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The Great Season 3 Finale: Does Catherine Prevail?

In an intense season finale, the Empress of Russia confronts a multitude of problems that test her leadership and resilience.
  • Elle Fanning stars in The Great (Photo: Hulu)
    Elle Fanning stars in The Great (Photo: Hulu)

    [Editor’s Note: This post contains major spoilers for The Great Season 3.]

    Hulu’s The Great is best known for its raunchy humor, endless violence, and a beautiful array of opulent gowns. But beyond its eye-catching aesthetics and irreverent tone lies a captivating story of power, ambition, and ruthless political intrigue. The series taps into these elements with even greater intensity in a darker Season 3.

    Going into the finale, Catherine (Elle Fanning) finds herself in a state of inconsolable grief following Peter’s (Nicholas Hoult) untimely death by ice. As Pugachev, Peter’s doppelgänger (also played by Hoult), continues to incite uprisings, Catherine struggles to quell the chaos that engulfs her country. With Pugachev now in control of Moscow, the situation has reached a critical point, and Catherine’s inner circle grows increasingly restless and concerned about her ability to lead. It sets the stage for a climactic clash that will determine the destiny of Russia.

    What happens to Pugachev?

    Catherine’s initial plan revolves around kidnapping Pugachev, intending to coerce him into a deal that entails him traveling from village to village, confessing to being Peter’s lookalike, in exchange for his life. She vehemently opposes the idea of killing Pugachev, as she’s still grieving Peter’s death and is determined to preserve his legacy. Catherine fears that if the palace were to execute Pugachev, he would be martyred in the eyes of the serfs, forever tarnishing Peter’s name in history.

    But Pugachev is unwilling to take Catherine’s arrangement, observing her crumbling state during their conversation. He is prepared to die in service of the revolution he instigated among Russia's lower class. Despite lacking a leader to guide them, Pugachev believes that the serfs' burning love for "Peter" and their deep-seated animosity towards Catherine will compel them to act upon his words.

    Before Catherine can explore alternative plans with her trusted advisors, Archie (Adam Godley), in a desperate bid to safeguard himself, manipulates Maxim (Henry Meredith) into fatally shooting Pugachev in the head. Exploiting Maxim's protective instincts towards Marial (Phoebe Fox) and his yearning to be treated as an adult, Archie manages to temporarily conceal his treasonous actions.

    How does Catherine handle the uprisings?

    Up to this point, Catherine’s grief has pushed her into questioning her destiny as Russia’s ruler. As a test, she began playing a dangerous game of chance with three guns — two are empty, while one is fully loaded. According to Catherine’s grief-riddled mind, if she is destined to be the Empress, she will never pick up the wrong gun and shoot herself in the head.

    One night, a noble barges in with the purpose of murdering her, right as Catherine is about to press the trigger for the wrong gun. Acting upon instinct, Catherine immediately shoots him in defense. Suddenly, something inside of her snaps — she is able to see with a clarity that allows her to step outside of the fog of anguish that had been consuming her, finally transforming her into Catherine the Great, the decisive ruler Russia desperately needs to guide the country into modernity.

    Meanwhile, Marial, tired of being overlooked and underestimated by the people around her, finally decides to come clean to Catherine. She reveals that Archie was the one who lit the flame for Pugachev’s revolution, providing her with their shared letters as proof. This pushes Catherine into enacting her plan of action, which is essentially to release conflicting stories, thereby confusing the general public and providing everyone on her team with a solution that makes them happy.

    First, the Church will issue a proclamation declaring that Catherine the Great is Russia’s destiny. As proof, the statement orders the public to look up and watch a comet dazzle through the sky as a sign from God himself. In reality, the comet was brought to Catherine’s attention by the royal astronomer earlier in the episode, but she uses it as a political tactic for garnering support. Next, Maxim will receive credit for killing Pugachev, as he will go on a speaking tour announcing the cause of his death. Afterwards, he will be sent to a military school and learn the craft of war. Velementov (Douglas Hodge) will go south and spread word of Peter’s death through the ice, as Petrov travels to Moscow to unleash cannonballs and claim the death of Peter the Third. Marial, on the other hand, is in charge of preparing contradicting statements about the cause of Peter’s death — hemorrhoids, smallpox, and being killed via the uprisings. A final statement will also declare that Catherine is Peter the Great’s daughter.

    Does Catherine retain her rule?

    Prior to Catherine’s epiphany, Aunt Elizabeth (Belinda Bromilow) confronts her with a harsh ultimatum. She asserts that Russia requires a much stronger leader, and questions whether Catherine is truly the right person for the task. Instead, Elizabeth suggests that she herself might be better suited to the role. According to Elizabeth, the country needs a leader who can harness their pain and use it as a source of strength, rather than succumbing to despair. If Catherine fails to gather herself and demonstrate resilience, Elizabeth threatens to take her place and assume control.

    When Catherine walks into the state room, she does indeed find Elizabeth sitting comfortably in her chair. However, Elizabeth ends up being impressed with Catherine’s plan for action, returning her seat as Russia’s Empress.

    Will there be a Season 4?

    Hulu has yet to make an announcement regarding the renewal of The Great, leaving the show's fate uncertain. Originally envisioned to run for six seasons, there remains an abundance of material from the real-life story of Catherine the Great that could make for compelling television.

    From the finale alone, there are numerous loose threads that hold great potential. Following the revelation of Archie’s treason, Catherine orders guards to bury him alive and piss on his grave, but not before he’s forced into signing a document that not only frees half a million serfs from the Church, it also rewards them each with 25 acres. But it’s not the end of Archie’s story, as the season concludes with Marial digging him up and rescuing him from his impending suffocation. This is sure to be an added source of tension not just between her and Archie, but also Marial and Catherine, especially given Marial’s recent entry into the Empress' inner political circle. It also continues to tackle the Russian Enlightenment, as Catherine will surely continue to push for a separation of the church and the state. And with the patriarch still alive, there’s ample room to explore that terrain of conflict.

    There are also plenty of interesting storyline opportunities for Georgina (Charity Wakefield), who revealed herself to be quite the mastermind herself. She spent the season continuously proving her loyalty to Catherine, even going as far as shooting her former best friend in the stomach. Following Peter’s death, Georgina’s endgame became all the more clear. Through her guise as an enlightened woman, Georgina found that she had actually changed, believing that perhaps she might be the next best person for the throne. Georgina’s plan of action included ordaining Peter’s son, Paul, and marrying him, which adds her into the line of succession. Though she was only able to get through the first half of her plan, later seasons could easily explore Georgina’s newfound lust for power.

    Georgina is not the only person eyeing the throne. Elizabeth, while returning the seat to Catherine, harbors a lingering thirst for power. When Elizabeth initially sits in Catherine's chair, she feels a sense of ownership. Perhaps her instincts were correct—maybe Elizabeth is Russia's destined ruler, with Catherine serving as nothing more than a sounding board for her ideas. Peter's death also forces Elizabeth to grapple with her ongoing grief over losing her son and Peter the Great, her greatest love. This internal struggle has the potential to change the depth of her loyalty toward Catherine in the future.

    Of course, all of this remains speculative. Even if The Great isn’t picked up for another season, the finale has issued a fairly satisfying ending for Catherine. The episode concludes with Catherine donning a simple black gown, her hair chopped into a bob cut. She dances around the room with AC/DC playing in the background, as viewers get to see her in a state of content. If this marks the end of her story, it was a compelling narrative of triumph, chronicling the transformation of an optimistic yet naive young German girl into a ruthless, powerful, and ultimately respected Empress of Russia. All hail Catherine the Great — huzzah!

    The Great Season 3 is now streaming on Hulu. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Dianna Shen is a TV Writer at Primetimer based in New York. Her work has been featured in Paste Magazine and Decider, among other outlets.

    TOPICS: The Great, Hulu, Charity Wakefield, Elle Fanning, Nicholas Hoult, Phoebe Fox