The Great Season 3 Review: Fanning And Hoult On A Charm Offensive

RATING : 7 / 10
  • Career-defining performances from Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult
  • Clever twist on historical drama
  • Tonally inconsistent
  • Some supporting characters wear out their welcome

If you're looking for historical accuracy, you might want to turn your attention elsewhere. But if you want a witty, irreverent show that somehow manages to capture the eccentric spirit of the Russian aristocracy despite being wildly anachronistic, "The Great" is a perfect fit. Season 3 of the Hulu show further explores the political and personal adventures of a young Catherine the Great as she attempts to maintain her tentative control over the sprawling beast that is Russia. Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult continue to put in the performances of their careers (and seem to be having the time of their lives) as Catherine and her besotted house husband, Peter III. Even if this season of "The Great" struggles to balance the show's trademark levity with darker material, it still makes for a clever, frothy take on the period dramedy.

As the third season of "The Great" opens, it's clear that all is not well in the court of Peter (or Catherine, as the case may be). Where we last left our heroes, Catherine stabbed Peter's lookalike (also played by Nicholas Hoult, with a gruff Christian Bale-in-"The Prestige" accent) five times in the back, thinking it was him. This was in retaliation for Peter sleeping with her mother and inadvertently resulting in her death. It's clear, then, that these two lovebirds are going to have some issues trusting one another moving forward. And indeed, much of this season is devoted to all of the characters trying to figure out where they stand with each other. 

Catherine and Peter have a whole girlboss/stay-at-home dad power dynamic to sort out — not the easiest situation to navigate in an ultra-masculine court where most of the priests aren't even willing to look Catherine in the eye. Archie's struggles with faith result in his overactive libido rearing its ugly head, putting his role as the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church seemingly at odds with his desire to hump everything that moves. Poor Orlo can't reconcile the fact that he threw his lot in with Catherine, only to have her fall in love with the monarch he risked everything to overthrow. And the rest of the court nobles — Grigor, Georgina, Arkady, and others — have no clue where they stand, their loyalties torn between Peter and Catherine. So to say that everything is more than usually unsettled is perhaps an understatement.

Chaotic energy

The first two seasons of "The Great" feel like they're building toward something: In Season 1, Catherine is planning her coup, and in Season 2, Catherine and Peter are falling in love. Here, however, everything seems to be in a state of entropy, with old alliances dissolving and little new stepping in to take their place. Because of this — and the fact that "The Great" goes out of its way to tackle some legitimately sad material — there are points where it isn't quite as jolly as it was in the past. A lot of the show's charm relies on the juxtaposition between unthinkable cruelty and an irreverent sense of humor, which is something this season struggles to maintain. A large stretch of the season labors under a darkness that threatens to swallow everyone and everything whole, in fact. This is narratively engaging, but it definitely makes the show feel tonally inconsistent.

One thing that "The Great" has easily been able to maintain, though, is the strength of its performances. Elle Fanning brings a manic quality to Catherine's idealism, making her a naïve genius determined to carve out a new Russia in her own image through sheer bloody-mindedness. She is perfectly balanced by Nicholas Hoult's fascinating performance as Peter, who has grown from the out-and-out villain of Season 1 to an unlikely ... well, not quite hero, but hero-adjacent protagonist. Hoult's mercurial but emotionally resonant Peter is the beating heart of the entire series, bringing a chaotic yet warm presence to all of his scenes. He's able to branch out a little bit more this season as well, since Peter's lookalike Pugachev takes on a larger role. Belinda Bromilow continues to steal the show as Aunt Elizabeth, developing the character from a kooky maternal figure to one of the most shrewd political players in the Russian court. There are also a few breakout characters who make an immediate impact: General Petrov (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) has charming swashbuckler energy, Marial's prepubescent husband Maxim (Henry Meredith) is a pure gem, and the always delightful Jason Isaacs turns up as the ghost of Peter the Great, who impugns his son's masculinity — a particular specialty of the veteran actor.

Supporting characters treading water

Despite these excellent performances, there's a definite sense that some of the supporting characters of "The Great" are spinning their wheels, without anywhere left for them to go. Orlo and Marial feel particularly dug in: They continue to have the same arguments and make the same mistakes. While other characters have grown by leaps and bounds, they seem stunted. How many times do we need to watch Marial withhold a key piece of information from her alleged best friend Catherine, only to unleash it in a moment of pettiness? Hugo and Agnes, the former king and queen of Sweden, also have a tedious side plot that outstays its welcome.

Still, quibbles aside, Season 3 of "The Great" maintains the show's integrity and continues to redefine the legacy of historical figures who have become shrouded in myth. It's rich material for a clever dramedy to put a new spin on, and "The Great" takes full advantage, lending profound humanity to its characters between moments of pithy vulgarity. Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult are a joy to watch, with incredible chemistry that makes every scene they share an intellectual, emotional, and sexual battle of wits. Unlike anything else on television, "The Great" offers a fresh approach to what is often a stolid and predictable genre.

"The Great" premieres on Hulu on May 12.