Hulu’s ‘The Great’ season 2 bravely fills big shoes

Scene from Season 2 of Hulu series The Great

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Grade: 3.5/5.0

After reigning supreme with its initial season last year, Hulu’s comedy-drama “The Great” — billed as an “occasionally true” period piece — returns with ferocity. The season’s overall tone matches the sheer scope of the series’ intricate narrative — with its grandiose sets, ornate costume design and star-studded cast, a lacking plot would appear all the more disappointing. Yet to our delight, the second season of “The Great,” for the most part, provides another witty take on the typically tame period piece.

The last time Catherine the Great (Elle Fanning) commanded the screen, she was a tad busy — directing a bloody coup to overthrow her incompetent husband, Peter III of Russia (Nicholas Hoult). With Peter planning to execute her lover Leo Voronsky (Sebastian de Souza) and close friend Marial (Phoebe Fox) weaponizing Catherine’s pregnancy to save her own literal neck, all seemed at a loss: The closing scene pictured Catherine with a veering, vengeful look.

Surprisingly, the second season does not open with a conclusion to the coup, but rather, it throws the plotline and characters right into the thick of it, four months after the initial gunshot declared the beginning of the coup. A waddling pregnant Catherine faces off against a largely unchanged and irritating Peter — albeit a doting father-to-be who is treading lightly with loving Catherine. This choice daringly throws off the expected trajectory of the season, leaving room for the characters to work through their complicated relationships with the crown and court.

The comedy-drama’s second season is pulled from the genius mind of screenwriter Tony McNamara — whose talented quips graced newer period pieces such as “The Favourite” and “Cruella” — and comes back bolder with its dry-humored dialogue. While the first season’s script flirted with subtlety, this current season leaves dignity at the door and embraces its raunchy rudeness. Dazzling tête-á-têtes develop into fully-fledged shouting matches, and this intensity ironically reflects the comfort level between characters within their own progressing relationships. Catherine is no longer a shy sapling adjusting to Russian court; she is instead attempting to rule it with a ruthless grip.

Catherine’s complicated character in the second season begets a wary acceptance from the omniscient audience, as at times her stubbornness impedes her personal success. However, the empress’s growing pains, which Fanning performs with purposeful delicacy, reflects the show’s own progression. It would have been easy to advance the narrative in a mirror-image of the successful first season, but instead, the show details the characters with more complexity. “The Great” challenges the mundane with more dynamic camera angles, featuring poignant close-ups that induce wild intimacy.

This season finds success in its ability to evoke intense emotion, as scenes where Catherine and Peter are both confined in solitude — of their own making or in captivity — dance the delicate line between the show’s comedic side and its dark take on the proclivity of human frivolity. Catherine’s loneliness and longing for Leo are reflected through her wardrobe’s color palette, and Peter’s childhood trauma capitalizes on Hoult’s incredible skill of externalizing the inner child.

The series loses some tenacity midway through, as episodes such as “Animal Instincts” and “A Simple Jape” are filled with slightly superfluous plotlines involving crocodiles roaming the palace grounds or the Swedish monarchy making yet another appearance. This lack of direction is saved, however, by the breath of fresh air that is Gillian Anderson, who plays Catherine’s mother. Anderson brilliantly executes the dualism of her written character: the stone-faced severity of an elderly monarch with the maniacal temptation of a matured seductress. Her specific performance this season outshines the rest of the cast, potentially saving the series from its wayside mangling of plotlines.

The shatteringly simple formula that brought the first season of “The Great” paired witty rhetoric, sharp characters, captivating cinematography and enchanting set design. McNamara’s second season plays on this exact formula, but aims to elevate the series through expanding its bold boundaries, with more intense dialogue and complicated plotlines. While this objective is far from flawlessly-executed in the season’s middle episodes, the brash intention remains and should be royally applauded.

Contact Francesca Hodges at [email protected]. Tweet her at @fh0dges.