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Fabulous dresses, sumptuous interiors, and ruthless monarchs are their own kind of genre, and HBO and Sky’s Catherine the Great, premiering October 21, delivers as much royal-court-drama-realness as it can muster. The four-part miniseries stars Helen Mirren as Empress Catherine of Russia, the queen who stole the throne from her husband, withheld it for as long as she could from the rightful heir, her son, and ruthlessly expanded Russia’s territory into lands previously held by the Ottoman Empire. Catherine was 33 when she ascended to the throne, but Catherine the Great picks up with her more than a decade later, when the queen met and quickly fell in love with Grigory Potemkin (Jason Clarke), who would go on to become her closest confidante—and, as a result, the most powerful man in Russia. The mini is mostly about their passionate, ambitious relationship, which provides a window into Catherine’s licentious court, where aristocrats might receive hand jobs during the opera, while exploring their remarkably unconventional partnership, which lasted well after their romantic relationship ended.
It is, as these luxe adaptations often are, a bit too taken with the tyrannical despot at the center of the action. Mirren’s Catherine might have some modern impulses, including an early desire to abolish serfdom in Russia, and a streak of independence at odds with the expectations for women at this time. But Catherine’s primary concern is her power—and maintaining it at all costs. She moves from room to room sending sharp glances into the faces of those around her; a word or two sends a suspicious hanger-on to a public beheading. From her opulent palaces’ war rooms, she moves troops around, wreaking the devastation of battle onto far-off villages. Catherine the Great can’t help but marvel at her entitlement, situated as it is within the real domiciles of royals—the Catherine Palace, in Pushkin; the Peterhof, Gatchina, and Yusupovkiy palaces in St. Petersburg; and other regal locations in Latvia and Lithuania. Only very occasionally does the camera go afield to explore the vast country she governs, and when it does, it sees a Russia Catherine does not: The blood-soaked fields of the Caucasus, raving seers who claim to be the ghost of her dead husband; the Crimean Tartars who, under Potemkin’s influence, swear their allegiance to a gold-leaf portrait of the queen. The gulf between her world and the one she rules is enormous.
But Catherine the Great isn’t all that interested in absolute power. What animates the story is gender. Aside from her close confidant Lady Bruce (Gina McKee), Catherine is surrounded by men: administrators and generals who all want to influence her (and ideally marry her, but she’s too smart for that). As much as she does not want to cede her power to a man, though, Catherine loves them: She practically slavers over Potemkin when she first sees him, discussing with Lady Bruce how well-made and intelligent he is. Catherine likes that men go to war, too. She’s thrilled by their aggression, and never as satisfied as when they fight for her throne’s glory. That she sleeps with her courtiers is just another way she has of manipulating the masculine energy around her: Flirtations, affairs, and a cold shoulder the morning after are all part of the game. Feminism is not what is happening here: It’s Catherine using her gender to get what she wants. That’s a point underscored later, in one of Catherine’s grander moments of hypocrisy, when she reacts to her daughter-in-law’s rumored promiscuity with surprisingly swift fury.
Mirren and Clarke are an unlikely but sweet onscreen pairing, underscored by Potemkin’s rakish eyepatch. Mirren’s playing the monarch as young as her early 40s until her death at the age of 67, and Potemkin is a decade younger than the queen, so the actors have to cover a lot of ground in the four-part miniseries. Catherine the Great presents the two as a great unsung love story, and perhaps that is what they were. But it’s hard to develop much affection for them, given that their romantic life is so deeply entwined with their ruthless political goals. The two live like robber-barons burning through loot; in one episode, Catherine throws a great cross-dressing ball; in another, Potemkin surprises Catherine with an entire royal fleet—plus a brand-new port city for its berth.
There’s something hot, heady, and transporting about this fantasy of shared rule—a world full of treasures ready for the taking, a woman in charge, and a man who adores her without hesitation. Catherine’s love affairs became a popular way to defame her—the most famous rumor is that she died while having sex with a horse. Catherine the Great reframes her desire as part of her glory—and revels in that glory, without asking too many awkward questions.