The fourth and final episode of Catherine the Great presents a conundrum. On the one hand, it pains me to admit that this show has been a slog, and I’m glad it’s over. On the other, another handful of episodes might have made it less boring to sit through.
The real problem with this show is that it tries to cram roughly 30 years of history into four hour-long episodes. Creators Nigel Williams and Phillip Martin faced a daunting task trying to pick which threads to follow, but we never stick with one story long enough to see it unfold to its conclusion. No sooner have we heard of one thing that it’s on to the next, and it’s not often clear how many years have passed in between. Plus, despite everything that’s going on, I never quite felt like I knew these people, or what drives them. I understand the appeal of casting Helen Mirren and keeping the narrative contained, but part of me wishes we’d gotten this story as a slow burn, over multiple seasons, starting with Catherine’s childhood in Germany, her marriage to Peter III, and working our way towards her reign, etc. Give me The Tudors version of Catherine The Great!
This episode for example, which focuses a lot on Catherine’s reluctance to give into diplomatic pressure from her native country, would have benefited greatly from context. Same goes for her visceral dislike of her son, Paul, which also climaxes in a big way in this final chapter.
The question of the succession is more urgent than ever at this point. When we left Catherine and Potemkin on the deck of her ship, staring out at the newly formed Russian navy. It symbolised the dawn of a new era, with Catherine presiding over a bigger empire than ever before. There was promise there, and potential. Now, though, there is only regret.
It’s unclear just how much time has passed since that day, but judging from the mood at court, we’re nearing the end of Catherine’s reign. Potemkin, who has continued to secure his empress and lover’s interests in Crimea, is back in Saint Petersburg along with his two very hot adjutants, the brothers Zubov. The youngest, Platon Zubov, will be the last in a long line of Catherine’s powerful favourites and sexual partners.
For now though, Potemkin still holds the place of honour by Catherine’s side. He’s also pretty visibly ill, which leads her to request that he bring back his old enemy Alexey Orlov to help out. The Turks haven’t taken kindly to Russia’s invasion of their territory and have responded by holding Catherine’s ambassador captive, effectively declaring war.
This is a big deal. The military put Catherine on the throne. If they get defeated, she might lose it. The added stress makes Catherine more paranoid than ever, and she freaks out when she sees her son Paul marching up to the palace gates with his battalion of German troops. He represents the spectre of her dead husband Peter III, but also her own potential demise. As it is, she sends him packing, further fuelling his resentment and discontent.
I won’t bore you with the details of the campaign against the Turks, mostly because it takes up a surprising amount of time for the little it actually contributes to the story. Yada yada yada, Potemkin lays siege to a fortress by the Black Sea, and is suddenly forced to attack by royal decree. He and his troops kill thousands of women and children, and it haunts him for the rest of his life.
While Potemkin is off fighting, Catherine turns her attention to Zubov, who is more than ready to receive them. He knows that this woman responds to flattery, and responds accordingly, growing his power and influence. He doesn’t know it, but he’s a pawn in a larger game. Paul and his wife Maria, along with Orlov, hope to use him to distract Catherine from Potemkin. In this world, whoever controls the favourite controls the monarch.
Paul is right to be worried. Catherine has no intention of leaving the throne to him. In fact, she’s been grooming her grandson, Alexander, to take over, even instructing him to sign a secret document declaring his father unfit to rule. (There’s an interesting parallel to be made between Catherine and Paul’s relationship, and the one between Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles, which will play a central role in the upcoming season of The Crown. Both are powerful female monarch who view their sons as weak links in the dynasty.)
Still, their plan isn’t exactly subtle. Basically, Zubov plants the idea in Catherine’s mind that Potemkin is a power-hungry traitor who wants her throne for himself. It’s nothing she hasn’t heard before, of course, but this time, she’s feeling vulnerable. When Potemkin returns to Saint Petersburg as a conquering hero who smashed the Turkish army, the bad thoughts start to take root — especially when the people start chanting his name in the streets, rather than hers.
Countess Bruce, always the smart one, doesn’t trust Zubov. She sees right through him, and tries to warn Catherine pushing Potemkin away is the wrong move. He, of course, does exactly the wrong thing by talking over Catherine in a meeting with the British and German ambassadors, who have come to deliver an ultimatum: Either Russia withdraws from the Crimea, or it will be fighting a war on two fronts.
Catherine resents being told what to do by Germany, and in true Logan Roy form, tells them to “fuck off.” Potemkin tells her to chill and consider their proposal before dragging Russia into another war, which leads them into their biggest blowout fight yet. All her pent-up anxiety about his true motives is now out in the open, and he joins in by pointing out that he’s devoted his life to making hers memorable. In reality, they are just too similar. They both crave power and glory, to the point where that’s all that really matters. Eventually though, they make up and renew their commitment together in the same bath house where they began their relationship in episode 2.
It’s the last time they’ll ever see each other. Potemkin returns south to Crimea, where he dies soon after. On his deathbed, he writes Catherine a letter celebrating their relationship, and giving her his blessing to go on with her life.
She’s devastated by the loss, but barely has time to grieve. To the west, France is in the throes of a revolution, and Catherine is worried that Russia could be next. As a precaution, the once liberal and free-thinking leader orders all books written by French Enlightenment thinkers to be burned. It’s a sad moment, especially given the way Catherine started her reign. (Though she admits that she regrets not being able to free the serfs of Russia, she also dismisses the idea as a youthful folly.) But once again, the show has done itself a disservice. We’ve barely seen Catherine as the kind of cultured, patron of the arts that she was in real life, and so the passing reference to her friendship with Voltaire as Zubov throws his books into a bonfire doesn’t hit home like it should.
This paranoid move on behalf of a ruler who sees her power slipping away is only further proof that we’re nearing the end. The fact is that Catherine isn’t well. She’s been getting debilitating headaches, and has difficulty climbing the stairs leading up to her own throne. Potemkin’s death has worsened her mental state and made her more intransigent.
Countess Bruce is the only one to call her on her bullshit, and the two share a nice closing moment together, which the writers use as a vehicle to recap what we’ve just watched. “You showed the world what women can achieve,” Bruce tells her friend. “I enjoyed it all,” Catherine replies. “Every single second.”
Soon after, Catherine collapses in her rooms in front of a panicked Zubov. Her last words are to Potemkin. “You were the one,” she whispers after coming across a wreath hidden away in her desk. (In a flashback at the very end, we find out he was wearing it on their wedding day a decade earlier — yes, they got married!)
Because no one but Maria and Paul know about the document Catherine had Alexander sign, they are summoned to preside over Catherine’s deathbed. This gives Paul the opportunity to search her belongings, and destroy the offending document, as his son watches. Catherine dies at his feet, and all kneel to Paul, the new Tsar of Russia.
His first royal act is to dig up Peter III and have him reburied him next to Catherine in a shared grave. As if that weren't petty enough, he also orders that the crown be placed on Peter’s grave, not Catherine’s, and enacts legislation to ensure that ““no woman ever again rules Russia.”
The series on a bittersweet note. The epilogue reads: “Catherine was the last woman to rule Russia. After her death, Paul undid his mother’s achievements and muddied her reputation with rumour and innuendo. Paul rules unsuccessfully for 5 years until he was deposed and assassinated in a coup ordered by his son, Alexander.”
Karma’s a bitch.
You Didn’t Learn This In History Class:
So, where Catherine and Potemkin actually married in secret? We don’t actually know for sure. Some historians, like Simon Sebag Montefiore, claim that they almost certainly were, while others dismiss the possibility entirely. One thing’s for sure though: They definitely acted married, and even referred to each other as husband and wife.
Catherine The Great airs on Sky Atlantic and is available on Now TV