Netflix is currently screening The Great, a 10-part series portraying the improbable, nay astounding, story of Catherine II, Empress of Russia from 1762-1796.
Born of impoverished German-Polish nobility, she came to Russia at age 10 and married Peter, the moody and abusive heir to the Russian throne, when she was 16. When he became emperor, as Peter III, she quickly initiated a coup against her husband and supplanted him as head of state (he died the same year from unknown causes).
As a practitioner of Enlightenment thinking and supporter of science, Catherine presided over what is called a “Golden Age” of Russian culture, diplomacy and modernization. She founded, for example, Europe’s first higher education institution for women, and endorsed an early form of vaccination. Clearly ambitious, she was also resolutely optimistic—a helpful trait when you take over a large nation where you weren’t born.
The Great was written and directed by Tony McNamara, Academy Award-nominated for his screenplay for The Favourite. It stars—and was co-produced by—22-year-old Elle Fanning.
Of course one of the things that interested me about this show was its portrayal of drinking.
Catherine, like virtually every character in The Great, drinks in almost every scene—morning, noon, night, and all night. Advocates of abstinence-only recovery might consider the show to need a trigger warning. Vodka, as you might guess, is the preferred beverage, but wine, champagne, beer and other spirits are also regularly consumed.
But The Great does not characterize a person’s behavior as being caused by alcohol.
The amount of drinking, and the acting, seem to imply that the characters are more or less continuously intoxicated. Sometimes mirth and enjoyment ensue, sometimes stupors and irresponsibility, and sometimes violence. And people, soldiers especially, use it to palliate pain and suffering.
But The Great does not characterize a person’s behavior as being caused by alcohol. People sometimes make good, and sometimes bad, decisions while drinking. Refreshingly, in light of contemporary screen tropes, there is no loss-of-control “alcoholism” in The Great.
Catherine, the character, doesn’t judge other people’s drinking or drunkenness, although she herself isn’t a sloppy drinker. Rather, she just enjoys alcohol, using it it regularly during sex and in virtually every other context.
The real Catherine despised how Peter’s uncontrolled drinking left him “reduced to brute animalism,” as she put it. Her tolerance for alcohol consumption did not extend to using it as an excuse for abuse or violence. The series’ Catherine displays the same repugnance toward Peter, although in The Great she more or less comes to tolerate her husband, almost to the point of fondness. But Peter still had to go for her vision of Russia to prevail.
The show, in summary, is not a temperance vision of alcohol. We in the United States are a temperance culture, where drinking alcohol was outlawed for a time, and guilt over drinking remains stamped on the culture.
In temperance cultures, control and disinhibition are at the heart of approaches to drinking. In non-temperance cultures, simple immersion in the effects of alcohol is the rule. For motivated, mindful people, like Catherine and most of her close cohorts, including her lover, drinking is a pleasurable enhancement of life. For the more purposeless members of the Russian aristocracy depicted in The Great, however, including her husband, alcohol’s effects are unpredictable, often shockingly, brutally so.
Accepting, or depicting, this variant vision of alcohol may both reflect Australian writer-director McNamara’s attitudes, and also accurately represent Russian drinking. Russia, unlike the US and other English-speaking and Nordic countries, is not a temperance culture. This permits both non-guilt-ridden enjoyment of alcohol’s effects, and unrestrained drinking behaviors with sometimes disastrous consequences. Russian drinking has more recently been associated with a downward trend in life spans for working-class males, even before the US discovered “deaths of despair.” The number one factor in these Russian deaths is vodka.
Viewers of The Great are accordingly presented with a mixed picture, one that at points they might be tempted to emulate, but which on the other hand can have frightening outcomes. Catherine may have been in a unique position, with her brilliance, purpose and privilege, to navigate this line.
Which style would you prefer?
But comparisons of drinking among other European cultures back up McNamara’s vision of the potential for the positive frequent use of intoxicants. In the first systematic study of cross-European drinking and outcomes, called the the European Comparative Alcohol Study (ECAS, which published its findings as Alcohol in Postwar Europe in 2002) there was a discomfiting discovery: Alcohol had good effects, depending on where it was consumed. As I previously noted:
The results of ECAS were stunning. While some empiricists had expressed skepticism about the great differences in styles of drinking that are often noted between, say, Oslo and Florence, London and Athens, Alcohol in Postwar Europe thoroughly supported with data that alcohol-related problems were lowest in Southern Europe and highest in the North, despite the much greater controls the latter imposed and the lower drinking ages and far greater consumption in the former.
Even more surprising was that alcohol-related mortality was also much higher in the North, due principally to the tendency in temperance cultures to drink in heavy bursts, rather than regularly, but moderately. This leads to more accidents, violence, and suicide, and perhaps even to cirrhosis in Finland, Norway, Sweden—which consume the least alcohol—than in France, Italy Portugal, Spain, Greece, which consume the most. ECAS found alcohol-related mortality was substantially higher in Northern than Southern Europe: 18 versus 3 such deaths per 100,000 for men, 3 versus 0.5 for women. There was an inverse relationship between alcohol consumption and alcohol-related mortality.
How is that even possible? According to the one commentary from a non-temperance epidemiologist (a friend of mine) in Alcohol in Postwar Europe, Italian Allaman Allamani:
“In the Northern countries, alcohol is described as a psychotropic agent. … It has to do with the issue of control and with its opposite—‘discontrol’ or transgression. In the Southern countries, alcoholic beverages—mainly wine—are drunk for their taste and smell, and are perceived as intimately related to food, thus as an integral part of meals and family life. . . [so that drinking] is not connected to the topic of control.”
Which style would you prefer? For many in temperance cultures, like Helen Kirwan-Taylor, an Englishwoman, alcohol is viewed in feast-or-famine terms. “I am what they call a ‘dry drunk’—someone who has given up [drinking]. For now.”
Is there a realistic alternative for those of us not fortunate enough to take control of a major European power center, like Catherine did, or to have learned to drink wine at our Italian grandparents’ homes as small children? Another debate is whether this Southern European style of drinking is being eradicated by cross-European regulation of drinking (e.g., raising drinking ages in Southern Europe) and changing drinking styles across the continent. Not yet, according to another Italian researcher and friend, Franca Beccaria.
Returning to The Great, its hearty attitude to drinking can also be seen in its approach to sex, including its constant use of graphic language. Women and men discussing, requesting and having promiscuous sex is a feature of the show (as are regular references to Catherine having sex with a horse, that much-peddled myth). The central characters in The Great, including Catherine, again contrary to standard American love stories, all have more than one sexual partner.
The show’s depiction of alcohol and sex as pleasurable accompaniments to Catherine’s life, rather than all-consuming, destructive obsessions, is welcome.
The real Catherine once wrote, “my heart is loathe to remain even one hour without love.” She is estimated by historians to have had between 12 and 22 lovers, to whom she conferred the benefits of her power, while typically engaging in only one relationship at a time. Nonetheless, there remains historic uncertainty about whether her son and heir, Paul, was the biological son of husband Peter or her then-lover. And while she liked being in love in and of itself, Catherine’s lovers also frequently provided her with useful knowledge or political leverage.
Regardless, the show’s depiction of alcohol and sex as pleasurable accompaniments to Catherine’s life, rather than all-consuming, destructive obsessions, is welcome. And The Great has much else to recommend it. Fanning’s impressive portrayal of Catherine paints innocence and ambition, commitment, intelligence, loyalty and passion. This was no cookie-cutter role.
Much has been made of The Great‘s playing fast-and-loose with historical facts. Hulu itself labels the show “anti-historical” and the title sequence includes prominently: “An occasionally true story.”
But I think Hulu is underselling its production. Certainly, the historical timeline and figures are molded and muddied for the convenience of the narrative. But I find that key elements of Catherine’s life—and the broader truths they reflect—are accurately rendered.
This is a fair imagining of what it was like for Catherine, as a foreign-born woman, to gain control of the Russian court and government, to enlist military support, to grasp Russian culture, to try to institute reforms, and to exhibit her human flaws. These dilemmas, challenges and conflicts are treated seriously in the show, for all its lightness of tone.
Above all, The Great succeeds in depicting the complicated interplay of experiencing personal pleasure versus pursuing serious goals and a larger purpose. Catherine’s principal lover espouses the former, and she the latter. This creates an emotional conflict over her need to jettison him in order to complete her political plans—a conflict that McNamara through his writing and Fanning with her acting capture achingly well.
Nearly all of the other key duos and triads express similar conflicts around values, desires, loyalty and simple life-preservation. While none of these stories can be tied directly to corresponding historical characters, they are artistically and psychologically valid and well done.
So I give The Great a huge thumbs-up—and not only for refusing to offer yet another anti-alcohol diatribe.
Screenshot from the Hulu trailer of The Great, showing Elle Fanning as Catherine and Nicholas Hoult as Peter.