The Great does not shy away from its history-bending status and has always been upfront when presenting its “occasionally true story.” The second season finale goes one step further with a new title card addition that now reads: “An Almost Entirely Untrue Story.” Over the course of 20 episodes, the narrative has drifted further from the real Catherine the Great’s journey — although many elements are rooted in fact — and the finale embraces the alternative timeline.
It wasn’t all that long ago that Catherine (Elle Fanning) contemplated killing Peter (Nicholas Hoult) as part of the coup. However, over the course of season 2, she has fallen in love with the man she previously considered a monster. To his credit, Peter has changed in the months after abdicating and while there have been some less favorable moments, he is no longer the brute he once was. Unfortunately, Marial (Phoebe Fox) tells Catherine what happened to her mother — and who was the one who did it to her — and this blissful existence comes to a swift end.
Catherine’s rage is redirected to the ongoing conflict with the Ottoman Empire, as her desire to rule Russia without going to war has failed miserably. “Wedding” is a marriage of Catherine’s best and worst impulses and Elizabeth (Belinda Bromilow) is on the receiving end of this anger. Later, Elizabeth points out she is “delusional about people, about the world. That is your great gift, but it is a curse as well.” Logic and reason can only get the leader so far and while Voltaire has offered striking ideas, it is Elizabeth’s counsel that sticks.
Back at the Winter Palace, a secondary coup is being planned and Marial’s wedding to her 8-year-old cousin provides the setting for the final showdown that ends with surprise arrests and a lot of leftover cake.
We are going to separate fact from fiction in the The Great season 2. This episode-by-episode guide concludes with the ongoing Ottoman conflict in “Wedding” and whether King Hugo of Sweden really fled to Russia. Plus, did Catherine and Peter’s marriage have a happy period?
Who was King Hugo of Sweden?
Viewers at this point are used to entirely fictitious characters and King Hugo (Freddie Fox) is another figment of showrunner Tony McNamara’s imagination. He was set up last season to be Peter’s equivalent: a ruler who lives in the shadow of his father and without the suitable talents to lead. Similar to Peter falling to a coup, King Hugo has been run out of Sweden and his plan is to join forces with Peter to “save the aristocracy in Europe.” He tries to get Peter on board by talking about their shared struggles but Peter has no interest in this team-up. Hugo is right to be worried about the old ways coming to an end soon as the French Revolution is less than 30 years away.
Adolf Frederick was the real Swedish monarch during this period, reining from 1751 to his death in 1771. As the first in the House of Holstein-Gottorop, he was considered to be a rather weak and ineffectual king because he was a figurehead rather than an absolute ruler. His successor, Gustav III, wrestled control back from the government in 1772 (during the Swedish Revolution) and went to war against Russia in 1788. King Hugo reads like an amalgam of the two rulers, but he should watch his back as Gustav was assassinated and the reason behind Adolf Frederick’s death is inconclusive. Good old-fashioned poisoning is one theory and another rumor suggested it was because he ate a large, rich meal.
Did the fratricide law exist in the Ottoman Empire?
When Catherine has her meeting with the Sultan, The Great leans into barbaric stereotypes (this is not a good look for the show). Of course, the idea is to make Catherine’s choice seem impulsive and fueled by her own anger but this brush with death feeds into a trope that is not backed up by the history of this time. Mustafa III was the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire between 1757 and he died of a heart attack in 1774 — Catherine the Great did not slit his throat.
Mustafa also did not have to kill his brothers to become Sultan. The practice of taking the throne by killing your nearest and dearest ceased in the previous century. Similar to Catherine, Mustafa was a scholar and before he became sultan he studied astrology, literature and medicine — he was also a poet. Mustafa found peace against the Prussians but did go to war against Russia in 1768, which was still raging when he died in 1774; a war that Russia finally won that same year.
Was Catherine’s marriage ever a happy one?
Of course, Peter was dead by this point. In reality, he only survived a short time after abdicating. However, did the couple ever hit the blissful heights that we see in the opening scene of “Wedding?”
The short answer is no: they were never sexually compatible and their first night as a married couple was a disaster. Although Catherine the Great: Love, Sex and Power biographer Virginia Rounding does say we should take Catherine’s comments about her marriage in her memoir with large “pinches of salt” as “she is concerned to demonstrate that she is in no way to blame for the failure of her marriage, that Peter was an impossible husband and would have been, had she allowed him to continue, an impossible Tsar.” Even historical documents have a bias and Peter III's reputation is derived from being on the losing side of his story.
In the finale, Catherine does stab what she believes is her husband, but it is his look-a-like and the deviation from reality is cemented further by their romantic and sexual chemistry. After all, The Great is now an “almost entirely untrue story.”
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.
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