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In ‘The Great,’ an 18th Century Empress Shatters Norms Like a 21st Century Boss

The Great
Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video

Catherine the Great had a womb with a royal view.

The 19-year-old Polish noblewoman arrived in 18th century Russia a virgin. Her mission? Spread her legs so the petulant, privileged and promiscuous Peter III can father a male heir. What did love have to do with it? Absolutely nothing. Enter that eternal wrinkle: Catherine had a mind of her own — and hated being mounted like a broodmare.

“The Great,” a dark satirical comedy series about her life (now available on Prime Video), introduces Catherine before she was great, just a newlywed seemingly destined to be known for nothing but birthing a king, a forgotten footnote for the history books. But she pushed back. She jammed. She tagged her name into history in Day-Glo paint. The Catherine we see proves an extraordinary ruler in her time and a feminist role model for ours. Taking comedic license with the historical facts, the show aims to conjure Catherine’s authentic spirit, her struggle against powerful forces, and the genius of her path to the throne — and to greatness.

Like many women from antiquity down to our own time, this book-loving beauty (Elle Fanning) rejects the notion that women are inferior. Catherine laments that females weren’t even considered “human,” just chattel. Although she is justifiably pissed off, it isn’t like she could get a tattoo, pierce her tongue and join a feminist collective.

What does she crave that was so radical? To own her own body. To live without domestic violence. To empower her people through education and bring progressive Western ideas to Russia. Well, that last one was where she transcended the personal and made her grievances political.

As for the arranged marriage to Peter (Nicholas Hoult) that sends Catherine traveling to this backward Eastern empire, she has no say in the match. She’s expected to be grateful for this social coup, wedding the big man in Russia and bringing honor to her extended family. Good daughter that she is, she embraces the union with romantic hopes for love. Good luck with that! Her dissolute husband forces her into a three-way and abuses her — along with everyone else, as it turns out. His brutality inspires her to pick herself up by her bodice laces, take charge of her fate — and foment a political coup.

Where did she get those ideas? The girl reads books. And, as we know, reading is fundamental. Enlightenment thinking was changing it up all over Western Europe, speaking new truths to power. The Empress-to-be arrives at the debauched and dangerous Russian court with the soul of a budding revolutionary — but the courtiers are more interested in her intact hymen. And, then, on her wedding night, she submits to Peter’s penetration as if it were a gynecological exam.

Pleasure? Not required. Not for Catherine, certainly.

Over time, though, Catherine’s sexuality evolves, and her power grows along with it. Peter, irked by his wife’s listlessness, gifts her a lover so she won’t be so bitchy around him. Leo (Sebastian de Souza) brings joy to Catherine’s bed. Her sexual awakening brings a bloom to her cheeks. With Leo, she feels empowered. Her desire to learn to give and receive pleasure, to see sex as a joyful experience separate from making babies, prods her to develop as an individual. Once unlaced, she’s unleashed.

What makes our Cat so hip, though, isn’t how she gets off with a bit on the side but how, once liberated sexually, she gets on with the ideas that really turn her on. Whatever her self-doubts, she’s confident in the power of her own mind.

Fueled by the political and social theories of contemporary writers of her time, such as Rousseau and Montesquieu, which are bursting from her beloved books, Catherine reboots the empire according to these ideals, seeking a society where women are educated and the arts are encouraged. Even her empathy for Russia’s oppressed is informed by Rousseau’s notion that the government should express the people’s will, not the ruler’s whims.

Given how kickass Cat is she doesn’t just spout these radical philosophies. She walks the walk. She confronts the inequality that surrounds her both within the palace and without. Her growing self-esteem sets her on a collision course with the status quo. Facing a steep hierarchy, misogyny and the oppression of the poor, Catherine doesn’t back down.

Within six months of arriving in Russia, Catherine gathers a close circle of allies and takes charge. Screw the “frailty” of “the weaker sex” — Catherine launches the political coup that defines her destiny. She risks her head and the lives of those she cherishes in order to liberate herself, her peers and her people. It’s a daring act. But it lands her on the throne as Empress. Peter, alas (or not?), dies in captivity.

Once enthroned as Empress, Catherine leverages her power to realize her ideals. She enacts progressive policies and plans previously unknown in Russia. She encourages literacy among women. She embraces radical change to secure her people’s future prosperity.

Catherine carries the story of this series on her satin-draped shoulders — refusing to be simply “the daughter,” “the wife” or “the mother,” she becomes The Great. Sure, she struggles. Sure, she screws up sometimes. She’s a human being — but in her time and place, for a woman to be fully human is a radical act.

Catherine becomes great not only because she ascends to Empress. She proves that not only men have balls. She shatters expectations. She refuses to be a pawn, and proves through her actions that she’s a player. Triumphing over the perverse Peter, she ushers in a golden age. Through it all, she leads by example. She demonstrates the power of women as individuals, sexual beings and rulers. She’s a kickass heroine for our chaotic times.

“The Great” is now streaming on Prime Video.