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Hulu’s ‘The Great’ and a Rambling Discussion of Destiny

Do people make history or does history make people?

Elle Fanning in The Great (image: W Magazine and Hulu)

There is a scene in season one of the The Great that I have turned over in my head several times. A young Catherine, arriving in Russia for the first time, looks out over a pristine lake, the mountains beyond serving as the backdrop, all under a steel sky. The shore of the lake consists of rocks and pebbles, smoothed by the waters over centuries of steady ebb and flow. She leans down and kisses those pebbles, then rises, the music swelling and the wind pushing her cloak back. It’s like watching a super hero being born. But this was a real super hero, a woman who made her way from a princess born to a minor, if barely noticeable lineage, to the empress of all of Russia — Catherine the Great. To provide a very short summary Catherine expanded Russia, reformed the country to eliminate serfdom, and decreed all would be treated equal under law. Revelatory stuff for the 1700’s.

Hulu’s The Great does play fast and loose with history, so don’t watch the show looking for a documentary. It does however, weave hilariously and drunkenly to hit the important historical points. Its a delightfull charmer of a show, full of wit and joie de vivre. Elle Fanning as Catherine is a force, shifting to where the story needs her, from comedy to tragedy. She has a presence that matures to her rule as her character does. Peter, the emperor she marries through arrangement and brings her to Russia in the first place, is played with brilliant lunacy by Nicholas Holt. He’s bonkers, but the more we see of the court and his history how could he not be? As fun as he may be however, he makes an ill-tempered and mercurial ruler. Once Catherine sets her sights on the throne his days are numbered.

History is written by the victors as they say, so it has not been kind to Peter. How much of our history texts is state sponsored propaganda versus true historical recounting? That’s why as a fan of history I am more than okay with bringing a little fictional conjecture to a story. We probably weren’t told the whole story to begin with, and we certainly have no way of knowing what goes on behind closed doors when no one is taking notes. The Great is entirely upfront about this, stating it is “an occasionally true story”.

The show shines when its heart peeks through for a tantalizing moment, then slips away under fancy gowns. The scene with Catherine at the lake is one such moment, and one of the reasons it sticks in my head.

Catherine believes she has a great destiny (no pun intended), an idea which has been with her since childhood. In that moment its finally revealed to her, and it is Russia.

How did this girl from Podunk, Germany become Catherine the Great? This is why that scene sticks with me. There is an old theory in historical studies called the great man (or in this case woman) theory. Basically, it states that the history of humanity turns on the influence of larger than life people. In Western history that would be someone like Alexander the Great or Napoleon. Usually violent egomaniacal characters that smashed the world in the face to make a name for themselves, damn the consequences. Sometimes however, they do want to make the world a better place, and they may have to crack some heads to do it. Catherine certainly cracked heads, but most agree she left Russia better than she found it. Did a belief in a grand destiny give her the fuel to accomplish these things or is this an aspect of the story added after the fact?

What if there are people of great destiny? Behind the fabric of the universe a grand cosmic plan is playing out, unfurling through time. There are things in that plan that need to happen, need to be spurred into being, so some element reaches out and touches a person on the shoulder and grants them an extraordinary and horrible destiny.

These are things that cross my mind when I watch The Great, especially season one. There is a sense in a few scenes of something momentous happening, of the world being nudged on its axis. When co-conspirator Velementov fires his gun in the air, a simple action heavy with meaning (it begins the coup) the sense of a history changing action is there. These moments in time fascinate me. Supposedly Princip was stopping to get a sandwich after the first failed assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The archduke’s car literally came to a stop on the street in front of him and stalled. He took the shot. Would World War I have been avoided if Princep decided to get a beer instead? History is full of odd moments like this that can make one wonder if there is some unknown plan or program churning behind the scenes. Maybe we’re in a simulation as some have hypothesized. Does the program whisper to us in our sleep, telling people like Catherine they are destined for greatness?

How did a discussion of The Great swerve into simulation theory? I have no idea.

Season 2 of The Great has a bit less of the grand decisions and sacrifices and more down to the business of sorting out the country. Alas, the climb to the throne is always more exciting than when one gets there. It becomes about dealing with a Peter loving court hostile to Catherine’s takeover and jumping in with both feet when maybe starting with a toe in the water is the better approach. Hulu has ordered Season 3, so the adventures of the empress will continue, historically accurate or not. Huzzah!

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Colleen Byer

Colleen Byer

Engineer by trade. Working in a secret location deep in the desert designing water skis for squirrels.

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