All ten episodes of “The Great” season 2 were screened for this review.
Huzzah! Hulu’s The Great is back for its second season of vicious quips, gorgeous costumes, and deliberately inaccurate history. (The series’ title card is quick to remind you that this is “an occasionally true story.”) Picking up several months after Season 1, Catherine (Elle Fanning) is pregnant with an heir to the throne, to the delight of her husband Peter (Nicholas Hoult). Catherine has overthrown Peter but exiled him within the palace walls, where he plots his next scheme—to make his own wife fall in love with him.
If Season 1 was about Catherine becoming the empress, Season 2 is about Catherine being the empress. Catherine has no time for love now, and Peter’s affection comes too late for her to want it. While Peter vies for the attention of his indifferent wife, Catherine is busy running the country. She has begun calling herself “Catherine the Great.” (Peter points out the arrogance of this, but Catherine retorts that she’s just “calling things what they are.”)
As empress, Catherine has much she wants to change, both within Russia (she wants to liberate the serfs) and at the palace (she loathes Peter’s atrocious pronunciation of French words). What The Great lacks in historical accuracy, it makes up for in every other department. That’s not an exaggeration—Sharon Long’s costumes are breathtaking, Nathan Barr’s score is playful and fun, and the writing is as witty as ever.
The supporting cast is exceptional—Phoebe Fox’s Marial (a maid turned courtier) and Sacha Dhawan (as bookish bureaucrat Orlo) in particular have stellar comedic timing. Gillian Anderson, fresh off an Emmy win for that other show about royals, is excellent as Catherine’s acerbic mother, appearing in the second half of the season.
Most of all, Fanning and Hoult are masterfully cast in their roles. Much of Catherine and Peter’s energy is spent trading barbs with one another, but each are allowed emotional intimacy and vulnerability that is well-earned. Both want true love and desire the best for Russia’s future, and they’re not always compatible goals. Their impending parenthood draws them together and divides them in ways that won’t be spoiled here, but it’s a terrific depiction of a relationship that is somehow both toxic and tender. (Fanning and Hoult earned well-deserved Golden Globe nominations earlier this year for Season 1.)
It’s a near-perfect season of television, increasing The Great’s capability for emotional depth while still retaining its sharp wit and gorgeous visuals. Since The Great is, as the title implies, so focused on its great (and not-so-great) royals, some of the supporting cast is left in the lurch. (For one, Adam Godley’s Archie endures a crisis of faith that feels underbaked, as more time is devoted to the bed-hopping adventures of some of the courtiers.)
Where The Great succeeds as a royal comedy is its balance of royal life as comedic fodder and dramatic potential. The hilarity of royal life is touched on—Peter is clueless at the gravity of the job—but so is the pain of it. Catherine’s best intentions turn into her worst mistakes, jolting her into the realization that her actions as empress have devastating consequences for her people if she acts too impulsively. It’s a coming-of-age story in ornate costumes.
Clever, irreverent, and touching, Season 2 establishes The Great as one of the best comedies on television right now. It strikes a perfect balance between humor and heartbreak—a masterful feat, as it would be so easy to tip into unbearable silliness or eyeroll-inducing melodrama. It’s a royally good time, and a worthy successor to Season 1.
The entire second season of “The Great” drops on Hulu on November 19.