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The Great's Peter III Dies, Felled by His Own Stupidity

The one-time emperor of Russia died as he lived: driven by his insecurities and toppled by his foolishness.
  • Nicholas Hoult in The Great Season 3 (Photo: Parisa Taghizadeh/Hulu)
    Nicholas Hoult in The Great Season 3 (Photo: Parisa Taghizadeh/Hulu)

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

    The Great's Peter III (Nicholas Hoult), the husband of Empress Catherine the Great (Elle Fanning), has died. Peter, who briefly reigned over Russia before he was overthrown by Catherine, fell into a frozen lake while on an unsanctioned excursion to conquer Sweden and prove his worth to the ghost of his late father, Peter the Great (Jason Isaacs).

    Born to immense privilege and overbearing parents, Peter grew up in an environment that rewarded cruelty. He learned to disregard the opinions and feelings of others at a young age. As the future emperor, the world bent to his whims, and anyone standing in his way was discarded without mercy. Peter's penchant for violence carried through to adulthood: He believed in eye-for-an-eye vengeance and often spoke about the satisfaction he found in murdering his enemies (and also courtiers who called him a "d*ckhead," or men who took an interest in Catherine, or the unfortunate souls who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time).

    However, after Catherine expressed her distaste for Peter's brutality, he made an effort to curb his natural impulses, to varying degrees of success. Notably, as Catherine attempted to outlaw murder in Russia, he resisted the urge to carve out the eyes of the man who sexually assaulted him when he was a child, though Peter did slash the man's throat after his best friend Grigor (Gwilym Lee) fired the first shot into his chest.

    Given his volatile temper, fearful courtiers lavished praise and affection upon Peter, but his family life was a different matter entirely. Peter the Great and Grand Duchess Anna Petrovna neglected and abused their son, trauma that went unaddressed until Peter reached adulthood. For years, Peter kept Anna's mummified corpse on display in a glass case, but his love for Catherine helped him come to terms with her callousness; after a one-sided confrontation, he accidentally destroyed Anna's body, closing the book on their fraught relationship.

    Peter found it more difficult to free himself from his father's grasp. Just days before Catherine gave birth to Paul I, their first and only child, Peter, in a hallucinogenic stupor, saw a vision of the late Peter the Great, who berated him for losing Russia and failing to live up to his potential as a leader. The criticism made Peter commit to being a better father — he doted on Paul, and was often seen toting him around the palace in a fur-lined BabyBjörn — but it also haunted him. In an attempt to secure his legacy and discredit Peter the Great's dim analysis of his choices, Peter, egged on by Swedish King Hugo (Freddie Fox) and General Velementov (Douglas Hodge), set out to invade the Scandinavian nation without Catherine's approval.

    Catherine tried to stop their advance by appealing to Peter's passion for food (the same strategy that led to her successful coup), and his love for his family. Both approaches failed, as Peter insisted taking Sweden was the only way to "save" their relationship. In his final moments, he offered one last declaration of love before climbing onto his horse and riding across an icy lake to rejoin Hugo and Velementov. Halfway between the two camps, Peter seemed to rethink his position, but just as he turned back to Catherine, the ice buckled beneath him. He fell into the freezing water below, as Catherine looked on in shock.

    Despite all the progress he made with Catherine by his side, Peter died as he lived: driven by his insecurities and felled by his own stupidity. His death was preventable in myriad ways, if only he had unpacked his father's emotional and physical abuse a bit more, or believed Catherine when she insisted he was "enough" as he was, or had a strong enough understanding of science — the very thing Catherine sought to bring to Russia — to recognize the inherent danger of riding a horse across a thin sheet of ice.

    Ultimately, in death, as in life, Peter proved to be his own worst enemy. He survived a coup, wars with Sweden and the Ottoman Empire, and countless assassination attempts — including one by his own wife, who sought revenge after her mother, Johanna (Gillian Anderson), died while having sex with Peter — but sitting astride a horse on a frozen lake in the Russian wilderness, the weight of his foolishness proved too great. Though Peter's passing continues to send shockwaves through court, few are surprised by the circumstances surrounding his demise: For a man ruled by his bodily compulsions and mercurial temperament, desperate to live up to the greatness of his father but ill-equipped to actually do so, it was always going to go this way.

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

    Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.

    TOPICS: The Great, Hulu, Elle Fanning, Jason Isaacs, Nicholas Hoult