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Two hundred and sixty years ago, the most powerful monarch in Europe was a woman. And not just any woman. She who would become Catherine the Great was born a German princess, married at age 15 to her second cousin, taught herself Russian, gave birth to a son, staged a military coup to take the throne from her husband (Tsar Peter III) with the help of her lover, possibly had Peter murdered, and then went on to rule one of the largest empires in the world for the next 34 years.
HBO’s four-part mini-series begins in the middle of that fraught journey, as Catherine (Helen Mirren) fights to consolidate her power after seizing the Russian throne in 1762. In this first episode, we get a glimpse of what an uphill battle this promises to be: She’s surrounded by enemies who view her as an illegitimate usurper; her foppish dandy son Paul (Joseph Quinn) is getting ideas about maybe replacing her a few years early; her long-time lover, Grigory Orlov (Richard Roxburgh), is grumbling because she won’t publicly acknowledge his role in her life; and to top it all off, there’s the little problem of one of her relatives being locked away in prison in an attempt to suppress his very strong claim to the throne.
That’s a lot for anyone to deal with, no matter how good they look in a fur hat. Let’s parse through it.
The action begins on a barge carrying Catherine to Shlisselburg Prison, housed on an island near St. Petersburg. There resides the so-called “Prisoner Number One,” otherwise known as Ivan IV. Some historical background here: Ivan became Tsar as a baby, only to be overthrown in yet another coup (this one preceding Peter III’s reign) — there are a lot of coups in this story, and a lot of complicated Russian names, so please bear with me.
Imprisoned and isolated, Ivan was dubbed “Prisoner Number One,” and kept under constant guard, without anyone knowing his true identity. (Think Leo in The Man in the Iron Mask.) When Catherine takes the throne from her own husband, she needs to make sure Ivan won’t pose a threat. Still, when the Empress comes to visit in person, it’s kind of a red flag that the nameless prisoner might be someone important. And that’s exactly what Lieutenant Mirovich (Lucas Englander) deduces. A guard at the prison, he makes it his business to find out Prisoner Number One’s true identity, imposing yet another hurdle for Catherine to overcome.
Meanwhile, the new Empress has a very important speech to give, announcing her plan for the Empire. First on the agenda: Abolish serfdom, a form of medieval slavery that allows noblemen to own the peasants working their land. This infuriates the very people whose support she needs, but Catherine’s got a plan that involves making Russia the greatest nation it can be. (The show’s constant refrain about Russia’s potential “greatness” is one of its more tiresome aspects — not only is it a wink wink allusion to Catherine’s historical legacy, but it smacks of Donald Trump satire, and he doesn’t need to be everywhere!)
On the way to said speech, we’re treated to our first glimpse of Lieutenant Grigory Potemkin (Jason Clarke), who is best known for the village ploy that bears his name, and second-best known for being Catherine’s long-time lover. Right now, though, he’s just another soldier admiring the Empress from afar, and having a steamy affair with her BFF, Countess Bruce (Gina McKee). Still, that strong jaw quickly catches Catherine’s eye, which causes her current lover, Orlov, to fret. If she no longer wants him, that means he and his brother lose power, and power is pretty much all the Orlovs care about. They get back at Potemkin by attacking him after a game of pool, beating him senseless. But their brute force can only take them so far in a court that operates on intrigue and intelligence above all else.
Elsewhere in the palace, there’s another power struggle brewing. Catherine’s son Paul is celebrating his 19th birthday with a grand coming-of-age ceremony marking him as the heir to the throne. But Paul isn’t thrilled he has to wait until his mother’s death to rule, and Minister Panin (Rory Kinnear), one of Catherine’s closest advisors, appears to agree with him. (If he doesn’t, he’s playing both sides like a pro.) Still, Catherine is nothing if not an expert in shutting down snivelling men when they overstep, and she isn’t afraid to remind her son that he better toe the line.
It’s during that same ceremony that Catherine notices something’s amiss regarding Prisoner Number One. Recognizing Lieutenant Mirovich from the prison, she spies him talking to some army officers, and is immediately suspicious. She needs to keep the army on her side — they helped put her on the throne, and therefore, they can take it away.
She’s right to worry. Mirovich enlists some men to storm the prison in an attempt to liberate the would-be monarch. What he doesn’t know however, is that Minister Panin has decreed that any attempt by Prisoner Number One to escape from captivity counts as grounds for his immediate execution. As Mirovich approaches his cell to free him, another guard beats him to it and cuts Prisoner Number One’s throat. God save the almost-king.
Catherine uses this victory as an opportunity to fix yet another political problem: Minister Panin’s loyalties. He thinks he’s outsmarted her by suggesting that she show mercy to Mirovich. At first, Catherine agrees — she’s never had anyone executed before and as a liberal monarch, it’s a burden that weighs heavily on her conscience. In the end, though, she knows that in order to really hold the throne, she needs to show who’s boss. She lies to Panin, allowing him to promise Mirovich that he’ll be spared at the last minute, without ever intending to do so. She then forces Panin to watch the execution, as a reminder that she, and only she, makes the decisions in the Russian Empire. To be a great monarch, one has to be ruthless.
The episode ends on a high note for Catherine. To celebrate, she throws a ball where women at court must dress in men’s clothing, and vice versa. It’s a literal representation of Catherine’s rule: a woman, stepping into a man’s shoes. It’s also the perfect way to showcase the show’s magnificent production design — the wigs, the dresses, the embroidery! And the food! I gasped during an earlier dinner party scene when plates were heaved up from the kitchen to fit neatly into holes carved into the ornately laid table above. These people know how to live.
But no one lives it up more than Potemkin, who, despite his facial scarring courtesy of the Orlovs, goes absolutely HAM on his getup, and launches into a full-body dance sequence opposite Catherine. Having broken up with Grigory Orlov for good moments earlier, the Empress is ready for a new lover. Not that anything would have stopped her. In her own words, “There’s always another gorgeous man around the corner.”