In quarantine, I thought I welcomed absurdism. With our current reality being what it is—a life-threatening virus, forest fires, murders by police, political inanity, jerechos, double hurricanes, and mass unemployment/eviction—who wouldn’t want to plunge into a silly story to take the edge off? Turning to The Great, I initially found that fun foolishness. There’s an excess of yelling “Huzzah!,” smashing crystal glasses for the hell of it, pet bears, and multicolored macaroons. However, as I sunk deeper within the fantasy of The Great, the more I realized that the show’s funhouse nature included trick mirrors. So much of its comedic flavor operates at a hinge point of hilarity that can be taken in sum or slide into serious social critique. By the end of the season, The Great felt painfully paralleled with current reality, only with a better color scheme. Here are few of the too-close-to-home comparisons I found on a rewatch:
By the middle of the season, smallpox hits the palace. While Catherine and Mariel attempt compassion by tossing their Patient Zero into a locked bureau, hoping to avoid spread of pox and his murder by Peter the III, the rest of royal epidemic response leans towards ignorant cruelty. The palace’s most vulnerable (servants aka essential workers) are rounded up, evicted from the grounds, left to die, and then burned. Rather than lean into scientific wisdom, the tsar bans vaccines after Catherine inoculates herself in front of the court, while endorsing sham medicine. Once it all goes away, the servant class is expected to act like nothing happened. Oh, and the press gets attacked once criticism intensifies for Peter.
Peter the III unequivocally has serious sociopathic issues. He frequently kills people at random, forces objectors of his beard ban to shave in front of him, tortures his wife, shoots her pet bear, takes his best friend’s wife as his mistress, and finds humiliating anyone in sight his preferred form of emotional regulation. While Peter is as nasty of a character as it gets, he gets humanized one key detail: he’s a survivor of child abuse. While this trauma is by no means resolved—his mother remains desiccated and prominently unburied—Peter still carries responsibility for his awful decisions. Abuse begets abuse, and with Peter, the momentum of his pain only builds over time.
Catherine fully intends to seize power from Peter, but she still operates with capital N naïveté. She believes that Peter’s sociopathy can bend to reason, even after being subjected to calculated torture and terror tactics. As time wears on, Catherine does become more politically shrewd, but she holds onto a misplaced idea that Peter has the capacity for empathy. While her passion is charming, her advisors are right—this is Russia. Her unwillingness to view the political arena of the royal court for what it is may very well cost her a chance at the crown.
Boredom and cabin fever build resentment and paranoia. Even the nobles who live ensconced in privilege within the palace walls walk a tightrope; Peter is fickle and the palace is their only home. Their inability to leave the estate fuels inanity. Everyone plays weird games that don’t make sense, they conduct “science” experiments (tossing puppies off the roof, anyone?), gossip nastily about everyone else, lose touch with the scale of problems from their cloistered perspective, and drink way, way too much. In any other scenario, these characters would be believed to have brain worms. But, since Peter the III rules incompetently and cruelly, any chance at reform seems out of reach. So the insanity keeps rolling, and everyone’s behavior becomes more dubious. Greatness, I thought, was measured by increments of success. Peter the III and Catherine force the flip side—the great depths to which we can tumble. It’s always welcome to have company at rock bottom.
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Katherine Smith is the TV intern at Paste Magazine and recent graduate of the University of Virginia.For deeper dive into her current obsessions and hot takes follow her at @kat_marie_tea
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