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TV Series Review

“There are unscrupulous people in Russia,” Catherine tells her scheming foreign minister in the opening episode. “Fortunately, I am one of them.”

Fortunately for Catherine, at least. And arguably, for Russia too.

They don’t call her Catherine the Great for nothing. The German-born empress deposed her own husband, foiled a number of would-be coups and presided over the largest nation on Earth for more than 34 years—during what many consider to be Russia’s golden age. She was considered enlightened for her time and place, and she enacted (or, at least, tried to enact) many reforms for which she was later fondly remembered.

But you don’t get called great without taking chances or making enemies. The historical Catherine hatched many a scheme under the table and bedded many a man under the covers. And naturally, it’s that sort of “greatness”—the great licentiousness of her court and the great duplicitousness of her times—that is of the greatest interest to HBO.

The Motherland’s Mother

This HBO miniseries opens a few years into Catherine’s reign, but her crown is hardly secure. A rival, the son of a long-dead Czar, could potentially serve as a figurehead for a popular revolt. The scheming Orlov brothers, who helped Catherine secure the throne, want more power and prestige in return—and they believe they can take the throne away just as easily. Even Catherine’s own son, Paul, thinks it’s high time that mummy share some power with him. He is, after all, the man of the family.

Enter Grigory Potemkin, the latest youngish Lieutenant to catch the empress’s ever-roaming eye. He has his eye on Catherine, too—not so much for her power and wealth (though that doesn’t hurt), but because he’s truly smitten by her: her courage, charisma and her ability to operate so well in a man’s world while still flouting significant cleavage.

But Potemkin is more than just a pretty face: He’s also a skilled strategist, both politically and militarily. And with so many countries threatening war, and with so many nobles breathing rebellion, she could use some sound advice in both areas.

The fact that he’s good in bed, naturally, doesn’t hurt his standing, either.

Do as the Romanovs Do?

Starring Helen Mirren, who’s made something of a cottage industry playing queens, HBO’s Catherine the Great is a lavish production that attempts to recast Catherine as a feminist hero—especially when it comes to her attitudes toward sex.

"Actually, to this day we think we're liberated, but we still have profoundly different attitudes to the sexuality of women and the sexuality of men,” Mirren told bustle.com. “Things are acceptable in a man that are not acceptable in women. Catherine jumped over that fence and landed on the other side."

Most everyone in the miniseries is cavorting on the other side, though. Pretty much everyone who’s anyone here has sex for the camera—often repeatedly. For such a chilly country, it’s remarkable how many people cavort without clothes here. It’s almost as if HBO spent so much money on Catherine’s extravagant gowns that they didn’t have money to outfit half of the extras.

And while the principal actors tend to have their privates shielded from the viewers’ voyeuristic eyes, all the panting and grunting and heaving certainly reveals what’s going on underneath all those corsets.

On the spiritual side of things, the Russian Orthodox Church, while important in Catherine’s Russia, is depicted as just another power-hungry player more than it’s shown to be a devout outlet of worship.

Russia gets plenty violent, too: While Catherine saw herself as a benevolent monarch, she rarely blanched at ordering someone’s head chopped off or sending countless soldiers off to war. Remember, this is a woman who, if she didn’t officially order her own husband to be murdered, she certainly didn’t shed many tears when he was.

These issues make HBO’s Catherine the Great as problematic as—well, as Catherine’s historical court probably was. Back then, all that sex and death was the way business was done in royal palaces across Europe. But at least most of the time, they had enough to propriety to close the doors a bit. Here, on HBO, they’re flung wide open. Eighteenth-century debauchery is given a 21st-century makeover and handed to us on a silver remote control, for viewers to devour at their leisure.

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Episode Reviews

Oct. 21, 2019: "Catherine the Great"



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Helen Mirren as Catherine the Great; Jason Clarke as Grigory Potemkin; Rory Kinnear as Nikita Ivanovich Panin; Gina McKee as Countess Praskovya Bruce; Kevin R. McNally as Alexei Orlov; Richard Roxburgh as Grigory Orlov; Joseph Quinn as Tsarevich Paul; Clive Russell as the Fool






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On Video

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Paul Asay

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