Aside from Tony McNamara, the show is shaped by writers Tess Morris (Casual), James Wood Gap Year), and Gretel Vella (one of several Doctor Doctor alums). The array of powerhouse directors includes Matt Shakman (Game of Thrones, Mad Men, also a producer), female duo Bert & Bertie (Kidding), Geeta Patel (The Mindy Project), Colin Bucksey (Breaking Bad), and Ben Chessell. Between them, they’ve directed at least one episode of practically everything worth watching for the last 10-20 years.
While Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette found a mental escape in clothes, confections, and vaguely anachronistic cosmetics, Catherine would rather read Voltaire and fantasize about a better world for women and surfs with her cunning lady’s maid, Marial (Phoebe Fox, who owns just about every scene she’s in). Catherine wears pastels and tall hair when necessary, but mostly prefers plain skirts and functional open-collar dress shirts. Her extravagance comes instead in the form of romantic hopes – for a liberated Russia and a love of her own.
The whole spectacle is less precious than Marie Antoinette, or most period dramas. The Great knows how most Americans view Russia, and is uninterested in disabusing us of those notions. Instead it leans in to a sense of bleak fatalism and ever-present danger. Characters write-off murder (“it’s not my thing, but it’s Russia; it happens”) and corpse desecration. Other old-timey ills like burning surfs and murdering children are presented as both horrifying and completely commonplace. Here, The Court of Peter is chaotic and loud, casually violent, and prone to absurd, graphic flights of fancy. Just about every bodily function takes place on screen, in all their squelchy, squishy glory.
Fanning is bewitching in her ability to toy with Catherine’s innocence and greater ambitions, for the benefit of the court as well as the audience. As she wises up to the realities of court and power, the transformation is so subtle that it’s hard to believe the character in episode one is the same who finishes out the 10-episode season, and yet it’s nearly impossible to put one’s finger on when, exactly, she changed. So much of the show rests on Fanning’s mix of well-read and sheltered, optimistic about what could be and completely aghast at what she sees before her.
The show finds a deeply necessary counterbalance in Nicholous Hoult’s Peter. As vexing as he is, it’s hard to imagine the show ever existing without him, history aside – although perhaps “history aside” is the very point. In Hoult’s portrayal, petulant Peter is surprisingly three-dimensional. In less skilled hands, the irascible emperor could easily grate on the nerves. But Hoult opens Peter just a crack to show the tiniest sliver of humanity, in the way he loves his deceased mother or his occasional desire to see Catherine happy, or at least content enough to shut her mouth. In some of his more vulnerable moments, you can even manage to see that sweet, hurt kid from About a Boy nearly two decades ago.