The Great series two review – Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult return in TV’s most riotously entertaining show

The Great (Channel 4) is a pleasure. Often, as it careers around a lushly stylised Russian royal court in the 1760s, it’s concerned with pleasure directly: few comedies feature quite so many banquets, while the frequency with which The Great mentions or depicts cunnilingus must be record-breaking. It satirises the 18th-century Russian ruling class, and by extension all ruling classes, as chronic overindulgers, their eyes rolled too far back into their heads to see the damage they do.

But we at home, too, are gripping the arm of the sofa and gasping, because now The Great is into its second season, it is so assuredly in the groove. Every scene, every line of Tony McNamara’s script carries its own wicked hedonism: there is always something to enjoy that’s ruder, sillier or sharper than other shows would dare to include.

To recap: Catherine (Elle Fanning), a young German princess, has arrived in Russia to find that its emperor, Peter III, her arranged husband, is a corrupt manchild who is a danger to the citizenry and the people around him, since he is obsessed with his own desires – food, sex, violence – and maddeningly adept at using them to retain power. A monster of a performance by Nicholas Hoult makes Peter a very funny caricature of a ruler intoxicated and infantilised by privilege, who can turn and become chillingly ruthless if that luxury is threatened.

Catherine vows to depose him, which she must if she’s to become Catherine the Great. We return to our loose rendering of that transfer of power – in terms of historical accuracy, this show is looser than a goose on payday – in the aftermath of Catherine’s attempted coup.

It has not been wholly successful. Her husband is frustratingly still alive, with both spouses’ supporters entrenched as they fight for the royal palace – as in, they’re at war for the palace itself, since he’s in the east wing and she’s in the west, behind barricades made of exquisite furniture.

As she plots to finally overthrow Peter and stand up for compassionate rationality against capricious depravity – all while expecting her first child – Fanning’s Catherine remains a fine heroine, encompassing childish vulnerability, cold determination and curious free thinking. The last of those is to the fore when she apparently, casually, invents the molotov cocktail while brainstorming schemes to get hubby to move out.

The ongoing battle between thoughtful, doubtful Catherine and the utterly shameless Peter (“She will not beat me, because I’m … me”) is delicious, yet The Great’s most powerful weapon is its revolving cast of hilarious supporting players, all of whom come back on ripe form: Douglas Hodge as General Velementov, the bibulous military strategist, or “balloon-shaped traitorous fuck”, as Peter calls him; Adam Godley as Rasputin-esque theological guru Archie, biding his time: “God will blow the right wind soon. We wait on his perfect whim. Have an oyster”; Belinda Bromilow still delivering a magnificently double-edged turn as Elizabeth, Peter’s aunt, who may favour her nephew’s wife over her own flesh and blood and can be trusted not to gouge Catherine with a hatpin while she sleeps. Probably.

Bromilow’s scenes with Fanning are key to The Great’s genius. The women in this show know they’re engaging in a nightmarishly accelerated feminist struggle, in which the wrong move means degradation or death; when The Great began, the misogyny was on occasion hard to watch. But then it became clear Catherine had the guile to survive, and a strength derived from not being quite alone; in this carnival of bachannal and absurd violence, the moments where two women share counsel form the series’ serious spine. The exchanges here where Catherine discusses the child she is carrying and the one Elizabeth once lost are precious, especially for the way Bromilow weaves a thread of blackest desolation into her general shtick of bright-eyed, possibly sinister eccentricity.

Equally, as lady’s maid Mariel, Phoebe Fox can do snarky swagger and mortal fear at the same time, because her character needs the former to stay sane in the face of the latter. And a reunion with Mariel is a chance for Catherine to share the experience of pregnancy with her friend: “It is real, but also not real. And I piss myself a lot and like to eat dirt. I think if God really loved women, we’d lay eggs.”

Still present and highly enjoyable are the drinking, double-crossing and elite swearing. Season two’s first episode contains three startlingly crisp C-words, including one from Julian Barratt as a quack physician who intends to insert a sage bundle into the royal one. Thanks to those flashes of tough or tender reality, The Great has licence to let rip. Long may it party hard.