Right before the finale of The Great Season 2, the show's humorously apt tagline "an occasionally true story" changes. With most of the main characters primed for another imperial showdown, the new tagline for the finale reads "an almost entirely untrue story." The original line was a gag that allowed The Great to get away with bending history in favor of telling a compelling story; the new one is a warning that the show is about to do whatever it wants, history be damned.
That doubling-down on ahistorical fun works again in The Great Season 2, but the cheekiness of now being "entirely untrue" brings the show dangerously close to wearing out its welcome.
The Great Season 2 opens after Catherine's (Elle Fanning) coup attempt against her husband Peter III (Nicholas Hoult), but the gunpowder is far from cleared and her path towards becoming one of Russia's most beloved leaders is rockier than ever. Catherine's husband, whom she failed to kill in the Season 1 finale, is holed up in one wing of her palace throwing parties for his loyalists, the Ottoman empire is encroaching upon the Russian borderland, most of the actually powerful people in Russia in her court hate her, and she's so pregnant she's eating dirt to satisfy her iron cravings.
Catherine's uphill battle to claim her crown comes alongside her desire to bring Russia into the age of enlightenment with pie-in-the-sky ideas like "educating women" and "serfdom is bad." The best parts of The Great Season 2 focus on this as her primary dilemma, with some episodes assuming a backwards idea-of-the-week format that has Catherine tackling one of her agenda items and learning the limitations of her power. Of course the catch is that massive cultural change never happens by imperial degree, and her desire to use logic and reason to solve problems like a crocodile terrorizing the palace (yes, really) and opening the nobles' minds to egalitarianism doesn't go according to her plans.
Less successful from a story standpoint but entirely captivating as entertainment is The Great Season 2's development of Catherine and Peter's relationship while she remains pregnant with his baby. The wildly ahistorical (as in the imperial couple had two children by the time of Catherine's coup and Peter should be dead by now) desire to focus on Catherine and Peter's together comes from how absolutely dynamite the two of them are on screen. Nicholas Hoult earned a SAG nomination, among others, for his work as Peter in Season 1, a performance that he handily surpasses in the second season as Peter tantrums his way through five stages of grief for his imperial birthright. Fanning's Catherine is similarly captivating, with the sharp, frightening edge of Catherine's idealism posing much more of a threat this time, despite her outward desire to be viewed as an enlightened despot.
Their wonderful performances prop up a love-ish story that feels more like treading water than moving forwards
Unfortunately, their wonderful performances prop up a love-ish story that feels more like treading water than moving forwards, and the sense that The Great needs to shit or get off the pot with regard to Peter's fate is overwhelming towards the end of the season. Catherine the Great had a sex life so legendary people still gossip about it to this day — she doesn't need Peter to be interesting. As much as Hoult slays his role, Peter's character is the one holding Catherine back from becoming "The Great."
That said, if you don't know any of the history The Great is discarding in favor of its "almost entirely untrue" story, the show's a lot of fun! Some of the humor is a little slower than the rapidfire laughs of Season 1, and side characters like Orlo (Sacha Dawan), Archie (Adam Godley), and Marial (Phoebe Fox) fall by the wayside a bit, but highlights like the aforementioned crocodile episode and Gillian Anderson's too-short appearance as Catherine's calculating mother Princess Joanna make up for the shortcomings.
It's also possible The Great's tagline change is less symbolic and more literal, and all of the historical expectations that came with a show about Catherine the Great ought to be ignored in favor of enjoying something fun and vaguely Catherine the Great–shaped. If that is the case, everyone is just going to have to resist the urge to Wikipedia the characters and enjoy the show as is.
The Great Season 2 is streaming on Hulu.