the whole full gambit of emotions and rage is one of them,” Fanning said. “[Tony’s] not afraid to show female rage in this show … So we’ve never stifled in that way with our emotions on a show like this. You can take it as far as you want it as you want to when you’re doing the scenes. It’s a very freeing.”
Not that everything that happens on The Great is factual. There’s even an asterisked disclaimer at the beginning of each episode to note that this is an occasionally true story. Some events in the third season make heavy use of that symbol.
Hoult, who also worked with McNamara on the film The Favourite about England’s Queen Anne, said that it is “very freeing” not to do a straight biopic because “rather than maybe honing in on a bullseye that restricts you, you then get this opening up of being able to explore.”
“I can tell you that I know probably zero things about Peter III. But I have a lot of fun playing this character who was based upon him,” he said of a character he plays as a man-child so tormented by the legend that was his father that he has visions of him (Jason Isaacs returns this season as Peter’s manifestation of Peter the Great).
Whether that actually happened or if the real Peter was as obsessed with using salt to create different flavor profiles as he was as easily manipulated by “friends” like Hugo (which both also happen this season) may be more for scholars to decide even if they are are fun to watch. Also fun to watch: the amount of cursing used by these royals.
“I wonder who curses more; us or Succession?,” Fanning laughed.