Fact vs Fiction: The Great season 2 episode 1, Heads It’s Me

The Great Elle Fanning
Elle Fanning in 'The Great' (Image credit: Hulu)

This post contains spoilers for The Great season 2 episode 1 "Heads It's Me."

Every episode of The Great includes a disclaimer of sorts that states this interpretation is an "occasionally true story." Catherine the Great’s rule over Russia has been depicted on screens many times — dating as far back as the silent movie era (Forbidden Paradise (opens in new tab), 1924) and the more recent HBO drama, Catherine the Great (opens in new tab), starring Helen Mirren. 

Elle Fanning plays a version of the empress that has its tongue firmly in its cheek and creator Tony McNamara is no stranger to injecting historical stories with comedy — his The Favourite screenplay received an Oscar nomination in 2019. 

The first season of The Great ended with Catherine discovering she was pregnant, the end of her love affair with Leo (Sebastian De Souza) and, most importantly, launching a coup against her husband Peter (Nicholas Hoult). "Heads It’s Me" kicks off four months after Catherine has made the difficult choice of following her destiny with Russia over romantic happiness and begun war with Peter. With the aid of advisor Orlo (Sacha Dhawan) and military leader Velementov (Douglas Hodge), Catherine has Peter trapped in the Winter Palace. However, in true Peter tradition, he isn’t considering the wider implications of this perilous situation and continues to party alongside his supporters. 

The accuracy (or lack of) is stated upfront, but The Great isn’t a complete fabrication: Catherine did launch a coup d'état against her husband in the summer of 1762 and, ultimately, took control of Russia. Part of the thrill of this series is that it takes an anachronistic approach to this well-told story, which includes changing the circumstances of Peter’s rule, Catherine’s age and even her pregnancy timeline. The second season is as thrilling (and funny) as the first, which sees it taking the loose interpretation reins from Sofia Coppola’s misunderstood 2006 masterpiece Marie Antoinette

We're going to separate fact from fiction in The Great season 2. This episode-by-episode guide begins with the coup in "Heads It’s Me" and how closely Elle Fanning’s Catherine follows the real-life ruler, who forever changed the face of Russia.

What are the details behind Peter's reign?  

Nicholas Hoult in The Great

Nicholas Hoult in The Great (Image credit: Gareth Gatrell/Hulu)

Major adjustments to the annals of Russian history include the circumstances behind Peter's accession. Peter III was crowned after his Aunt Elizabeth (who had been empress for 21 years) died. In the series, Elizabeth (Belinda Bromilow) is an eccentric figure who has no interest in ruling Russia and is quick to give advice to both Peter and Catherine. In reality, she was a formidable leader who took control from infant Ivan VI — who was then held captive.

In the first season, the show depicts the imprisonment of the child tsar and then his throat slit by Elizabeth — as he is seen as a threat to Catherine’s claim to power (and, minor detail ... he is also a violent psychopath). In reality, he was held prisoner for 20 years and was only killed when opponents of Catherine tried to free him.  

Did the standoff take four months?

Sacha Dhawan and Douglas Hodge in The Great

Sacha Dhawan and Douglas Hodge in The Great (Image credit: Gareth Gatrell/Hulu)

Unlike the stalemate that takes place in the season 2 premiere and Peter’s choice to abdicate due to his hunger, it only took a matter of days for Catherine to take the throne. In the six months Peter was in charge he managed to anger all the wrong people, which includes military leaders and the church. Peter didn’t have a lot of love for the country he ruled, while his support of Prussia’s Frederick II (opens in new tab) didn’t sit well with the nobility either. He also had no time for the Russian Orthodox Church, isolating him further.

Rather than pay any attention to the warnings that Catherine was coming for his title, Peter continued to play his violin and entertain his mistress. As a man who was known to play with toy soldiers well into adulthood, he was a terrible tactician and by the time he went to find Catherine at Monsplair (opens in new tab), she was already in control of the capital, St Petersburg. Catherine the Great biographer Virginia Rounding (opens in new tab) describes Peter’s search for his wife in amusing detail, "He searched for her in all the rooms, even looking under the beds and in the wardrobes — as though he thought his wife might be playing hide-and-seek."  

Catherine had planned on mounting this plot later in the summer of 1762, but one of their co-conspirators had been arrested so it was necessary to speed up the takeover. Not that this mattered too much — Peter abdicated without kicking up a fuss when it became clear he had no other options. 

Unlike the way it's shown in the TV series, this was a bloodless coup and it is highly unlikely that children played soccer with a decapitated head. Well, an almost bloodless coup as, eight days later Peter wound up dead through "natural" causes — a severe case of colic... allegedly. The bruises on his neck told a different story. The Peter of this series is still very much alive at the end of "Heads It's Me."

Was Catherine pregnant?

Elle Fanning and Belinda Bromilow in The Great

Elle Fanning and Belinda Bromilow in The Great (Image credit: Gareth Gatrell/Hulu)

The short answer, no. In fact, Grand Duke Paul was 7 years old when his father lost his title. Young Paul was with his mother at the Winter Palace when this went down and in Catherine the Great: Love, Sex and Power (opens in new tab), Virginia Rounding described the "tumultuous acclamation" that greeted mother and son when they stepped out on the balcony after the transfer of power. 

Other big details that have been altered include Catherine’s age (she is a decade younger in the series) and the length of her marriage to Peter. The date of Peter’s abdication was also their 18th wedding anniversary and Catherine opted to take Peter’s title rather than give him the traditional Russian turquoise-themed gift for reaching this milestone.

The Great season 2 is available to stream (in its entirety) on Hulu in the US. Episodes air weekly starting July 27 on Channel 4 in the UK.

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Emma Fraser

Emma Fraser spends most of her time writing about TV, fashion, and costume design; Dana Scully is the reason she loves a pantsuit. Words can also be found at Vulture, Elle, Primetimer, Collider, Little White Lies, Observer, and Girls on Tops. Emma has a Master’s in Film and Television, started a (defunct) blog that mainly focused on Mad Men in 2010, and has been getting paid to write about TV since 2015. It goes back way further as she got her big start making observations in her diary about My So-Called Life’s Angela Chase (and her style) at 14.