I am late to the party when it comes to The Great, the Hulu series that vaguely1 tells Catherine the Great’s story. You know, the Russian Queen who allegedly had some kind of carnal relationship with a horse.2
The Great is great for so many reasons. The costumes are spectacular. The entire cast — from leads Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult to supporting actors like Gwilym Lee and Phoebe Fox3 — is divine.4 But the very, very, very best part is Tony McNamara’s writing.
The words, you guys. They are the perfect ones to capture the wit and malice of this imagined Russia. McNamara5 plays absurdity against reality with mischievous glee. Moments of deep humanity live next to mindless cruelty that make both more true. And that tells you nothing about how meticulous the series’ structure is. He has so carefully crafted this roller coaster6 that the ride is nothing but a controlled release of tension and energy. Without this base, none of the other stuff would matter. But the other stuff is top-shelf, too.
Highly recommend.7 No notes.
Speaking of highly recommended things I’m late to the party on8…
Rachel Maddow’s newest podcast Ultra follows an insurrection — but not the one we’re most familiar with. She (and her talented team, of course) take us back to 1940 and a plane crash that isn’t what it first appears to be. With each episode,9 she peels back another layer of the plot to overthrow America. It’s chilling how close it came. It’s also darkly amusing to know that (some) WWII-era insurrectionists were just as puffed-up and downright silly as current ones are.10 And it’s proof that history always rhymes.11
While the story itself is gripping, what makes every single second worth reflecting on later is Maddow’s last episode summation of how this fervor died down and how it will keep coming back unless we see it for what it is.
To understand who all of these people are (and, trust me, you really do), listen to the podcast. Then remember that there is no one thing that will fight fascism. Only a billion smaller acts will kill it.
Two quick hits before I go:
Santa Camp is worth 90 minutes of your time.12 It's a documentary about some Santas who realize just how white, male, and old their group is and what they do to make the concept of Santa a more inclusive one.13 Which, arguably, is easily done when you're dealing with a figure from myth and legend but there are many who don't think that Santa should be trans or disabled or Black.14 The camp director recruits three campers who break the Clement C. Moore/Thomas Nast15 mold and it goes better than one might expect, except when these Santas have to deal with actual people in the outside world.
Finally, Maintenance Phase’s Michael Hobbes’ teamed up with lawyer Peter Shamshiri for a new podcast: If Books Could Kill. Each episode is a deep-dive into a popular airport book, like Freakonomics or Bobos in Paradise. Hobbes is a delight. Shamshiri, tho, is a master at pointing out every flaw in the author’s methodology/logic/argument without ever sounding like a simple scold. So far, my favorite episode is about The Game, a book about pick-up artists from the early 2000s that was even weirder than you remember.16
It’s subtitled “an Occasionally True Story,” which could not be more accurate and is refreshing because most “true stories” fudge timelines and combine characters without ever really reckoning with what that does to truth.
This rumor is by far the least interesting thing about the actual Catherine the Great but everyone loves to gossip about horse fucking yet no one wants to talk about smallpox vaccines.
To say nothing of Gillian Anderson’s very small arc as Catherine’s mother. So good, you guys. A master class in enjoying the heck out of yourself without actually chewing the scenery. *chef’s kiss*
In fact, it’s one of those shows that I put my phone down to just watch. So much happens on these actors’ faces and with the clothes and make-up and composition that careful viewing is rewarded.
Best known here for writing The Favourite, the Yorgos Lanthimos-directed and Olivia Colman-starring film that is about Britain’s Queen Anne in the same way The Great is about Catherine.
An amusement we can also thank Catherine the Great for
Just as head’s up: there is a lot of sex, a lot of violence, and a lot of swearing. It’s not gratuitous, mind, but there is a lot of it.
Not the best segue. I didn’t have a chance to workshop it.
Question for the historians: throughout the series, Maddow refers to “the Hitler government” rather than, say, Hitler’s government or the Nazi government. Is there a reason why it’s phrased that way?
The Proud Boys aren’t all that removed from the Silver Shirts when it comes to costuming and the rhetoric hasn’t changed one bit.
I’m always amused by folks who think the U.S. government was full of high-minded statesmen in some distant past and is now populated by partisan boobs. It’s always been full of partisan boobs. At least no one has been beaten by a colleague with a cane this decade.
If only so that you can revel in the luscious New England-ness of these Santas’ accents.
Some cities — I’m looking at you NYC — always offered Santas of color. But that’s not the case in most places.
There’s a heartbreaking and funny moment when some armed-for-bear Proud Boys show up to protest the trans Santa. One of ‘em mentions how it goes against the Bible. The filmmaker points out that Santa isn’t in the Bible. Oy, I say.
I knew about Nast’s Santa illustrations; I did not know he also skewered Tammany Hall. He contained multitudes.
A tuft of lint is involved, as is a lingering realization that something is just not okay with men.