The third season of Hulu’s “The Great” wastes no time showing viewers something new and unexpected. A major character dies in the first episode, but not as a punchline in the vein of another key figure who falls out of a window during an energetic bout of sex. Instead it’s death by a bullet through the head, and the camera lingers on the bleeding corpse on the forest floor until the bears begin to circle for their meal. The moment reeks of the bleak, tragicomic ends so often faced by characters in the work of creator Tony McNamara’s frequent collaborator Yorgos Lanthimos.
And this death comes at the hand of Elle Fanning’s Catherine the Great herself when she fires a bullet into foliage thinking she’s heard the sound of a deer rustling. Her husband, Nicholas Hoult’s Peter the Great, convinces her she’s missed. The camera lets the audience in on what the royals cannot know – or at least, do not wish to know. The stark scene provides a brutal boiling over of what often bubbles under the surface of “The Great”: that sense of how absolute power may harm people in ways that are often unseen but still incredibly dangerous. But it also establishes what makes this season of the show different than the ones before it: actions have consequences.
Past seasons of “The Great” were quick to laugh off any number of debauched or depraved moments, immediately undercutting any serious action with a silly reaction. It’s not that there was no forward motion, just that the proudly “anti-historical” show relished in its ability to fend off the forces of political gravity. After all, Season One ended with a pointed refusal to acquiesce to Peter dying when Catherine orchestrated a coup to overthrow his reign in Russia. But McNamara and his creative team recognize that they can only dwell in revisionism before all they let all the air seep out of their metaphorical balloon.
The timing also coincides nicely with the need to reset the dynamic between its two leads. Season 3 begins right where the show left off with Catherine and Peter helplessly horned up for one another in spite of whatever character misgivings they might have about their spouse. Season 2 charted their constantly thwarted attempts to suppress those feelings, and by now, they’ve made peace with their failure to square their intelligence and their insatiability. “The Great” remains at its best when treating the couple’s twisted relationship dynamic not as a problem to be solved but as a condition to be managed. They can channel a “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” thing not just with their bodily attraction but with their verbal volleying.
Peter and Catherine’s sitcom-like shenanigans have always delighted, yet they often felt a bit trapped in an hour-long format. Supporting characters, often running around in circles within irrelevant B-plots, felt like a drag that gave episode runtimes an unnecessary bloat. But season 3 fixes that problem by bringing everyone in lockstep behind the leads as a dramatic threat encroaches: a real danger to the country’s monarchic reign. Everyone from Catherine’s frenemy Marial (Phoebe Fox) to Peter’s ally Grigor (Gwylim Lee) contributes to the intrigue this time around, and it makes each episode feel as if it earns its length. There’s also the welcome addition of Henry Meredith’s Maxim, Marial’s pint-sized and foul-mouthed betrothed who steals every scene he enters this season.
That challenge comes from the rising stature of Peter’s lookalike Pugachev (also played by Nicholas Hoult, albeit looking significantly more haggard and homely) after he feels personally victimized by Catherine. Pugachev discovers a passion for oration among the country’s peasant class, which the queen tries unsuccessfully to elevate as equals in an enlightened Russia. The Orthodox Church’s sidelined archbishop, “Archie” (Adam Godley) for short, spots a useful idiot that might help him consolidate power within the country again. And in case this all seems a bit too geopolitically convoluted, don’t worry – Archie will quite literally spell out the treacherous master plan by midseason.
This development is interesting not only because it adds fuel to the season’s storyline; it’s also a fascinating reflection of the changing times from the years in which “The Great” has aired. The show began as a prime Trump-era artifact, defiantly asserting a #GIRLBOSS-style feminist vision of equality and opportunity in the wake of failed, foolish male authority. But by this third season, the show abandons the defensive crouch of assuming that the world will inevitably catch on to its vision of power. Instead, the series recognizes it must go on offense against the wave of phony populism. (Heck, Pugachev even starts spouting anti-vax hysteria!) What appears like an attempt to harness working-class discontent at aloof elites is really just a mechanism to retrench unaccountable institutions.
This renewed, rejuvenated focus helps unlock newer, darker shadings within the two leads. Hoult pulls double duty as both Peter and Pugachev, finding an enriching thesis-antithesis between the two characters. The latter brings out something sinister within the actor’s smoldering sexual magnetism as he dances on the thin line separating harmless and harmful horndogs. It’s but the latest dynamic turn for a performer who has proven himself as versatile as a Swiss army knife on-screen.
Fanning, on the other hand, gets to portray Catherine buckling under the pressure that melts her iron resolve. Especially after a dramatic midseason development, the actress unlocks new pockets of vulnerability and longing that the character would lack the self-awareness to know existed within her. When distracted from her legacy, she is left with herself – and does not always like what she sees.
“The Great” is not always confident operating in this more dramatic mode, especially in the final stretch of episodes as it slowly assembles all the assorted tinder it must light a match underneath. Fanning’s show-stopping dance finale could serve as either the series or season finale, and either would suffice at the end of season 3. It’s heartening to see a streaming show double down on elements that work while remaining open to experimenting with genre and tone. The series’ drama is what tears Peter and Catherine apart, but the comedy cannot help but bring them back together. In that unresolvable tension, something magical happens. [B]
“The Great” Season 3 premieres on Hulu on May 12.