In season one of The Great, being a friend to Peter the Third often seemed like an exhausting and self-deprecating commitment.
The emperor frequently ridiculed those closest to him. He punched his wife in the stomach, had an open affair with his best friend’s spouse, shot a pet bear for giggles and threw daggers at the palace guards in impromptu games of William Tell.
But in season two, which premiered regionally on OSN on November 20, it is now Catherine the Great’s court, and as the empress launches a concerted effort to revitalise and modernise Russia, those in her husband Peter’s company will have to think twice about what it means to side with the usurped emperor.
“We’re definitely not in a good place,” says Bayo Gbadamosi, who plays Arkady in The Great, one of those in Peter's inner circle.
“It is a wonder that we’re still breathing to tell tale,” Gwilym Lee, who portrays Peter’s oldest friend, Grigor, says.
Season one of The Great was lauded for its vicious humour and its reinvention of the period drama. Branded as “an occasionally true story”, the Emmy-nominated show takes a number of liberties with its depiction of 18th-century Russia as it follows Catherine’s transformation from a doe-eyed idyllic Prussian princess into Russia’s longest reigning empress.
Created by Tony McNamara, who also penned the original play, the show features a stellar cast that includes Elle Fanning, Nicholas Hoult, Phoebe Fox, Sacha Dawan and Adam Godley, to name a few. Gillian Anderson also joins the cast this season for a two-episode stretch as Catherine's mother, Joanna.
Both actors say they didn’t know what Catherine had in store for their characters during the shoot for the new season, and often wondered whether their end was imminent.
“We don’t get all the episodes at the start. We get them as we go along,” Gbadamosi says.
“Me and Bayo would often come to work and be like, surely she’s going to kill us at some point at night. How much longer are we going to be in this job?” Lee says. The actor, known for his role as Brian May in the 2018 Bohemian Rhapsody, says the characters thankfully benefitted from Catherine’s benevolent attitude.
“She’s trying to create a new culture of peace and trying to move away from Peter’s violence, and we benefit from that," Lee says.
So why do Grigor and Arkady align themselves to Peter, despite his dictatorial propensity and thuggish humour? Part of it, the actors says, is “in order to live” and sustain an aristocratic lifestyle, but also an intimate understanding of what makes Peter, Peter – something we as an audience are privy to this season.
“He is pretty repulsive, isn’t he?” Lee says. “But then there is the context about his behaviour when you see how he was brought up and the complete lack of love he was shown as a child, the neglect. Children reflect what you present to them and he’s never shown anything besides disdain, really. So it’s kind of learned behaviour. I don’t know, maybe I’m being an apologist because I am his best buddy.”
“Yeah, I do think that he has some redeeming qualities,” Gbadamosi says. "At the same time, the brutal side to his personality far outweigh those qualities. But there is context to his behaviour, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it certainly is led on by his upbringing and his own experiences and that is exciting and interesting to see this season.”
Lee says the cast returned to shoot season two of The Great late last year, soon after the show debuted on Hulu to critical acclaim.
“We were seeing a lot of the critical success happen in real time,” he says. “We were coming into work and we’d go on Twitter and see the nominations for the Sag awards or the Golden Globes, it was a real buzz to experience that together. But then with that comes the pressure.”
While a lot of season one was about the plotting and planning of Catherine’s coup against her husband, season two will explore what her ascension to the throne means for her and Russia.
“Taking over the throne is just the beginning of her journey,” Gbadamosi says. “There’s a clear divide now within the court in terms of team Catherine and team Peter and seeing how it all manifests is something audiences can look forward to this season.”
“It’s a whole question of power and what to do with it,” Lee says. “Peter just had power handed to him by the nature of his birth. He just kind of continued the status quo and what happened in Russia generations before. But now an outsider is coming in and seizing power and then reimagining what power would mean in a country like that, and it kind of throws everything into complete disarray.
"There are questions there that are relevant to us, in terms of what qualities a leader should have and what qualities they should be trying to send out into the world.”