Last we saw Catherine the Great (Helen Mirren) and her flavor of the week, Grigory Potemkin (Jason Clarke), they were dancing the night away, he in a dress and she, as always, wearing the pants.
Two whole years have passed since that ball, and Potemkin has been away, leading Russia’s armies against the Turks. As a result, their relationship has turned epistolary. And really, is there anything sexier than a man who writes that he is “proud to kill and risk my own death for the sake of your Majesty’s glory”?
In a way, this puts him and Catherine on a more even playing field when they do finally meet again. Sure, she’s still empress of one of the greatest kingdoms in Europe, but he’s got an eye patch and the command of her troops. And return he does, after multiple letters from Catherine order him back to Saint Petersburg, now that the Turks are suing for peace.
Not that Catherine’s been lonely while he’s away. She’s got a new, much younger lover, who though satisfying for the time being, bores her to tears when they’re not wrapped in the sheets. It’s interesting that this show, which appears to want to dismiss the myths surrounding Catherine’s voracious sexual appetite as the kind of vile rumors used to discredit a woman in power, also leans right into them. Catherine’s sexual desires are front and center in this episode, as she realizes that in order to satisfy her lust for Potemkin, she will also have to make herself vulnerable to his love.
Before we get to that juicy gossip, let’s talk about what’s actually going on in Russia at this juncture in history. With war raging against the Turks, Catherine has to put some of her more lofty reforms on the backburner. In other words, her plan to free Russia’s enslaved serfs, which made up so much of her royal speech in the premiere, has been all but forgotten. As a result, rebellions are popping up all over the country. The most serious one is led by Yemelyan Pugachev, who between 1773 and 1775, organized a series of uprisings designed to overthrow Catherine in favor of her son, Paul. When Potemkin first notices him speaking to a crowd near the front, he’s claiming to channel the spirit of Catherine’s late husband, disgraced Tsar Peter III. And while his main complaint — that noblemen literally own the people who work their land -- is actually quite reasonable, he uses rumors of Catherine’s corruption, specifically tales of her voracious and unnatural sexual appetite, to diminish her in the eyes of the people. (Later, when he kidnaps a governor and his wife, he uses that rhetoric once more, suggesting that the terrified noblewoman in front of him would “fuck a horse,” a rumor long attributed to Catherine.) Translation: It takes a man to rule a country like Russia.
As it turns out, that’s a pretty widely held belief. Back in Saint Petersburg, Paul, now married to Princess Natalia, is seduced by Pugachev’s rhetoric. Tired of sitting in his mother’s shadow, he asks her for a seat on the council, so as to begin training for the day he might take her place and rule. “No,” she replies. Her flat out denial incenses him, especially when Potemkin, newly returned from the front at Catherine’s behest, is granted a seat in his place. Instead, Paul turns his eye towards the military, which allows him to play dress-up and give raucous speeches about martial law and masculinity in order to soothe his bruised ego.
As Catherine points out, Paul might do well to pay more attention to his wife. So busy is he singing his late father’s praises (I hope Peter III executed whoever painted that portrait of him), that he doesn’t notice she’s clearly having an affair with his best friend. Natalie remains an obscure figure throughout this episode, but the little we do see suggests that she might give Catherine a run for her money in the scheming department.
Speaking of good ol’ Peter III, this episode suggests that Catherine’s coup had a lot more to do with her own survival than we previously thought. In her descriptions of her late husband, first to Paul, and then to Grigory, she makes passing reference to his brutal treatment of her, including physical and emotional abuse. Unfortunately for Paul, he reminds her of a past she does not want to revisit.
Potemkin, on the other hand, is unlike any other man at court. Where others want money and status in exchange for their company, he only wants her. That’s a terrifying thought for Catherine, who is always the one in control. At first, she exerts her will in the only way she can think of: Having summoned Potemkin back from the battlefront, she totally ignores him.
Countess Bruce thinks this is hilarious, and quickly schools her former lover on the best way to get Catherine’s attention: Ignore her right back. This leads to a phenomenal battle of the wills during a night out at the opera: Catherine whispers into young fop’s ear, Potemkin strokes Bruce’s thigh, and so on, until Bruce deals the final card by making Potemkin orgasm in the middle of the aria. Checkmate. Their flirtation is a fun, and playful one, but you can sense that there’s more here than lust. Catherine has found a man who isn’t intimidated by her power, nor does he resent it, yearning for it himself. (What’s more, he’s ready to fight for her, as he proves when he literally swings his dick at her former lover, Prince Orlov, and his grouchy brother, Count Orlov when they imply that he’s exploiting her affections for power.)
Eventually, the two figure out they cannot live without one another, but sex will have to wait. First, Paul and Pugachev must be dealt with. The first is defanged quickly enough by an extremely stern Catherine, who warns him that she’s squashed bigger bugs than him in her day, and won’t hesitate to do it again. That’s how she has “survived for half a century in a world that does not want me.” Paul appears to be in check for now, but Catherine should sleep with both eyes open.
As for Pugachev, he is captured by Potemkin, who brings him back to Saint Petersburg to face justice. Against all advice, Catherine rides out at the head of the Preobrazhensky Guard, one of Russia’s oldest and most prestigious army regiments, made up mostly of peasants. At first, it seems like this might have been the wrong move. Peasants are flooding the countryside to catch a glimpse of Pugachev, chanting his name like a religious leader. But the second they glimpse their queen, it’s game over for the bearded fanatic. If nothing else, we now know Catherine has the support of her people, and of the troops that helped her gain power.
Having secured the throne once again, she and Potemkin head to her private bathhouse, where they can finally be alone together. For all the talk about Catherine’s sex life, this is the first time we actually see her in the act. Far from the lustful creature of Pugachev’s nightmares, her encounter with Potemkin is tender and loving, as she lifts his eyepatch and kisses his scar, a gift from the Orlovs in last week’s premiere. They better watch out, Potemkin is no passing fad.
You Didn’t Learn This In History Class
Lovers’ trysts at the baths are a thing in the Russian royal family. Catherine reportedly disliked steaming alone, and would often invite favored courtiers to join her in the bath house at Tsarkoye Seloe. Years later, Tsar Alexander I, Catherine’s grandson, reportedly had a gigantic bathtub (it weighed 48 tons and contained 8,000 buckets of water) commissioned for the palace where he would entertain his own lover during his reign.