The Great, Hulu's dark comedy about a young Catherine the Great, made its debut to great acclaim last spring—and it's already begun reaping the rewards of its success, earning three Golden Globe nominations as production on its second season speeds ahead.
So, what's so great about The Great? In the hands of creator Tony McNamara, who wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay for The Favourite, the show is an irreverent and satirical take on Catherine's disastrous marriage to Emperor Peter III and her plot to overthrow him and take the throne.
The Great is, in its own words, an "occasionally true story" that takes basic historical facts—that Catherine married Peter in 1745, that they famously didn't get along, that he was a highly ineffectual leader, and that she successfully launched a coup against him—and embellishes the details, taking chronological liberties for dramatic, and very comedic, effect.
Here is what we know about The Great's real-life and imagined characters, and the actors who portray them.
Elle Fanning as Catherine the Great
Elle Fanning (Maleficent, The Beguiled, 20th Century Women) stars as the young Catherine, who, at the start of the show, arrives in Russia naively in search of great love and intellectual discourse, only to be disappointed by her rogue husband and the superficial ladies of the court. The real Catherine, née Princess Sophie Friederike Auguste of Prussia, was disappointed by Peter long before she was betrothed to him; they had met when Catherine was 10 years old and even then she found him repulsive.
The Great's version of Catherine, as in real life, is well-read and passionate about women's education and French philosophy. She seeks a higher purpose and considers herself the more fit ruler for Russia, which leads her on a path to eventually deposing her husband after securing the loyalties of key advisers and the military.
Nicholas Hoult as Emperor Peter III
In The Great, Peter is already the emperor of Russia by the time his doe-eyed fiancée arrives. In real life, however, the couple were married for 17 unhappy years before Peter became tsar in 1762 upon the death of his aunt, Empress Elizabeth.
His brutish behavior on the show, as portrayed by Nicholas Hoult (Mad Max: Fury Road, The X-Men series, The Favourite), is an exaggerated version of facts: Catherine left behind extensive memoirs in which she described her husband as an idiot and a drunkard.
Peter is portrayed in the show as being the son of Peter the Great when in reality, he was his grandson. He only ascended the throne because his aunt Elizabeth (more on her below), who was childless and unmarried, chose him to be her heir. He spent a short six months as Tsar before Catherine's successful coup forced him to abdicate, and he died in prison—conspiracy theories abound as to his cause of death, with some who believed his wife had him assassinated and others who contend he lost a brawl with a bodyguard.
Phoebe Fox as Marial
In the show, Marial, played by English actress Phoebe Fox, is Catherine's shrewd servant, though she wasn't always in that position. She used to be a lady of the court until her father did something to anger the emperor, who then sentenced them to servitude as punishment. Marial is the one who plants the seed in Catherine's mind to kill Peter for the Russian throne and the two conspire throughout the season, with Count Orlo (below), to accomplish this. In real life, there is no evidence that there was such a handmaid who set the wheels in motion for Catherine to overthrow Peter.
Belinda Bromilow as Aunt Elizabeth
The Great has turned the Empress Elizabeth into an eccentric character. Played by Australian actress Belinda Bromilow (who happens to be creator Tony McNamara's wife), she spends her time in the palace playing with butterflies and indulging in other curious hobbies. Though to her credit, this Elizabeth does occasionally dole out good advice.
In real life, Peter's aunt was a formidable person. After seizing the throne in a bloodless coup from the infant tsar Ivan VI (and then imprisoning him for life, which is pretty accurately portrayed in the show), Elizabeth was empress for 21 years, during which she led the country through two wars (the War of Austrian Succession and the Seven Years' War), oversaw the completion of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, and didn't execute a single person during her reign, making her one of Russia's most popular monarchs. Most importantly, she was the one who arranged the marriage between Catherine and Peter.
Adam Godley as Archbishop Archie
Archie, played by Adam Godley (Breaking Bad, The Lehman Trilogy on London's West End), is the Rasputin-like spiritual adviser to Peter, who uses his alleged direct line with God to exert his influence and manipulate the court. He claims to have prophetic visions and one of them, about Catherine, was why she was chosen to become Peter's wife. While Archie isn't based on a real person, we can assume he's a fill-in—albeit a very absurd one—for the Russian Orthodox religious advisers whose support the monarchs would have needed in court.
Sacha Dhawan as Count Orlo
British actor Sacha Dhawan (Doctor Who) is the skittish, highly strung Count Orlo, a veteran statesman whose preference for books and philosophy over the status quo (sex, vodka, violent debauchery) subjects him to frequent ridicule by his peers. He's a savvy operator nonetheless and joins Catherine and Marial in their secret rebellion.
It seems Count Orlo is a loose interpretation of the real-life Grigory Orlov. Unlike his TV adaptation, Orlov was a very capable military man who wasn't a supporting player in the conspiracy to depose Peter, but rather the leader of the effort. And, most importantly, he was deemed Catherine's favorite and the two became lovers—he's even rumored to have fathered one of her children.
Douglas Hodge as General Velementov
General Velementov, played by Douglas Hodge (The Night Manager, Joker), is a decorated military leader in charge of the war against the Swedes (the actual Russo-Swedish War that presumably inspired the one taking place in the show ended two years before Catherine and Peter's 1745 wedding). He's also a bumbling drunk infatuated with Catherine, which she uses to her advantage to secure the military's support of her coup. While he isn't based on a real general, Velementov is a stand-in for the military, especially its members who backed Catherine.
Gwilym Lee as Grigor Dymov
In perhaps one of the more twisted relationships of the show, Grigor Dymov (portrayed by Gwilym Lee, who you might recognize as guitarist Brian May in the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody) is Peter's best friend and right hand man, who must also helplessly stand by as the emperor blatantly takes his wife as a mistress. There's no real-life counterpart to Grigor.
Charity Wakefield as Georgina Dymov
Charity Wakefield plays Grigor's wife—and Peter's mistress—Georgina, who isn't a specific real-life person but likely a stand-in for Peter's many extramarital exploits.
Sebastian de Souza as Count Leo Voronsky
Catherine was famous for taking on several lovers throughout her life. In fact, she had so many substantial extramarital affairs that all four of her children likely had different fathers. In The Great, Count Leo Voronsky, portrayed by Sebastian de Souza (Normal People, The Borgias), is presented to the empress as a gift from Peter as a gesture of goodwill, and the two fall in love.
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