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In Season 3, Hulu's period comedy shines as it hits its most dramatic beats yet
[Warning: The following contains spoilers for Season 3 of The Great. Read at your own risk!]
Early in The Great's third season, Peter III (Nicholas Hoult) glides onto the lawn where a group of spectators have gathered to watch his friends be executed. The onlookers gawk at him as though he's a ghost, having believed he was long dead by his wife Catherine's (Elle Fanning) hand after Season 2 ended with her stabbing his doppelganger, Pugachev (also played by Hoult), five times. (Five, Peter's friends are quick to note, is quite a lot.) "I know, I know — you thought I was dead, and now the joy you feel is discombobulating," Peter says as he breezes by a pair of shocked guards, wearing the triumphant expression of a man who's seen his own death and come out on the other side.
The first five episodes of Season 3 are tinged with constant reminders that Catherine almost executed Peter (he did have sex with and accidentally kill her mother, to be fair). The fact that she didn't serves as a twisted symbol of love to them, inspiring them to try marriage counseling and relationship-strengthening activities, like couples' badminton. Peter's feelings about being relegated to a supporting role in Catherine's reign are complicated, but the difference for his character this time around is how he learns to talk about it with her. If it wasn't already clear, Season 3 drills home once and for all that this series has managed to create one of the most complex romances on TV. It's a season about how Catherine and Peter have, against all odds, chosen each other — until a little over the halfway mark, when it becomes about something else entirely.
This has been a big year for the sudden deaths of important characters on TV, and a fascinating look into how shows reshape themselves in the wake of those deaths. In Episode 6, aptly titled "Ice," Peter joins the ranks abruptly and horrifyingly. He falls through a patch of ice, moments after declaring his intention to continue with his mission to retake Sweden and correct the failures of his own period as Emperor. He's troubled by visits from the mocking ghost of his father (Jason Isaacs), whose sneering jibes are louder than his wife's pleas. "We have rewritten each other in the best, most infuriating ways," she says. "That is enough." He replies, "Close to enough." This was always going to be the biggest divide between them. Even Catherine, so fixated on solidifying her own political legacy, can't seem to understand why Peter would want to carve out his own. His last words to her are an earnest profession of adoration: "I love you. My whole f---ing heart and all of my body and what ineffable spirit animates me. Everything." As he rides away on horseback, he appears to change his mind, turning to get her attention before the ice beneath him cracks.
The finality of Peter's death — referenced, joked about, and narrowly avoided for so long — shifts a series synonymous with rollicking vulgarity into its darkest episodes yet. To lose him is to lose a planet, throwing all who orbited him into disarray. Deeply disturbed by watching Peter die in front of her, Catherine spins out into a manic tear, managing to briefly convince herself it never happened at all before eventually allowing her grief to consume her. Peter's unfailingly loyal best friend, Grigor (Gwilym Lee), experiences a crisis of self, totally unsure of who he is without Peter at his side. In a morbidly loopy detail, Hoult continues to appear throughout the remainder of the season as Pugachev, who impersonates Peter as he tours the kingdom spewing impassioned anti-Catherine vitriol at the peasants in order to rally them against her. When the two eventually come face to face, she threatens his life when he slips into an impression of Peter's voice. His ongoing presence, coupled with Hoult's talent for making Pugachev feel like a distinct character, gives the series a certain air of its deceased haunting the story.
The Great has always dealt with legacy, and has spent fascinating hours exploring how its core duo have tried to reckon with what they will leave behind after they die. In the last moments of the season finale, Catherine assembles her aides and associates to give them orders of how to speak about all that has happened in the wake of Peter's death. Velementov (Doulgas Hodge) gets to tell one region of Russia the truth about Peter falling in the ice, while Petrov (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) will regale another region with a fictional tale of how he killed Peter, and Marial (Phoebe Fox) is tasked with crafting conflicting statements that give different explanations involving hemorrhoids and smallpox. "Everyone will get a story they want, and I will get whichever I need whenever I need it," Catherine says. It doesn't really matter what you do when you're alive, The Great suggests. All that matters is how those who grieve you carry on your memory. Catherine will carry on Peter's how she sees fit on any given day. There's freedom to that, especially coming from a show that has always approached its historical inaccuracies with such shameless mirth.
The season ends with Catherine chopping off her hair and wearing a big black dress as she dances, loose-limbed and thrashing, around her chamber to AC/DC's "You Shook Me All Night Long." It's a wild, cathartic moment that seems to be in celebration of her solidifying her position as a brilliant operator and a ruthless leader, until she collapses in tears just before the episode cuts to the closing credits. Just because she's edited Peter's story beyond comprehension doesn't mean she's free of her grief, or that she's made up for the void his absence has left in her life. It's an excellent season-ender, and, if the series continues to be as smart as it has been up until now, should be a perfect series-ender. It's not as if The Great doesn't have thousands of years of history to continue gleefully rewriting, but the story of this version of Catherine and Peter should end here, with an affirmation that legacy and destiny, ultimately, don't actually mean very much of anything.
The Great Season 3 is now streaming on Hulu.