November 28, 2021

“The Great” and anti-modernism

I am not an expert on Catherine the Great. I played her in Civ a couple of times, half-watched a thing on the history channel about her in the 2000s, and listened to a book about her during a really long car trip once.

This means I am glancingly familiar with her, maybe enough to rattle off the arc of her life off the top of my head.

Let’s see how accurate I get here!

  • Catherine (born Sophia) was a German girl who, for complex and ridiculous problems of lineage, was forced to marry Peter III, the emperor of Russia – who was actually Prussian, and had been made Emperor of Russia for complex and ridiculous problems of lineage.
  • Peter III was a weird, sickly dude who loved Prussia and hated Russia, thought it backwards, and constantly crapped all over it, making everyone hate him.
  • Catherine did a good job of embracing Russia, and with her ongoing affair with Count Orlov – a dashing military official – managed to win over the support of the military and the nobles.
  • The Orlov brothers helped engineer Peter III’s coup, “accidentally” killed him, and installed Catherine on the throne.
  • Catherine gained the enthusiastic support of Russia through skillful statesmanship, helped bring the Enlightenment to her new nation, fought the Ottomans a whole bunch, took a lot of lovers, and died in a really good position – namely, before the French Revolution and Napoleon blew up Europe.

Is this accurate? I think somewhat! But  you know who absolutely doesn’t care about any of this? That would be Joe McNamara, the dude who decided to make a dramedy satire show about Catherine the Great.

McNamara and Hulu would like to position The Great as “anti-historical” – a term they invented and does not appear to have much inherent meaning. But the problem with history is that it keeps being there, in all these books and brains, and when you choose to diverge from it in your retellings, it invites the question – why? Why change history?

This question is popping up a lot these days, since historical revisionism is all the rage. From Hamilton to Dickinson, people seem to like to take known history and give it a fun lil spin, usually to make it more palatable for the progressive internet set.

The Great, however, is not interested in this. And it makes this very clear in just a few choices.

Peter

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Peter III of Russia was, by all accounts, not a cool person. He was a spoiled brat who was super into military uniforms and toy soldiers. He hated Russia, was unwisely vocal about this, and Russia hated him in turn.

However, in The Great, Nicholas Hoult’s Peter III is played as a cartoonish, handsome, himbo sociopath who is not hated by the court, but tolerated and supported at every turn. He’s just a great big pretty party boy who loves drinking, hunting, humiliating others, and – most important of all – fucking.

And The Great would like you to be very aware that Peter III is super good at fucking. This guy, in short, fucks. From the very first episode of the first season, Peter III is established as a cheerful, murderous sex god who happily jumps into bed with the wives of everyone in his court – often right in front of their husbands.

The show really dwells on this subject a lot: dicks, and their quality, and thus who gets to use theirs on which woman. In the first episode of the second season, a general who worries about the emperor’s position is accused of being a coward, and is held down by the court to make sure he’s got a dick and balls. In both the first and second episode of the second season, there are separate scenes where a woman accuses her husband of being impotent, and another nearby man quickly suggests that he’d be happy to fuck her instead – a suggestion she receives positively, while the husband stutters, flustered. The dialogue is almost the same in both these instances, in fact, despite the characters and situation being completely different.

The show exults in these sex romps and cheerful cuckoldry, and appears to take the interloper’s side in most of these instances. Peter III, for example, is depicted as a man who’s just absolutely great at eating pussy, and happily does so to the wife of one of his friends, who is made miserable by this. Never mind that emperors are probably not sexually giving people, by nature – why would they be? – by dint of his sexual prowess, Peter III is allowed to do as he pleases, while the court of Russia either averts their eyes or cheers.

Does this seem like an unusual amount of talk about dicks for a show about one of the most well-known female rulers? I kind of think so! The idea of reform practically fades into the background by comparison. The fact that Peter is a terrible ruler of Russia isn’t quite as predominant a feature for him, because Russia is depicted as pretty terrible. The nation and its people are backward, vicious, stupid – and unrepentantly so.

Even irredeemably so. And that’s where Catherine comes in.

Catherine

Catherine, in The Great, is not a skillful politician who navigates a bizarre situation to win the love of Russia. Rather, she is depicted as a fish out of water: an uptight, fussy shrew who keeps trying to bring her boring old Enlightenment into the bawdy, messy romp of the Russian court.

Educating women? Freedom of religion? A functioning bureaucracy? The court of Peter III, almost without exception, rolls their eyes at each of these and scoffs.

Really, most of the comedy of the show is derived from Catherine’s repeated efforts to help Russia, and Russia rebuking her. You begin to wonder – are these people even worth saving? Are they perhaps so stupid and worthless that Catherine shouldn’t even bother trying to help them?

Unlike in history, Catherine is utterly on her own in her efforts to bring progress to Russia – except in one instance: Orlo, who appears to be McNamara’s version of Grigory Orlov. He is the only person who appears to actually desire reform. But in this fiction he is not a dashing, masculine, accomplished military man, but is instead a nebbish bureaucrat who is repeatedly humiliated for his intellectualism.

Orlo is Catherine’s sole ally in bringing Enlightened progressivism to Russia, and pretty much every time he’s on screen it’s suggested that he’s a spineless virgin who’s terrified of women. This is especially practiced by Marial, Catherine’s maid – a repugnant person whom we’re supposed to find amusing despite having apparently no redeeming qualities whatsoever – as she slaps him, spits on him, pokes him in the eye, and tells him he’ll never successfully bring a woman to orgasm in his life.

The question isn’t, why did McNamara choose to make the dashing military lover an emasculated dork? Rather, it is – why is the sole supporter of Catherine’s progressivism such a loser?

The answer, the show suggests, is that progressivism is a loser idea. The Great firmly exists in Peter’s reality, not Catherine’s – and thus, imperial conservatism is masculine and cool, and progressivism is boring and feminine.

And I think that just about cuts to the quick of it. “We can’t let a guy who likes the Enlightenment be cool!” the show appears to say. “He’s got to be a dumb nerd with a bad dick!” This stands, of course, in marked contrast to Peter, fuckboy supreme.

There’s some rough racial stuff about this, too, since the rest of the most predominant cast is white except for the effeminate nerd, who is played by Sacha Dhawan, who is obviously not white. The casting of Asian or Southeast Asian men as less-than-masculine nerds has generated more and more outcry in the last few years, but it seems The Great has managed to duck it on this one.

Really, every element of The Great’s debauched imperialism is coded as brash and masculine – even Archie, the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church, improbably gains nigh superhuman strength and fighting skills when challenged by Orlo. The same goes for Peter, who, despite indisputably being a foppish dandy living in a bubble, appears to be a naturally gifted warrior: a crack shot, an effortlessly murderous dueler, and even a prodigy at kung fu. (We know this because we get to see the Asian dude he beat the shit out of.)

Catherine, of course, can’t really challenge this. If anything, she’s a bit like a stuffy girl who marches into a frat house party, and loudly insists the dudes stop drinking that beer and the girls stop giving those awesome blowjobs: she is asking for humiliation, which is duly delivered in a hail of boos and thrown beer cans.

This is all played for laughs, yes – albeit nasty laughs – but you can see the show straining to maintain this status quo. There are numerous moments when someone who would like to kill Peter could take a shot at him, yet does not; or when someone who has every reason to overthrow the empire chooses at the last moment not to do so; or when Peter is attacked by numerous soldiers, and yet he lethally dispatches them with an almost bored air.

The gears are grinding to keep the show in place: we are asked to laugh over the sound of their rattling, and keep the party going.

So – why?

Why make this story of Catherine the Great this way?

Hulu and McNamara would probably not like us to ask this question – hence their effort to position it as “anti-historical” – but they aren’t really owed that privilege. (No “revisionist” history is owed that.)

The best comparison I have for this is that The Great is a bit like Parks and Recreation, in that it is about an idealistic, somewhat tone-deaf, stuffy woman who tries to invoke civic change in a political environment naturally opposed to it.

However, whereas Parks and Rec is often on Leslie’s side, supporting her when she’s right and guiding her to understand when she’s wrong, The Great is not sympathetic to Catherine. She is set up to fail. Russia does not want change, and – most importantly – is not deserving of it.

And it’s this undercurrent that bothers me the most about The Great. The real story of Catherine the Great is one of reform, and of widespread support for reform. (Whether that reform would last is another question.) But The Great suggests not only that reform is impossible, but that trying it is stupid.

Progressivism is hopeless. Don’t try to make things better. Nobody is asking for you to try, and nobody wants this. Instead, get drunk, get laid, and try and survive.

It’s political nihilism, in other words – not anti-historicism but rather anti-modernism, thumbing its nose at every principle that has brought our comfy standard of living into being.

Nihilism has its place, certainly, but it feels unusually cruel to bring it into the story of Catherine the Great, and to make it explicitly a male conceit in one of the most well-known examples of female rulership. But that does feel appropriate for the era, in a way. Brash, masculine, anti-intellectualism is very much en vogue – but only The Great chose to weaponize it, and use it to attack one of the classic examples of the Enlightenment.

What an interesting choice.