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In season 2, ‘The Great’ remains first-rate

Nicholas Hoult as Peter and Elle Fanning as Catherine in "The Great."Ollie Upton/Hulu

“The Great” has returned for a second season, and it does not disappoint. The Hulu comedy remains a crisply satirical look back at the ascension of Elle Fanning’s Catherine the Great in 18th-century Russia, as she takes over from her fickle husband, Nicholas Hoult’s Peter, in a coup d’état. From Tony McNamara, the co-writer of “The Favourite,” it’s as bawdy, profane, and thoroughly enjoyable as ever, as it makes fun of  political battles, the hollowness of hedonism, the contradictions of marriage, the insatiable hunger of warmongers, and how our unresolved parental issues can drive us to extremes.

That last theme, bad parenting and its legacy, gets plenty of attention this season, particularly when a terrified Peter is imprisoned with his mummified mum, which ends poorly in skull fragments and bone dust. Also in the same vein: Gillian Anderson shows up as Catherine’s manipulative mother, Joanna. Anderson fits right into the show’s over-the-top tone; she is “great,” delivering more of the slyly comic and yet dramatically sound work she’s been doing on “Sex Education” and, at moments, beneath her Margaret Thatcher wig, on “The Crown.” We see how Catherine, so driven and self-aware, so successful as to have usurped her own husband, is locked into an upside-down relationship with Joanna, who has arrived with a game plan.


The season gives Hoult a lot of good material, as his Peter continues to be a brutal, thoughtless, self-centered brat — but one who is madly in love with Catherine, despite her aggressions, and one who is committed to becoming a devoted father. Hoult makes Peter’s evolution, his development of a bit of sincerity, seem organic, more like an extension of his ego than some kind of personality shift. He and Fanning have a remarkable chemistry, and there are scenes in which you believe that, while Peter is an idiot, he nonetheless knows Catherine better than anyone.

If you liked season one (which is still available on Hulu) then get to it. The streamer has been releasing episodes of many of its series with one or two episodes per week, but it has made all 10 episodes of the second season of “The Great” available right away. Huzzah!


Matthew Gilbert can be reached at Follow him @MatthewGilbert.