The Great Is Masterfully, Metamodernly Great TV

The Great, a 2020-21 production (Tony McNamara, Hulu), metamodernizes the storied myth-history of 18th century German-Prussian teenager Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst’s transition into her new identity as Catherine II, aka Catherine the Great. It begins as she moves to Russia to marry her cousin, Czar Peter III, and makes hilarity out of one of the more murderously awkward marriages in Russian and European history. How is this show so much fun?

There is much greatness here, in the sense of the metamodern epic: “epic failures” abound, naturalized within the excesses of the time. These failures are part of the expectation of life’s vicissitudes taking crazy turns on the daily, and are portrayed with a kind of buoyancy, even as an impending cloud of disaster hovers at all times.

The show’s historical revisionism is overt – the title’s tagline initially reads: “An occasionally true story” and by the series’ end reads “An almost entirely untrue story” – playfully mocking itself for its audacity.

Overall, the ludicrous excesses of traditional royalty and court life are positioned as clashing with newcomer Catherine’s deep desire to be a reformer for women and for serfs. In turn, her progressive, proto-modernist impulses are equally poked fun at for their extreme naïveté. The show also shines light on the absurdity of a long-held historical heuristic: that the stability of an entire nation – continent, even – should fall on the fate of a marriage of two young people with meager interpersonal skills.

Multiple epistemic positions are joggled here – the aforementioned traditional and modern accompany a relentlessly acerbic, postmodernly-overtoned humor – via characters who mostly are played as at once conniving and guileless. The ebullient aesthetic of “extra,” self-reflexively present in some characters, instantiates the metamodern. Taking a closer look at a few of them:

1) Catherine (Elle Fanning): Early in the first season, Catherine’s assumptions about the happiness and partnership her new betrothal will bring her are quickly dashed. Her attempts to stay true to her ideals of being a non-violent change agent are constantly thwarted. She begins a kind of training in Political Savagery 101 that her small band of allies insists is necessary for her coup campaign against her husband.

2) Elizabeth (Belinda Bromilow): Also early in the diegesis, we are introduced to the fact that Catherine’s aunt-in-law and ersatz mother possesses an unquestioned mystical power to summon butterflies to do her bidding. There’s a decided lack of special concern shown by other characters that would be commensurate to these magical-realist happenings. It feels like a metamodern double frame is at work here. (The double frame is Raoul Eshelman’s concept of an outer frame with fantastical elements clearly separating it from ordinary reality, and an inner frame that provides the story’s stable emotional logic.) Information we garner about Elizabeth’s past in Season 2 suggested to this reviewer that the butterflies perform another duty as a representation of the character’s dissociation, stemming from trauma incurred when her only child drowned. Such a modernist, pathologizing explanation isn’t overtly broached and therefore never supplants the idea that supernatural happenings have simply become quotidian here. This is just one way the show employs a metamodern signature move of showing how several modes can exist simultaneously. Elizabeth’s strength in fact lies in being the most whimsical, chimerical character, while somehow also the most grounded and the wiliest politician of the bunch.

3) Orlo (Sacha Dhawan), an ambassador/bureaucrat who embodies learnedness and rationality, is the character who seems at the outset our most likely of unlikely saviors (spoiler: he isn’t, really). Especially because he is mercilessly bullied by Peter (Nicholaus Hoult) and his cronies for possessing a moral compass. But he proves to be moved by pettiness nearly as often as anyone.

The spotlight on the felt experiences of each major character moves around liberally. Those we might initially have assumed were positioned as antagonists, meant to be categorically despised (e.g. Peter and a few of his suck-up friends), generally become more sympathetic when we see that their flaws later play as unlikely and occasionally important strengths.

In addition to its unrelentingly quirky-witty characterizations, this show possesses a distinguishing quality found in certain metamodern cultural products that I’d like to call an “emotional emboldening transmission” in which the innocent, the childlike, is not just portrayed by the characters, but activated in its audience. Characters in The Great reveal their own vulnerabilities readily (or in some cases wrestle with their ambivalence at hiding their secrets with comical brevity), giving the viewer a sort of permission – I want to call it a contact high – engaging a sense that it might be safe to bare one’s own weird, idiotic quirks to the world. This experiential element is still an enigma. It has arguably had a wide and profound influence all over contemporary popular culture. Yet, the (potential) affective “transmission” effects of metamodern aesthetics have received scant attention to date by metamodernism scholars. (I myself find it hard to adequately describe this je ne sais quoi after a decade of musing on it.) For now, a vague, comparative gesture will have to suffice: This emotional emboldening transmission phenomenon puts The Great in the same camp as other metamodern TV series such as Community, New Girl, Transparent, and Modern Family; with many of the films of Miranda July, Greta Gerwig, Michel Gondry, and Wes Anderson; or with pretty much any product in which e.g. actors Charlyne Yi, Michael Cera, Jake Johnson, or Zooey Deschanel are featured; or with films we’ve written about here at What Is Metamodern? such as Lars and the Real Girl, La La Land, and Everything Everywhere All at Once. (Not to mention the surfeit of tender lyricism from musical artists such as Sufjan Stevens, Billie Eilish, Bright Eyes, Phoebe Bridgers, and too many others to mention here.) In all of these, sub-textually, viewers are pressed into wondering, How would it really be to unmask my flawed, human self?

Another quality that metamodern television often plays with is genre-bending, (e.g. historical fiction; dark comedy; comedy-drama) sometimes called “genre busting” as in Brian T. Carney’s review of The Great: “An elegant and bawdy genre-busting history lesson…stuffed with equal parts witty banter, lofty ideals and brutal debauchery.” Shows that genre-bend are often also period-bending. In The Great, the use of contemporary songs accompanying each episode’s closing credits follows a trend in metamodern TV toward blatant, unapologetic anachronisms. This kind of mix-and-match period incongruity has the effect of referring the emotional signatures of the past into the present for our reconsideration, which will be discussed presently.

Exemplifying many of the stand-out metamodern characteristics I’ve mentioned so far – honestly, there could hardly be a more well-fitting, metamodern crown to a series – is the closing scene of the final episode of Season 2 (Ep. 10, “Wedding”).

… And obviously a spoiler is coming …

Although the childishly impetuous Peter is portrayed, initially, as completely self-involved, at best dismissive, and at worst outright hostile to Catherine, the show soon reveals that he is not without the ability to strive to improve himself for the sake of what he has newly discovered is this thing called “love.” So far, he has broken Catherine’s trust (and on occasion, her heart) so thoroughly in their short marriage that she is required to despise him even as she slowly and begrudgingly begins to appreciate a more tender part of Peter, which comes to the fore during her pregnancy. Even after Catherine is successful in her coup against Peter and keeps him under house arrest, Peter–absurdly, earnestly, and perfectly in the diegesis – courts her not to win back his country nor his freedom, but to win back the dignity of his love for her. Peter’s self-reflections finally lead him, improbably, to be our resident model for personal growth. Additionally, they allow him to acknowledge something important: that he has no real ambition to rule Russia. After a cursory bit of torment by his dead father, illuminating storehouses of childhood shame, he comes to see Catherine as a much more effective choice for ruler. If only the historical figures could have seen themselves as clearly… the show seems to say.

Peter’s concerns are mainly affective: he cares that she not misunderstand his feelings for her. In perfect obliviousness, Peter uses the occasion of someone else’s wedding to make a stunning, public admission of the brutal situation of his love for Catherine. In this scene, the viewer is privy to the fact that the nobility on Team Peter has guns cocked beneath the table to undo the coup then and there. Peter’s earnestness surprises all, and succeeds in both stunning his minions and awakening in Catherine the realization that relationships, even those that are an epic fail in terms of what they were meant to secure in an extrinsic sense (in this case, stability to an entire country), need be neither perfect nor a complete disaster. They may be both at once.

The entire scene is well worth watching. Its end has Catherine responding to Peter during the wedding banquet (and thereby matching Peter’s obliviousness – important because we need to see them as similarly self-involved), soliloquizing thusly:

I have carried a romantic idea of people all my life. Perhaps too romantic. That has changed quite a bit recently. I saw a great love as a kind of “perfect” love. Maybe it’s not. Maybe a great love, like a great country, or a great leader even, is a flawed one. Maybe what makes it great is its embrace of our failings. Our scars. Our fucked-upedness. As long as we are questing always for better, knowing that we will bring ourselves down as often as we set ourselves free, maybe a great marriage is simply the ability to hold all that in one tender, yearning heart.

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And with that, she conveys a moment of maturation into a romantic, proto-modern, young leader who we witness paradoxically growing an ability to work with rather than entirely against the old Russia and its ruling family. That is to say, Catherine learns to incorporate the chaos and unpredictability of the governing tradition, which, even though portrayed as massively dysfunctional, has served to create some order and identity.

As mentioned earlier, it seems in metamodern film and television that inserting familiar, contemporary pop songs into historical contexts enhances the capacity of a contemporary viewer to identify with the interiority of characters from distant epochs. This particular episode ends with “I’m Sticking with You,” a lilting, childlike, and perhaps quintessentially proto-metamodern song written in 1969 by Lou Reed for the Velvet Underground and recapitulated for a metamodern audience more recently with a cover by The Decemberists. Its naive refrain (“I’m sticking with you, ’cause I’m made out of glue; anything you wanna do, I’m gonna do, too”) reminds us that Peter and Catherine are more alike than the oil-and-water of their initial collision of wills (read: epistemic positions). In the final moment of Season 2, they stand together with gazes wildly averted, bewildered by the idea that they seem to have momentarily reconciled. (There’s also the fact that Catherine, in her pain, has just stabbed a man from the back who turns out to be Peter’s body double, and when Peter enters the room revealing the blunder, she throws her arms around him in relief. So there’s that going on.) In my metamodern reading of what’s happening here, the series is asserting that the acknowledgment of feelings does not mean all tensions will suddenly be sorted out. No tidy, “let’s forget about the past” ending is expected to accompany their recent personal realizations. Things are still pretty fucked.

Metamodernism’s usefulness as a distinction here is in showing the demarcation not of the terrain of the should-be (to which modern narratives will be required to capitulate) but of the as-is. In metamodern narratives, utopian, salvific story lines are unsatisfying, unconvincing, not likely to stick, unless there is significant grappling with the mess made in their very wake. Never are we convinced that Catherine’s hopeful intentions for a new Russia are going to be enough to suddenly overhaul or outright replace the Old Guard. Philosophizing that things should be so isn’t likely to lead to permanent change. The character of Voltaire (Dustin Demri-Burns) is in fact present to remind us that dry intellectualizing is ultimately of limited utility. (In reality, Voltaire apparently admired Catherine as an “enlightened despot” suggesting that the heart married to the mind was a desirable composite.) Russia itself plays as an impetuous, backward character throughout The Great, but one whose long reach shows itself to have a heart far greater than the one viewers are initially privy to based on the frivolous antics of its ruling class.

At What Is Metamodern? we read a lot of reviews of pop-cultural products by critics who, unbeknownst to themselves, address metamodern elements in a given TV series or film. That is, their critiques may wonder at what we would call the metamodern components, sometimes with a tone of puzzlement suggesting that something not quite comprehensible and therefore a little suspect is going on. Many of the reviews of The Great aggregated on Rotten Tomatoes exemplify the unwitting grappling with its metamodern elements. One brisk summary of the show by Rachel Cooke in New Statesman reads, “Basically, it’s kind of weird: stunted, somehow, and deeply trivial, but also funny, escapist and addictive …” She begins her review with the caveat that she’s embarrassed to admit that she enjoyed the show. This we also see a lot. The message seems to be something like, I don’t understand what’s happening here, therefore it must be trivial or wrong-headed. When such critics have the frame of the metamodern in their pockets, I suspect this may change. Sure, they still may not personally prefer the deployment of metamodern aesthetic sensibilities, but at least they’ll be able to address them, rather than coming off as almost defeated in their critiques. They may then have an easier time with admixtures like The Great – those which purposely elude confinement within one box or another.

Even though this show is self-statedly unfaithful to history, Catherine the Great was in fact the reigning monarch for 34 years, so let’s hope for more seasons of its metamodern greatness.

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