The Great season two review: A tale of two halves serves up sparkling dialogue and insane storylines

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·3-min read
The Great season two review: A tale of two halves serves up sparkling dialogue and insane storylines
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The second series of The Great, Hulu’s “anti-historical” show about the rise to power and reign of Catherine the Great is back, premiering on Channel 4 today. And fans, you can stop holding your breath now: it’s still a veritable treat of sparkling dialogue and insane storylines.

The show is set in late 18th-century Russia and is loosely – and the showrunners really do lean into the loosely bit – based on the relationship between Peter III of Russia (Nicholas Hoult) and his ambitious wife Catherine II (Elle Fanning).

Season 1 ended with Catherine overthrowning her husband and so she spends Season 2 picking up the pieces: she’s pregnant, she is trying to navigate life in the palace, trying to decide what to do with her husband - now her prisoner - and work out how best to implement some of the social advancement policies she promised when she was making a case for her coup.

For those who have been nervous about whether a second season could be sustained when the show’s formula is already so deeply set, you’re right to have reservations. Some moments in the first half of the new season are quite turgid, just because everyone is so stuck in their ways (Peter is lewd, the court is salacious, Catherine is uppity but well-meaning, General Velementov is drunk, Orlo is confused).

Even though Russia’s ruler may have changed and there are various new happenings at court, characters seem to linger in a strange limbo where there’s not enough action to catapult their storylines forward into a fresh territory, but neither are there enough emotional zingers to go deeper and make a dent in their facetious dispositions.

The Great season 2 (Channel 4)
The Great season 2 (Channel 4)

There are some awkward storylines, too, such the show’s obsession with the couple’s sexual exploits, particularly the way in which Peter services Catherine (according to her, he does it very well). Of course, it’s all satire and the repetition is part of the joke, but it gets a bit tedious: do we really need to see it take place literally every episode while also being a talking point between the couple? You can have too much of a good thing.

Nevertheless as the season goes on it all ramps up and opens up. If you’re dying for real titillation and hilarity, it does come more readily in the second half of the show. Think Gillian Anderson as Catherine’s devious mother, Jason Isaacs (The Death of Stalin) as the ghost of Peter the Great and Freddie Fox returning as King Hugo of Sweden. Phoebe Fox’s Marial, the Empress’ best friend, is always brilliant and it’s a joy to see her relationships develop with her young nephew, her new boyfriend, serf Shakey and her old friend the Archbishop.

Other chaotic drama adds to the mix: Without giving too much away, the Archbishop (a gloriously lugubrious Adam Godley) returns to his old antics in the woods, meanwhile, someone else is having sex on a window ledge which is a terrible idea. The Great season 2 was surely as much fun to create in the writers’ room as it is to watch.

The show has been created by The Favourite co-writer Tony McNamara, inevitably conjuring a swathe of not always kindly comparisons with Yorgos Lanthimos’ Oscar-winning period drama. But this is a mistake. The Great is more audacious, coarse and less profound – as it should be.

The show is best when dialogues move with rambunctious His Girl Friday energy and when characters are so scathing and frank that viewers are genuinely made to scoff and chortle. So if things seem to be drying up, plough on. Once season 2 gets going it’s back to its bonkers business as a thrilling and hilarious romp in a historically-adjacent Russia.

The Great season 2 premieres on Channel 4 on July 27

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