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In the opening of every episode of The Great—the riotous, ribald take on the life of Catherine the Great, now in its second season streaming on Hulu—viewers are reminded that the series is “an occasionally true story.” But what does that mean, exactly?
Some characters, like Catherine or her husband, the Emperor Peter III, are based on real people while others are composites or completely imagined, helping flesh out the series. And while the events that serve to frame the acid wit and verbal sparring that might be what The Great does best did, in some cases, happen, they’re not presented precisely as historians might prefer. In a series about a woman whose truth was stranger than fiction, what exactly should you believe?
Truth is Subjective
“I think you need to go back to the beginning,” executive producer Marian Macgowan explains. “This was originally a play Tony McNamara [the series creator] wrote for the Sydney Theatre Company when he knew nothing about Catherine the Great except that she was supposed to have fucked a horse, but what he liked about the idea was that here was an idealogue who took control of a country and changed it for the better.”
When McNamara’s idea was adapted for a TV series, it needed exponentially more material than it would for a single stage show, which means turning to the history books for inspiration. Macgowan explains, “In the writers’ room for both seasons, we did hire a historian but as much as anything, the history we were interested in was what else was happening in the world at the time—what ideas or characters would she have come across? And if we adhered to the broad strokes that she took power and then struggled, we felt fine. We could do research around specific events that did occur and then we’d take the best character-driven stories in those.”
While the first season of The Great helped introduce the characters and the world they live in to viewers, the second season airing now has the opportunity to run wild in the framework that’s already been established—whether or not that means sticking to strictly historically accurate storytelling. “The joy of season two is that we have characters we can explore within that world we created,” Macgowan says. “It’s one of those bizarre plusses of the pandemic; we were given the opportunity to explore our set to a greater degree than we were in the past. We knew who the characters were and now we got to play around with them—that also includes bringing other people in. There are more intrusions from the world outside than there were in season one.”
Those sorts of intrusions, or moments when Catherine’s story intersects with that of another major historical figure, are the sorts of things that make a moment in the life of the real monarch just right for the TV series. “Everything we do is character driven—and we have a lot of characters,” Macgowan says. “A lot of what we do is because it progresses one of the characters’ stories or the underlying theme of the episode or season. We did, for instance, go down a road for one episode where there was a miners’ strike and we were going to do a whole episode around that, but in the end it wasn’t viable. We tend to research around specific events we know occurred and will use or not use them based on how they’ll help advance the characters or theme.”
History is Happening
If you’re looking for parallels between The Great and the real world, it helps not to limit yourself to the actual era that the series depicts. Instead, Macgowan says, the series and its writers pull inspiration from throughout world history—up to and including the modern day.
There is no shortage of examples of contemporary leaders who might bring to mind Catherine (as the series sees her, an upstart who brought ideas to an otherwise dark world) or Peter (an entitled tyrant) or could help inspire the intricate drama of the world around them. “If you can find an echo of what’s happening on the show in the real world,” she says, “you can comment on it in a way that can be resonant.”
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