Really? A science fair? Did elementary school not scar us all enough in this department? Someone is trying to assassinate Catherine, but she can’t be bothered because she is holding an international science competition. Marial says this should cheer her up because this is the kind of boring shit that Catherine loves. Unfortunately, everyone’s inventions are Romy and Michele’s Post-It level ideas and will make Russia look like chumps next to all the other countries.
One of those ideas is the stapler! As my notes recount: Catherine is not impressed by the stapler even though it’s SO COOL. If the stapler sounds too modern for 1760s Russia, you are correct because a stapler prototype was not patented until 1867 in America. I know we no longer use staples in this paperless world, but name a better way to hold paper together. Paper clips? They will fall off. Binder clips?? Obstructive. All hail the stapler. You might think I am devoting too much recap space to this invention, but it does get selected as Russia’s entry until Peter steals Norway’s entry and Catherine goes along with it. It beats out Katya’s tree sap velcro, birthing forceps, and the Exaltation death machine, which is a roller coaster that does not loop, but just ends mid-track.
Peter has been on a journey this season. From his slow-moving plot to take back the throne to his sped-up plot to take back the throne, now he has decided he does not want the throne. He spends all his time with his meditation teacher, Dmitri Kang (to Grigor’s dismay), and is practicing what he calls “kung fu thinking.” He later tells Catherine of his realization that God chose him, his parents chose him, but he never chose to be emperor. He does, however, choose to help Catherine with the science competition, saying he will invent something. Instead, Grigor and Peter’s lookalike rob the representative from Norway of his invention (an icebox) and conk him on the head. Science!
I am burying the lede because GILLIAN ANDERSON IS HERE. LET’S ALL GET HYPED. I feel instantly sorry for anyone in a scene with Gillian Anderson, because she exerts a gravitational pull towards which we all must lean. She plays Catherine’s mother, Joanna, and she is perfect. In terms of historical veracity, let’s just chuck all that out the window immediately. This is completely made-up. As represented here, nothing is true about Joanna Elisabeth of Holstein-Gottorp but her name. She was not welcome in Russia, none of her daughters but Catherine survived infancy, and when Catherine assumed the Russian throne, she had been dead for two years.
Do you remember Gillian Anderson’s muted performance on The X-Files (with some exceptions — see: “Three of a Kind,” season six) and how once she was able to pull away from the show, she made excellent choice after excellent choice, all of them stretching her as an actor and making her somehow even better than before? And now she’s at the age and has the star power where she can seemingly do projects she wants to do and pick genuinely fun roles like here, where she makes a Kate Winsletesque entrance in a grandiose hat. Her wig is magnificent, her skirts enormous.
Joanna is here to remind Catherine of her former life and how Russia has changed her. She’s also here to be a stunning and awe-inspiring goddess, but I digress. In this, again, utterly fictional version of Catherine’s life, she has three sisters and they are all married or engaged to kings of Europe. One sister is in Spain, another in Portugal, and her third sister was supposed to marry Louis of France, but the deal fell through once rumor spread of Catherine unseating her husband. This makes sense because if Lydia running off with Mr. Wickham was enough to make the Bennet girls unmarriageable, then Catherine instituting a coup and shoving her husband off the throne to take power herself seems like enough to maybe break off an engagement. Joanna asks Catherine how she killed Peter and is aghast when she discovers Catherine did not kill him even the littlest bit.
And then! She finds out that everyone else survived the coup as well. Marial’s still around, Elizabeth’s there, Archie, Arkady, Grigor, Tatyana, they’re all just hanging out and dipping their extremities/boobs in the Norwegian icebox Peter stole. Real Life Joanna seems to have been a nightmare, and The Great’s Joanna is startlingly unimpressed by her daughter, but she does have a nice Lucille Bluth touch with lines like “How was my trip? What a sparkling conversational gambit” and stating that the women at court wear the finest French fashion and still look like potatoes. She also kills one of Elizabeth’s butterflies in a real power move, which is ironic because killing a butterfly is not that hard.
To her credit, she has a point when she asks Catherine if there has been a serf uprising, crocodiles roaming the court, a potential war with the Ottomans, a battle with the Church, and a “general litany of failures.” I mean, when you lay it all out like that, sure! It doesn’t sound great! Catherine offers up that there was only one crocodile.
Joanna meets Peter despite Catherine’s protestations, and Peter tells her about his invention of whipped egg yolks, mustard, and lemon, which he is currently calling an eggonnaise. Damnit, I love this show. Joanna seems overwhelmingly unimpressed with Peter, but then she returns sans Catherine and grabs him by the dick, so, y’know. That’s not great and can lead to nothing good. Peter is primarily confused, but this foreshadows terrible things because he has in the recent past indulged in sex as casually as I indulge in Jell-O pudding cups, and he has been without for quite some time. Well. Barring the last episode where he slept with two women while he was mad at Catherine.
Speaking of sex — Grigor and Marial have now had it. They talk about Catherine and Peter, which is reminiscent of the Carrie Fisher and Bruno Kirby vibe from When Harry Met Sally. They’re the best friends of the love interests who fall in love with each other! It is such a good B plot! I continue to love them.
We end with a roller coaster built in a day, because why not. I can’t help but think of all those historical novelists who spend hours frantically trying to find out the cost of carriage wheels in 1785, and then you get The Great, which is like, “fuck it, let’s add a roller coaster.” Maybe everyone should do this. The roller coaster is an adaptation of the Exaltation, with the death part removed. And it was thought of by a serf! Huzzah indeed.
• Can we start calling it eggonnaise?
• Would you be able to kill Peter? Would any of us? Feels like no.
• Okay, but did I make it clear enough that I was an X-Files obsessed youth in the late ‘90s who made a cast for her Scully doll when it fell off a table?