This article contains spoilers for all 10 episodes of Hulu’s The Great.
Russia in the 18th century stood on the verge of disaster, with a war raging against Sweden and its cultural and intellectual progress failing to keep pace with Western Europe’s. Yet in Hulu’s historical satire The Great, Emperor Peter III (played by Nicholas Hoult) appears untroubled. Surrounded by the comforts of royalty and the support of eager-to-please advisers, he treats the war as a nuisance, governing as a chore, and news of unrest as annoying falsehoods. As he and his subjects claim, all is bliss in the court of Peter III. When his new wife, Catherine (Elle Fanning), doesn’t approve of his lifestyle, he brushes her off with a casual retort: “It is hell to dwell.”
Truth has been similarly unwelcomed by today’s American leadership. False claims downplaying the severity of the coronavirus pandemic and suggesting a swift end to the crisis have dominated Donald Trump’s press conferences. Before states put social-distancing measures in place, he assured the nation that the virus would disappear, “like a miracle.” When it became evident that it wouldn’t, he suggested nonsensical fixes, such as injecting disinfectant into bodies as a cure. This week, he revealed that he’s been taking hydroxychloroquine, the antimalarial drug medical experts have warned people against using because of its dangerous side effects. Trump has treated facts as inconvenient, rejecting them in favor of minimizing the coronavirus’s impact.
Throughout The Great, the black comedy’s satirical tone captures how theatrical and nearsighted politics can become amid a crisis. Peter’s and his allies’ denial of the truth—a deeply distressing truth, involving hundreds of thousands of lives lost—resembles the Trump administration’s shunning of medical expertise. Ignorance paves the way for Peter III’s precious bliss; the president prefers to diminish the threat of the pandemic rather than confront the reality of its consequences. For Peter, ruling is a spectacle, not a duty. In the White House, briefings meant to inform the public have been molded into sales pitches and opportunities for the president to boast about his ratings. Peter’s court may be an exaggeration of real-life Russian politics in the 18th century, but the character’s foolish governing strategy in the face of disaster reflects Trump’s. Both men depend on the appeal of denial and ignorance.
Theirs is a leadership style that, during an unprecedented global disaster, has endured because the message it spreads—that nothing is wrong and all is bliss—is enticing. The Great doesn’t spend much time outside of the palace gates to observe the full effects of the Russo-Swedish War, but the series makes clear that Peter’s advisers aid in his oblivion, looking the other way to stay in Peter’s good graces and retain their own high-status lifestyles. The White House has found help from Trump’s base: Many of his supporters, who want their life to return to “normal,” free of the restrictions implemented during lockdown, have launched protests and flouted social-distancing guidelines. When the facts of a crisis are too troublesome to bear, overlooking them in favor of maintaining the status quo can be tempting for those who run a statistically smaller risk of being directly affected in the first place.
Created by Tony McNamara, a co-writer of The Favourite, and based on his 2008 play, The Great best captures this compulsion through the well-educated, sophisticated, and idealistic heroine Catherine, who, despite her role as the audience surrogate, falls under the same spell. When she arrives in Russia from Prussia, she sees the court for what it is—an extravagant, vodka-soaked bubble insulated from horror—and plans a coup while pretending to support her husband. But the more time she spends as empress, the more she conforms to and delights in the world around her. She engages in petty squabbles with the women at court, accepts gifts from Peter (including a meeting with the French philosopher Voltaire, whom she admires), and falls in love with the man Peter offers to be her lover. Midway through the season, she gets a chance to stage her coup earlier than planned, but at the last minute can’t follow through. “You criticize him for inaction,” scoffs her servant and ally, Marial (Phoebe Fox), “but you are just the same.”
Catherine isn’t the only one to blame for her paralysis, however. The Great wryly observes how rhetoric plays a role in causing people to avoid unpleasant facts: When Peter does acknowledge the war, he speaks of the conflict as a chance to promote Russia’s glory and earn bragging rights if Russia wins—just as Trump has positioned America as the front-runner in testing for the coronavirus. (The country’s capacity is “unmatched and unrivaled anywhere in the world, and it’s not even close,” he erroneously boasted last week.) The reality is dire for both: Russia has lost 180,000 men to an aimless war, and America counts more than 1.5 million infected.
Like the protesters who have reframed social-distancing restrictions as anti-American, the Archbishop (Adam Godley) twists Catherine’s original message—that her new home should be more open-minded to Western ideals—into a selfish and sanctimonious one. Hardship helps the Russian people, he argues, and death is inevitable anyway, an assertion that should sound familiar to anyone who’s heard elected officials asking older, at-risk Americans to sacrifice themselves to save the economy. “People underestimate the joy in suffering,” the Archbishop explains to Catherine. “Walk through the pain, and on the other side, joy and purity.” Ignorance and inaction, in this sense, mutate into necessities for the good of the people.
Of course, such a call for endurance is easy for people like the Archbishop, who live in luxury at court, and the anti-social-distancing protesters, who are largely white and can afford to ignore the risk. In both cases, nationalism outweighs the dangers of the crisis. The might of Russia must prevail at all costs; America’s economy should not suffer just because lives are being lost. The Great, for all its outrageous humor, recognizes the disturbing allure of such thinking. McNamara—along with Fanning and Hoult, whose fine-tuned performances turn Peter and Catherine’s contentious relationship into a complex frenemy-ship—focuses on how power, and the comfort that comes with it, can corrupt them both. By the end of the season, the audience roots for Catherine not because she’s well intentioned, but because she recognizes her privilege, grapples with her shortcomings, and reckons with how her circumstances shape her worldview.
“I’m fond of you,” Catherine admits to Peter in the finale, just before she begins her coup. “In some ways, you break my heart.” In her hand, she grasps the knife she plans to plunge into his neck. He, not noticing anything, smiles warmly at her. Therein lies a truth that The Great illustrates so well: Bliss founded in ignorance, as Peter is about to learn, is only borrowed bliss.
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