'The Great' is a masterclass on comedic violence as assassinations, war and rape provide fodder for dark humor
McNamara seems to have a deft touch of pulling comedy moments from even in the grimmest of scenes
"The ego refuses to be distressed by the provocations of reality, to let itself be compelled to suffer. It insists that it cannot be affected by the traumas of the external world; it shows, in fact, that such traumas are no more than occasions for it to gain pleasure." -- Sigmund Freud
Creator Tony McNamara obviously agrees with Freud because punches often serve as the punchlines in this anachronistic take on the historical figure of Catherine the Great. Take, for example, a quick exchange when Catherine (Elle Fanning) asks Marial (Phoebe Fox) how her evening had been. “Avoided rape. You?” asks Marial. “Same,” Catherine answers, before adding, “If anyone ever invents something easier than buttons, we are all in trouble.” It is always a pleasure when modern social commentary is combined with wit in a period piece. And that is especially a tricky feat when you trying to balance drama with comedy.
But McNamara seems to have a deft touch of pulling comedy moments from even in the grimmest of scenes. When Catherine visits the Russian war front in a battle that has dragged on for years, she hands out macaroons to the soldiers -- the sweet pastel confectionary is a stark contrast to the awful misery, mud, and murky browns of the battlefield. It is, in essence, a dramatic scene in which Catherine realizes the pain and horror of war and the scene is critical to why she wants peace so badly in the episode to come 'Meatballs in Dacha'.
And yet, there is the comedic flourish that prompts a grim chuckle when she asks a soldier if he wants a macaroon, and he replies, "I'd love one, but I have no fingers". It is a thing of beauty, the comedic timing, to see Elle Fanning shove a macaroon in the man's mouth. Even domestic abuse is not spared the dark humor treatment. After Catherine talks of the "emotional blows" that Tsar Peter (a terrific Nicholas Hoult) has dealt her, he says that emotional blows are not actual blows. Then he punches her, and says, "I'll give you a moment to compare."
Similarly, negotiations of peace turn into a hair-pulling, eye-gouging, biting match between two kings, with their advisers rolling their eyes and dragging them apart like schoolboys in a yard. You can't help imagine what heads of state in the modern world would actually get up to if there weren't any cameras on them.
Bullying forms a huge part of Peter's court. Count Orlov (Sacha Dhawan) is routinely punched, mostly by Marial. Then, at a "Tea Dance", the ladies of the court perform a synchronized and elegant dance of punches and kicks, while they twirl around Catherine.
But it is the assassinations and torture that are the funniest bits in 'The Great'. While planning the coup, one of the ministers has to be killed in a hurry after he gets to know Catherine is the one behind the uprising. When his body is discovered, Peter decides a torture spree is the best way to get to the culprit.
After some memorable lines about how the co-conspirators would all confess, if "they went after their b***s", the tortures are shown with just the right dose of levity even though they do involve fingernails being pulled, escaping falling bricks and yes, a ball-gripper.
Later when they kill Rostov (Abraham Popoola), Peter and his friends exclaim how refreshing and Russian it is to murder a man, bonding over how the kill has lifted them out of their depression.
Towards the end, when Tsar Peter is falling in love with Catherine, he decides to kill her lover Leo (Sebastian De Souza). He takes him out hunting with his friends and then asks Grigor (Gwilym Lee) to shoot him. His aim is terrible and he shoots Leo's arm instead. Then Peter takes his shot and shoots his leg, also failing to kill him. "Shoot him again!" says Grigor, at which point, Peter says, "well, she'll be suspicious if she finds three shots in him -- how is that a 'hunting accident'?" And despite Leo writhing in pain, we still laugh. Because this is morbid humor at its best.
'The Great' premiered on May 15 and is available for streaming on Hulu.