'The Great' Season 2 Review: Elle Fanning Returns in Hulu’s Delightful Dramedy
It turns out that dethroning your husband only makes your marriage more complicated. That might seem obvious, but it comes as something of a surprise to Catherine (Elle Fanning) in The Great Season 2, streaming Nov. 19 on Hulu.
The standout second outing of the ribald period drama opens four months after season 1’s dramatic finale. The once-naive German princess has gained the upper hand against her loutish, idiotic husband (a hilarious Nicholas Hoult) and is on the verge of being crowned Empress. But her moment of triumph is short-lived. “Heavy is the crown,” Peter tells his wife. Though he means that literally, it’s true he’s the only person who can really understand Catherine’s position as she struggles to manage political crises, conniving courtiers, and a crocodile that’s roaming the palace halls.
Ruling Russia isn’t easy for Catherine in ‘The Great’ Season 2
The Great hasn’t abandoned the bawdy humor and witty dialogue that made season 1 so much fun to watch. But like its heroine, it’s matured in its second season. The sex and violence are still there, but there’s a greater emotional complexity to almost all of the core characters in the second go-round.
Catherine, whose unbridled optimism saw her through her rough transition to life in Russia, is finding that life as Empress will require compromises she didn’t anticipate. While she strives to stay true to her principles, it quickly becomes apparent that plans and theories don’t always translate well in real life, as she discovers when she makes a disastrous attempt to free the serfs. Achieving change is doubly hard when half the court is still loyal to her husband, and everyone is taking bets on whether she’ll die in childbirth.
The prospect of impending motherhood is one Catherine prefers to push to the back of her mind. But it’s a change that can’t be avoided, and when her and Peter’s child does finally arrive late in season 2, it brings a major shift in the couple’s uneasy relationship. Parenthood brings them closer together, and viewers who couldn’t wait to see Catherine get the upper hand in season 1 may find themselves rooting for the couple in season 2.
Peter mellows out in this season of ‘The Great’
As Catherine is learning to rule Russia, Peter is adjusting to his new role. Against the guidance of her advisors, his wife has let him live. That’s a risky political move, but it’s a good one for the show, because it allows his character to grow in unexpected ways. The Peter of this season is not quite the same one we met in season 1. No longer focused on demanding the adulation of his subjects, he’s free to look inside himself — he even takes up meditation — and think about what he really wants.
What he really wants, it turns out, is his wife. But will she have him? Her feelings toward her husband are understandably complex. As her friend Marial (Phoebe Fox) reminds her, he did try to drown her in season 1. And then there’s the matter of his having orchestrated the death of her lover Leo (Sebastian De Souza). But as Peter mellows, Catherine softens toward him (against her better judgment). Watching their relationship evolve is one of the joys of The Great Season 2.
Gillian Anderson plays a pivotal role in ‘The Great’ Season 2
Parent-child relationships are a theme throughout season 2’s 10 episodes. Catherine and Peter must adjust to the idea of having a child, which requires each to wrestle with the legacy of their domineering parents.
Peter’s parents are dead, but in two pivotal scenes, he confronts his cruel, withholding mother and bullying, larger-than-life father (guest star Jason Isaacs). As we get more insight into his childhood, Peter becomes a more sympathetic character, especially as it becomes clear he wants to avoid repeating their mistakes. (Whether he knows how to do that is another story.)
Meanwhile, Catherine’s mother Joanna shows up in person to check on her daughter. It quickly turns into the in-law visit from hell. Joanna — played with aplomb by Gillian Anderson — loves her daughter but has her own agenda, and it’s one that throws her into direct conflict with Catherine and her son-in-law. The effects of her meddling reverberate throughout the season’s second half.
‘The Great’ Season 2 sets the stage for season 3
Several supporting cast members get fleshed out roles in season 2, including Marial, who’s regained her status as a lady, and Peter’s loyal but put-upon best friend Grigory (Gwilym Lee). But the most welcome evolution comes for Elizabeth (Belinda Bromilow). In season 1, there were hints that Peter’s batty, sex-obsessed aunt had greater depths. Those are plumbed in season 2, which sheds new light on the character’s troubled past as she steps into a powerful role as Catherine’s right-hand woman.
The Great Season 2 is a cocktail of vulgar jokes, violent deaths, and bizarre moments. But the froth hides a steely and at times tender core. Given that the show has diverged so much from actual history, it’s hard to say what’s in store for the future (assuming Hulu renews The Great for season 3). But whatever it is, we can’t wait to find out.
The Great Season 2 is streaming on Hulu beginning Nov. 19.
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