UK TV review: The Great Season 2
James R | On 28, Dec 2021
Season 2 airs on Channel 4 weekly at 10pm, starting Wednesday 27th July, with episodes available on All 4 after broadcast.
“Occasionally true.” Those are the words that The Great uses to describe itself, and that principle holds true in Season 2, which plays just as fast and loose with facts as ever – and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Season 2 picks up after Catherine (Elle Fanning) has effectively deposed her husband, Peter (Nicholas Hoult) from the throne of Russia – except, well, Peter hasn’t really accepted it. And so we join them as they’re in a war for control of the country, with everyone attempting to double-cross and kill everyone else if it means they can either climb the ladder of power or just simply stay alive.
Caught up in all the shenanigans are all the familiar returning faces you’d expect, from Catherine’s former friend, Marial (Phoebe Fox), to the bloodthirsty General Velementov (Douglas Hodge), the superbly two-faced Aunt Elizabeth (Belinda Bromilow) and Archbishop Archie (Adam Godley). And, perhaps best of all, the brilliant Sacha Dhawan as Catherine’s passionate ally and nervous adviser, Orlo. There’s also the delight of meeting Gillian Anderson as Joanna, Catherine’s German mother, who has her own tense dynamic with her daughter.
But the main reason to tune in, as ever, is the absurdly entertaining interplay between Catherine and Peter. Ever since she was first shipped in as his bride, they’ve been a delightfully volatile pairing, her with a sharp intelligence that can outwit any opponent and him with a strange ability to get anything he wants simply by naively expecting it like a petulant child. That conflict was fun enough when he was in power but it’s even more amusing when he’s powerless, as he blindly professes his love for Catherine and happily abdicates his throne – while presuming that this will maintain his public status and that she will somehow be attracted to him as a result. Her repeated rebuffs to his ego never lose their charm, but they also underscore the challenge Catherine faces this season – now that she‘s obtained an elusive position of authority, she has the struggle of being taken seriously.
That’s the kind of timely theme that showrunner Tony McNamara can sink his teeth into, and Season 2 of The Great has lost none of its ability to balance modern commentary with period details, deftly warping the textbooks to suit its own ends – while stuffing every scene with anachronistic dialogue and wordplay. At the heart of it all is not just the sexism of society holding Catherine back but also the complex nature of political reform, with steps taken too quickly or for the wrong reasons not enough to improve the lives of ordinary citizens – the people who go unseen in the one-percent privilege of the pointedly childish court. Acting out that blend of confidence, moral certainty and almost impotent frustration is no mean feat, and Fanning’s performance is as poised as Hoult’s is unhinged, as each character reacts to either taking on more responsibility or shrugging it off. With the arrival of their son, dubbed Paul by Peter, on the horizon, the result is at once compassionate and comical in a way that’s messy, all over the place and really shouldn’t work. It’s occasionally true – and consistently brilliant.