Hulu’s “The Great” spends a lot of time imagining how 18th century Russian royalty might have spent their time. Men who don’t have to fight in wars wrestle endlessly in the palace, which is really a fancy frat house. Women forgo literacy and philanthropy for gossip and rolling balls across a lawn. And Peter III — the country’s reigning degenerate, portrayed by Nicholas Hoult — tests guns in crowded rooms, sleeps with all his friends’ wives and tells jokes he forces everyone to laugh at, whether they’re funny or not. (Spoiler: They’re not.)
All the casual violence, sex and animal abuse is a rude awakening to Catherine II (Elle Fanning), Peter’s starry-eyed wife, who soon seeks to dethrone him in a military-backed coup. “She’s walking into a world that has to be like, ‘What the … is this place?!’ and I want the audience to feel the same,” said series creator Tony McNamara. “There’s often an expectedness to period genre things, so we always tried our best to not choose the most expected route.”
Though “The Great” has not yet been picked up for a second season, McNamara — who also wrote the irreverent 2018 movie “The Favourite” — initially pitched it as an “occasionally true” series tracking Catherine’s lifelong reign and spanning five or six seasons. “Unfortunately, my mind is full of shocking moments, so I don’t think I’ll run out of ideas,” he said with a laugh. He walked The LA Times through the debut season’s most depraved recreational activities.
Episode 1: A Smashing Toast
Drinking in “The Great” seems to require three steps: shouting “Huzzah!,” downing a shot of alcohol and throwing the glass on the floor so that it smashes into a million pieces. The ritual dates back to Peter the Great, Peter III’s grandfather, and is usually reserved for special toasts. “It seemed very appropriate to the character of Peter (III) that he would be so dangerous and cavalier as to do it after practically every sip,” McNamara said, laughing.
Throughout the season, the show smashed thousands of breakaway shot glasses and wine glasses made of sugar — a well-known trick to get the same effect without risk of injury. The crew stocked up after nearly running out while shooting the pilot. “We were rushing out to try and find new ones, and see if we could use real ones if we threw them against the wall far enough from where anyone was standing,” McNamara recalled. “In the end, (cinematographer) Matt Chapman shot around it a bit so that principal actors had them and everyone only got one go at the big one.”
Episode 2: A Bit of Blood Sport
Sick of hunting animals and punching each other? Gather ‘round for the day’s entertainment: a fatal round of Fight Club between a dog and a raccoon. They’re both thrown into a large log, which rollicks back and forth amid unsettling growls. The dog, covered in blood, emerges victorious.
Historically, dogs have been forced into badger-baiting — a practice that, though largely outlawed for centuries, still occurs illegally. But since badgers are a protected species, “we sort of cast around them and thought, ‘Well, raccoons are trainable and we’re allowed to shoot with them, that’s close enough,’” McNamara said. Real animals were used outside the log, but no one was harmed in the making of the series, as the “fight” is all visual and sound effects.
Episode 2: An Honorable Jab
What better way to honor wounded veterans than by throwing an ostentatious bash with dinner, dancing and gazing upon the severed heads of the enemy, presented on silver platters? “I feel we are being stared at,” jokes Peter before gouging out the eyeballs with his bare fingers and instructing all party guests to do the same.
“That whole thing is just something I thought was pretty shocking, in a funny sort of way,” said McNamara, with assurances that that moment has no historical antecedent. “At the read-through, it was funny to hear all the ‘What the …?’ in the room.”
Since each guest gets his own Swede, the scene needed a lot of heads, and good ones can cost $50,000 each. “The hardest thing was finding enough heads that, in close-up, look real,” said McNamara, who saluted hair and makeup chief Louise Coles for accentuating the illusion.
Episode 6: A Parachuting Pup
When Catherine tries her darndest to get Peter excited about science, the thing that piques his interest is, of course,
parachutes, because Peter is an overgrown child. He interrupts a launch demonstration at the last minute by replacing glass bottles with Marial’s (Phoebe Fox) small dog. The experiment may not work with an animal, Peter is told. “Well, failure will also be entertaining,” he says, before throwing the pup into the air. (The chute opens, phew!)
Thankfully, no dog was tossed from the palace exterior in Naples, Italy. “It’s actually a fluffy toy dog that moves,” McNamara said. “We were gonna do it with a green box so that CGI could build it, but we thought, we have the crowd here, let’s just try it with the toy. It worked so well that we just animated its legs a tiny bit afterward.”
Episode 7: A Science Party
Apparently, a science fair — the elementary school event showcasing makeshift magnets and volcanoes of baking soda and vinegar — is very different from a science party, which Peter throws to surprise Catherine. Look how progressive your husband has become! Here’s a chance to hold a human heart (with or without a gunshot wound), electrocute a young child and light your farts on fire!
“He’s adopted her idea, but in his own, 16-year-old boy kind of way,” said McNamara, attributing the idea to the episode’s co-writer, Gretel Vella. The preposterous party is a fitting contrast to Catherine’s plight to prove the importance of smallpox vaccines by giving one to herself. (And FYI, all fiery flatulences are merely visual effects.)
Episode 9: A Torture Exercise
Peter knows someone is trying to kill him, so he sets up a kind of high-intensity interval torture session to squeeze out confessions from his court. Just like a workout at Barry’s Bootcamp, the space is equipped with different stations: fingernail removal, electrocution, bucket swirlies, hot nipple pinches, good old-fashioned punches and eels that will suck on your face until you’re bruised and bleeding. Even better, there’s space set aside for spectators!
The scene holds no historical truth — McNamara brainstormed common torture tactics alongside his own novel ideas — but required production designer Francesca Di Mottola to rebuild a notable portion of the set in London. “It was a huge amount of work for a two-page scene,” McNamara said. “But, I must say, it was quite fun.”