If the first season of Hulu’s biographical comedy The Great was about one woman realizing her power and how she can use it to take control of a country, the second season is about how all women can find ways to rebel against the patriarchy.
The series stars Elle Fanning as the legendary (not horse-loving) Russian empress Catherine the Great and Nicholas Hoult as her conceited and dimwitted husband Peter III (who is very much not Peter the Great).
In the vein of Bridgerton and Dickinson, the show uses modern takes, and some creative license, to tell the story of how a naïve German girl who came to the country through an arranged marriage brought about radical change for women, religious views, and the arts. The second season concentrates on how a pregnant Catherine manages things after her political coup that banished her husband, but lost her lover (Sebastian de Souza’s Leo).
“The season has a very parental theme running through it,” Fanning told reporters during the Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour. “Having Catherine kind of grappling with the fact that she is going to become a mother soon … and then also having to become a mother to the country — so the baby bump really symbolized a lot of things.”
As Catherine makes gains, and a lot of mistakes, other women and girls notice and take action.
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“The season is about how hard it is to be in power, and how hard it is to be in power when you’re a woman particularly, because fundamentally, people think that you are a second-class citizen,” Phoebe Fox — who plays Catherine’s former lady’s maid and now newly restored lady of the court, Marial — told Rotten Tomatoes. “For Marial, choosing not to get married — choosing to have this autonomy — it makes you a bit of a pariah in Russia. But that is still true today; to not get married is still seen as a bit abnormal for women.”
The challenges for women at the time can be seen in even the slightest turn of language. Last season, for instance, rape is casually mentioned as a fact of everyday life. Sometimes it’s even talked about as a joke.
“That’s actually what the show does: It takes really dark subjects and puts it into funny dialogue,” Fox said. “I quite enjoyed it because it’s shocking actually. We’ve become so used to conversations about prevalent rape is and how it’s not prosecuted enough … people need waking up that it’s still a problem. And if a way to wake them up is to shock them with a line that is so blasé about it, then I think that can be a good thing.”
The humor is built into the script, Fanning told journalists in August.
“You can read the script and … it’s laugh-out-loud funny when you’re reading the words, but then … having a season 2, you get to know their character so deep and each person understands who they are on a deeper level now, as well. And so everyone’s kind of taking a little bit more risks.”
(Photo by Gareth Gatrell/Hulu)
The female characters on the show certainly aren’t all saints; for one, the second season also introduces Catherine’s mother, Johanna, played by Gillian Anderson. A cunning and meddling woman whose life goal is to get all of her daughters wedded to royalty, she is none too thrilled that Catherine has not played her part as the dutiful wife.
“There is very lawyerly elements to Johanna,” Anderson told Rotten Tomatoes ahead of the season premiere. “I don’t think that I realized until we were actually in the midst of filming the degree to which she is contradictory. I was focusing more beforehand on the scenes and the trajectory and the fun dialog. It wasn’t until we were smack in the middle of it that I realized the degree to which she was as manipulative and conniving.”
Johanna, who dresses in vibrant prints and has a makeup palette that is much more noticeable than the more angelic hues her daughter prefers, makes her presence known at court. She judges other women for their appearances and lack of understanding of how to emulate chic French fashion, and she lays passive-aggressive guilt upon Catherine for screwing up a potential matchmaking for her sister with her progressive ways. Her conversations with men can be castrating or suggestive, particularly when it comes to Peter.
In short, she’s a two-faced snob.
“She lays out, quite frankly, from the get go, what her feelings are about all this nonsense that her daughter’s getting herself, wrapped up in,” Anderson said. “The more that Catherine becomes focused on all the good that she’s going to do for women’s rights, et cetera within Russia, the more her mom voices the fact that she thinks she’s just talking nonsense. You get a pretty clear sense of what her intentions are … she just wants her to focus on being wife and having children.”
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But these changes and liberated ideas don’t just impact the women in Catherine’s court – they also affect the men.
“Peter, in season 2 in terms of him trying to better himself and deal with his time in confinement and imprisonment he, decides that he wants to learn new skills,” Hoult told the TCA audience in August. “One of those skills that he turns to is French … Luckily, I’m very bad at French, so that’s something that I didn’t have to rehearse or practice too much character-wise; it was just natural to me to have a bad French accent. Sorry to France.”
As Peter spends much of the season in denial of what it means to be overthrown and locked in his chambers, his friends Grigor (Gwilym Lee) and Arkady (Bayo Gbadamosi) also see trouble in their marriages while Adam Godley’s Archbishop, the Patriarch of Peter’s court, has to contend with a having a woman in power who doesn’t share his religious beliefs.
“This is a world that’s very stuck in its ways … there’s a character called the Patriarch for goodness sakes,” Lee said with a laugh. “But it’s the women that are able to come and reimagine things. And I find that really exciting and refreshing.”
(Photo by Gareth Gatrell/Hulu)
And not all men are unhappy simply because they can’t go hunting and gallivanting with their royal friend. Sacha Dhawan’s Count Orlo and Douglas Hodge’s General Velementov worked with Catharine to overthrow Peter. But what does that mean for them now? Velementov is bloodthirsty and wants war, while Catherine seeks peace as much as possible. And Orlo is not the kind of noble who enjoys sex and debauchery.
Dhawan said that this season, Orlo will experiment with his sexuality “but then his conclusion is he’d rather be reading a book.” He also find that he’s under pressure from his family thanks to visits from his (brilliantly named) uncle, Vanya.
“I think that is quite relevant today, in terms of men feeling that they have to be Alpha males or behave in a certain way,” Dhawan said.
But, there is one thing that every character (and the actor playing them) seems to be fond of this season: the cursing. The F word is still a favorite among this interpretation of the Russian aristocracy.
“I mean, it’s good for the soul to be able to scream f— at the top of your lungs,” Lee said.