With “Catherine the Great”, HBO expands on its growing catalog of deeply incompetent men impatient to inherit power from their harsh and critical parents. In eighteenth-century Russia, Catherine (Helen Mirren) sits on the imperial throne, having arranged for her husband Peter to be deposed and later murdered. But her role as empress is far from secure, least of all in her own eyes, carefully trained to see threats from every quarter. Her son Paul is chafing under his mother’s dominance, eager to discuss succession now that he has reached the age of majority and therefore no longer requires a regent to rule in his stead. Rivals of all kinds remain a threat as long as they live, and many of the Russian elite have a long list of candidates they’d prefer over a woman on the throne.
Mirren is particularly well-suited for the lead role, possessing a sort of imperious sensuality that perfectly matches the reputation of Catherine. One of the guards remarks to her future lover Grigory Potemkin (Jason Clarke) that she “eats men alive” and that is, well, not inaccurate. It’s refreshing that the show has not desexualized the famously randy Catherine the Great, whose many affairs with young men are well-documented. Her exploits in real life were allegedly far more explicit than is shown here, but one can hardly blame the show for that; it seems unlikely that they’d be allowed to show half of what Catherine the Great got up to, even on HBO.
It is, however, a shame that it focuses so extensively on her one long-term relationship with Potemkin. It’s fascinating to watch imperial life so utterly dominated by women, in stark contrast to the more commonly depicted palace intrigues presided over by kings. Here, instead, we have a court filled with beautiful young men acting coquettishly, seeking position and favor through their sexual relationships with their monarch. It’s a dynamic that is present in “Catherine the Great” but rarely explored to satisfaction.
So much of the show is dedicated to the tempestuous relationship between Catherine and Potemkin, and for an empress who oversaw the modernization of Russia, the decision to have so much of her story defined by a romance is puzzling. She often voices doubts about whether her son Paul will be capable of ruling over Russia as she has done, and she’s right.
Men of the time (especially her own son, who spent the majority of his short reign demolishing her accomplishments) may have been ungenerous in their praise of a woman’s leadership skills, but the truth is, not just anyone could rule Russia successfully. Catherine, as portrayed here by Mirren, may not have ever been intended to reign as empress, but her intelligence, force of will, and mile-wide Machiavellian streak make her the perfect fit for the job. As a remarkable historical figure, it’s disappointing to have so little screen time devoted to her political adventures rather than the constant arguments between the two lovers that even over the course of just four episodes quickly grow repetitive.
It also becomes increasingly difficult to ignore that the show has little in the way of plot or narrative thrust. “Catherine the Great” certainly creates an atmosphere, through sumptuous costumes and lush settings that have a deep sense of history, and Helen Mirren’s keen and commanding performance gives us a much greater understanding of the divisive monarch. But as a story, it isn’t compelling as it might have been if the writers had developed a tighter focus around one event or a specific period of time, rather than trying to briefly touch upon years of her reign with only a surface-level exploration of it all.
There’s a sense of over-reliance on the leading actors to make up for any flaws in the narrative, which succeeds most but not all of the time. The quality of Mirren in this role cannot be overstated, her moments of vulnerability well-chosen and deeply effective, contrasting nicely with a certain rigidity and emotional detachment that defines her role most of the time. She is in good company, with particular standouts in Joseph Quinn as the petulant but demanding Prince Paul and Jason Clarke as a blustering, passionate Grigory Potemkin. Their performances go a long way in elevating the limited series, which is stylish and feisty but lacks real substance.
“Catherine the Great” premieres on HBO on Monday, October 21st.
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