Well, hey there, Unicorns! I hope everyone out there is doing well in places near and far-flung. I hope you’ve got good cozy socks at the ready and can remember the last time you had a good belly laugh and that it’s in recent memory.
The past year and a half has been hard and harrowing for every last one of us. I’m not going to argue that point. As a result, many of us have become fast friends with our televisions, binging quality content as soon as we come across it. That’s not a judgment; really, it’s a common thread between all of us because we all needed some comfort, escapist fare. I was certainly more grateful for streamer subscriptions and original content than ever before during these strange times.
And one of the most surprising delights I discovered during these past few months is The Great, a royal court comedy-drama on Hulu starring Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult and created by the co-writer of The Favourite, Tony McNamara. And since the second season is about to drop on November 19, I thought it was high time I gave the show the Unicorn treatment.
Before we go all in, I should go over a few brief but important disclaimers. First and foremost, there will be SPOILERS for the first season in this review. Also, if this is your first time reading one of these Scales — or you’d just like a refresher on what we’re doing here — you can take a look at the original outline of what the Scale is all about here.
Got it? Huzzah! Now let’s all grab a Moscow Mule in a shatter-proof glass and get down to taking over Russia, shall we?
The Great focuses on the highly fictionalized telling of how Catherine (Fanning), a young and naive Austrian aristocrat, marries Emperor Peter III of Russia (Hoult) — a brutish and exuberant lout — and, staring down the barrel of a submissive and subservient life as little more than an heir-barer, decides instead to plan a bloodless coup to take over the country.
What I Liked:
While there are a lot of intriguing characters at play in The Great, I’d like to take particular time to focus on Aunt Elizabeth (Belinda Bromilow), a whimsical dowager who occasionally proffers advice to Catherine as well as Peter. Elizabeth is not an easy character to crack, as she is both daffy and dastardly in equal measure — one moment she is attempting to train butterflies, and the next she is murdering a threat to Catherine’s ascension, whom unfortunately is a bastard child of the former emperor. But this dichotomy is also what makes Elizabeth fascinating. Since she seems to both like and advise Peter and Catherine, her loyalties are difficult to discern, making her eminently watchable and often a welcome comic relief when she appears on screen.
I also appreciate that Elizabeth has no qualms with displaying her queerness throughout the Russian court, leaving admirers of multiple genders flitting about and following her — and it’s not a problem or even mentioned by most anybody. The clever aunt also makes no bones about explaining her sexuality while making a point in discussion with Emperor Peter:
As you know, my taste in love runs Wilde and free. But I know I cannot are a heart sing just because I’m the emperor’s family. That won’t get a man hard or a woman wet. You must capture their heart.
Considering the fact that not only is Elizabeth stating this whilst living in the less-than-tolerant 18th-century Russian court, but also saying this to Peter, who later in the episode threatens death to those who will not follow something as simple as his no-beards-in-court policy, this is a character of great bravery and daring who will not be silenced even by her nephew, the goddamn Emperor of Russia. It’s worth a moment of admiration.
What I Didn't Like:
I know I usually mention here how I wish that the script would use the term “bisexual” for fluid characters to describe their predilections. But then again, The Great takes place a good hundred years before the term was even coined in scientific realms, so that gets a pass.
No, what I can have trouble with is that the Aunt Elizabeth character teeters in dangerous bi villain trope territory, considering that she kills a frikkin’ kid in order to forward an agenda. And yet I don’t want to dismiss her entirely as a fascinating example of bisexuality in media, because even as a supporting character, she is given so much depth that — well, it doesn’t excuse that action, but I also hesitate to reduce her to just the negative things she does or says.
However, the fact that Aunt Elizabeth can and often chooses to play up her “madness” at times — whether to flee to it as a refuge or fling it as a weapon of either cover or play dumb — seems to veer away from doddering into insulting territory for those who can suffer from mental illness. It’s harder for me to rationalize this tactic for her, even though often courtesan women of this era had very few tools at their disposal.
Oh, also, the parading of her lovers in the court? I do have to say it kind of rubbed me the wrong way to have her bringing scenes of (very light) submission play into more public places. Just brought up consent and ick factors for me — insightful though they may have been to not only Elizabeth’s leanings but also her level of privilege in openly exploring them.
Still, I think it’s important to recognize that much of the creation of Aunt Elizabeth — as well as the rest of the characters — are extremely loose interpretations of actual historical figures. Hulu itself hails the show as "anti-historical" and the series plays fast and loose not only with people but timelines and inventions. Because the whole show is a bit of a fun farce, I don’t want my objections to be taken too seriously. For pity’s sake, literally the first image we see in the show is that the title card has an asterisk next to the name and notes that it’s an occasionally true retelling. Let’s not get too lost in the facts of the show and lose all the fun of it.
The Great offers up a tantalizing and hysterical (and hysterically loose) retelling of events leading up to one of Russia’s greatest coups, including engaging queer characters such as Aunt Elizabeth. If you feel like taking a fantastical dive into a very removed but engaging world, it’s a great choice for a sumptuous binge. Honestly, watching Elizabeth’s take on the plot’s matters is in and of itself worth the price of admission.