Why is Catherine The Great All About Men?

Photo: Courtesy of HBO.
Warning! This article contains spoilers for Catherine The Great episodes 1-3.
I confess: As much as I adore Jason Clarke’s zestful exuberance as Grigory Potemkin, I wish Catherine The Great was more about, Catherine (Helen Mirren). 
Much of the third episode is devoted to their relationship squabbles, with a special focus on Potemkin, who is chafing in his role as Lover-in-Chief. The opening moments find him scrambling to locate his stockings in the mess of clothes he’s left lying around Catherine’s bedroom. The monarch, who has been up and running the country while her lover has been lying around in bed, eventually finds them, and the two set off for a meeting of the council. 
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“Matushka” (Russian for “little mother”) and “Grishenka” (her pet name for Grigory) have settled into a fun domestic routine, but neither are quite content with the status quo. He dreams of adventure on the battlefield and pushing Russian conquest towards Turkish-controlled Crimea on the southern border. She, meanwhile, is tired of having to worry about yet another fragile male ego on top of her many responsibilities as empress. And though they eventually develop an 18th century take on an open relationship that allows them to pursue their individual ambitions while acknowledging that they have a deep connection, I can’t help but feel like Catherine’s getting the short end of this arrangement. She is a woman who corresponded with some of the brightest minds of her generation, was incredibly educated and well-versed in art and literature, and a fashion and cultural trendsetter. But whenever she and Potemkin are apart, all we see is her complaining about how lonely she is without him.
As a powerful woman in a world designed for men, it’s understandable that her relationships with the most important men in her life — Potemkin and  her son, Paul (Joseph Quinn)— would be significant. But must they dominate her narrative?
The most interesting part of this episode is the way Catherine struggles with foreign policy. Russia straddles Europe to the west, and the Ottoman Empire to the east. The question of where to focus attention — and in doing so, defining Russia’s identity as a European nation, or an Eastern one — is a central theme. In the Europe camp, you have Minister Panin (Rory Kinnear), who has crafted an intricate system of alliances with Germany, France, and England that he wants Russia to uphold. In the Ottoman faction, you have Potemkin, who wants to convince the tribes living in Crimea to abandon the Turks in favour of the Russian Empire, guaranteeing Catherine a port in the Black Sea. Access to the ocean would mean a boon to Russian trade, but also an opportunity to build a strong naval presence and expand their sphere of influence even further. 
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This issue, by the way, is still relevant today: in 2014 Russia launched a military operation to annex Crimea, then a part of independent Ukraine, a decision that has been heavily criticised by the international community. Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, has justified the move by citing Russia’s historic presence in the region, which leads us full circle, back to Catherine’s reign. 
After a tense face-off with Panin during the council meeting, it becomes increasingly clear that Potemkin will have his way — if only so that Catherine can get some peace and quiet. The strain on their relationship comes to a head when Potemkin goes out and gets drunk, returning to find an anxious Catherine at her daughter-in-law Natalia’s (Georgina Beedle) bedside. Paul’s wife has gone into labor, and it’s not going well. Instead of supporting the woman he loves, Potemkin heads to Countess Bruce’s (Gina McKee) room to vent about how she’s not taking care of him, and the two hook up for old time’s sake. Meanwhile, Natalia and her son are pronounced dead, and Catherine is left alone to comfort her distraught son, and preside over an autopsy. In a graphic and somber moment, Catherine hands Paul his dead son so that he can say goodbye, shielding him, for now, from the news that the real father was probably his best friend. Their shared grief signals a very temporary rapprochement between mother and son. “There is so little time,” she says. “Let us at least try to love one another.”
Potemkin’s misstep on the night of Natalia’s death convinces Catherine to let him go. The two come to an understanding: when they’re together, they are together. But when they’re apart, they’ll turn a blind eye to whatever relationships develop in one another’s absence. In other words: what happens in Crimea, stays in Crimea. Potemkin sets off at the head of the army, and Catherine finds solace in the arms of her private secretary Peter Zavodosky (Thomas Doherty). 
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Catherine’s sexuality is, once again, front and centre in this episode. Count Orlov (Kevin McNally), now Minister of War and a supporter of Panin’s worldview, disparages her rumored endless sexual appetites, joking to the latter that it takes 12 men to satisfy her, and that they take it in shifts. “Do you think she even likes men?” he asks. “She eats them and spits them out.”
Catherine the Great makes it clear that this kind of rumor-mongering comes with being a powerful woman in a man’s world, a fact that rings true today. But in depicting Catherine’s relationship with Zavadosky, it does allow for a grain of truth at the heart of the exaggerations — whichleads to a conundrum. On the one hand, seeing a woman in her 70s celebrating her sexuality is something to celebrate. Mirren gives an incredible performance as she purrs and seduces, giving us the sense of a woman in complete control of her power, and relishing in it. But there’s also a darker aspect to this relationship, because it isn’t between equals. Catherine is Zavadosky’s boss, his queen, with power of life or death over him. When she asks him to “do whatever it is you think I want” there’s an uncomfortable sense of 18th century workplace harassment, especially when that’s followed by her telling him he’s “the best secretary I’ve ever had.” It’s hard not to imagine the outrage I’d feel if the roles were reversed, and a male monarch was using the same tactics to get a female subordinate into bed. 
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With Catherine recovered from her grief, she decides it’s time for Paul to do the same. In an effort to appease Panin, she gives him a list of 25 German princesses that would make for a suitable second wife for her son. Marriage is a key component in securing alliances. If Paul makes a good match, that would guarantee Germany remains on board with Russia even as Potemkin campaigns in the south. 
Speaking of Potemkin, he’s living it up. His crazy plan to convince Crimean warlords to join him is actually working, and he’s planning on building a grand capital by the sea in Catherine’s name. In his downtime, he writes her sentimental letters from brothels. 
Some years pass, and Paul and his new wife have given Catherine the grandson she hoped for. With the succession secure, she decides to send her troublesome son — who’s still grumbling about wanting more power — on a diplomatic mission to the Austrian court to secure the European alliances. Meanwhile, Potemkin is finally back at court, and the two renew their relationship, much to Zavadosky’s dismay. The problem is that, despite everyone talking about how much these two are meant to be together, their chemistry isn’t quite as palpable as one might hope. Clarke is dashing in his new moustache, and has enough charisma to keep one entranced, as does Mirren, but their relationship doesn’t quite crackle. 
Having secured Crimea for the crown, Potemkin asks that he be made Minister of War in Orlov’s place. (Here is where I get to remind you that he said he’d never ask her for anything.) Catherine agrees, and Orlov is dismissed during the next council meeting, which freaks out Panin. His friend’s dismissal rings the death knell for his vision for Russia. He objects vehemently, leading to Catherine’s suggestion that he resign. This, of course, was her plan all along. She knows Panin has been fanning the flames of Paul’s discontent, and plotting with him all this time. Finally, he’s out. It’s also a signal to Paul, who’s extremely unhappy about being sent away without his son, that he should put up or shut up. 
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The episode ends with both Catherine and Potemkin in triumph. Two years after their Saint Petersburg reunion, she meets him in Crimea. Her latest lover is suffering from performance anxiety, but that’s okay, because Potemkin bursts into her ship cabin, surprising her! He is fully unbothered by the naked man in the background, instead whisking her off for some snuggles and champagne. It’s not a party until you’re cozying up to your lover under a lavish fur blanket wearing an extravagant velvet confection! The two renew their declarations of love, but Potemkin really puts his money where his mouth is. The next morning, at dawn, he wakes Catherine and drags her topside. There, she finally gets a glimpse of the latest addition to her Empire, and her brand new Russian naval fleet, anchored out at sea. “I’ve done all of this for you, and only you,” Potemkin declares. “This is how I love you.” Sext. 
You Didn’t Learn This In History Class:
Catherine was famous for rewarding her lovers with palaces, riches, and, in one case, a throne of his own. One of her earliest lovers, Stanislaw Poniatowski, became King of Poland after she backed his claim long after their relationship ended. As if wasn’t enough of a power move, she later forced him to abdicate once it became clear he wasn’t up to the task. Potemkin better toe the line.
Catherine The Great airs on Sky Atlantic and is available on NowTV
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