‘Catherine the Great’ is scared of its own power

Sunday, October 27, 2019 - 4:11pm

Helen Mirren in 'Catherine the Great'

Helen Mirren in 'Catherine the Great' Buy this photo
HBO / YouTube

Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, was deemed great for a reason. “Catherine the Great,” the mini-series, hasn’t quite decided what that reason is just yet. 

HBO’s new historical drama “Catherine the Great” stars Helen Mirren as the titular Russian queen who assumed the role following a coup that dethroned her husband, Peter III. The premiere follows Catherine and her advisors, including the cautious and calculating Minister Panin (Rory Kinnear, “The Imitation Game”), as they determine how to handle her tenuous grasp on power.

After giving a speech calling for the end of serfdom, Catherine struggles to maintain control over her court of wealthy landowners and military leaders. In the midst of her shaky political future, she is met with a young man’s claim: He is the rightful heir to the throne. Fearing a possible revolt, Catherine ultimately decides to disregard her liberal principles and call for him and his conspirators to be executed. This violent and out-of-character decision marks the beginning of her struggle to uphold her values while cultivating respect as a leader. 

As Catherine navigates her life with absolute power, she juggles the personal relationships that have defined her legacy in history as much as her policies have. Former lover and accomplice in dethroning Peter III, Grigory Orlov (Richard Roxburgh, “Moulin Rouge!”) demands more of a share in her rule due to his involvement with the coup. However, handsome military lieutenant Grigory Potemkin (Jason Clarke, “Zero Dark Thirty), begins courting the queen, much to the chagrin of Orlov. The men, in hopes of obtaining bureaucratic influence and wealth, compete for Catherine’s affections.

While the costuming and set design beautifully reflect the royal grandeur of the Golden Age of Russia, the rest of the show does not seem nearly as powerful. Throughout the premiere, the threat to the throne and a looming war with Turkey feel inconsequential and take back seats to romantic subplots. This, of course, is perfectly fine, but without any significant dramatic stakes, “Catherine the Great” fails to excite in the ways it could.

Helen Mirren, though committed to her role, does not get to play with some of Catherine’s more outlandish personality traits. Frequent mentions are made to the queen’s infamous promiscuity, but she is never shown doing anything more than making suggestive eye contact. Rather than dive into Catherine the Great’s salacious reputation outright, the mini-series substitutes any lewd content with tangential scenes of lesser court members exchanging sex for power.

This is just the most visible failure of the show to engage its audience with the most compelling parts of this woman’s history. Catherine’s dynamic with her murdered husband and her ambitious son, Prince Paul (Joseph Quinn, “Game of Thrones”) is hinted at but ultimately unexplored. In splitting its focus between the members of her court instead of solely Catherine herself, the show dilutes whatever cultural impact it could have. 

On a network known for its provocative content, “Catherine the Great” has the opportunity to present a history-making and enlightened female ruler within the context of her own sexuality. Given the chance, the show could break expectations of women in politics and present a more thorough examination of how power and femininity interact in a conservative environment. 

While undoubtedly beautiful, this mini-series does not seem to understand its angle in depicting Catherine’s history. Not quite political and not quite shocking, “Catherine the Great” has trouble choosing what its audience wants. Mirren delivers a few lines that strain to be potential feminist adages, but the appearance of depth proves as fabricated as the cast’s lustrous outfits.

All things considered, “Catherine the Great” is a fine show. Though nothing about it is distractingly poor, the series suffers from its hesitance to make waves and commit to its own controversy. Here’s hoping they at least pay homage to that horse rumor.