Killing Off [SPOILER] Was the Best Thing for 'The Great' (2023)

Editor's note: The below contains major spoilers for The Great Season 3.In just ten episodes, The Great has delivered us its best season yet. Faster, wilder, and more twisted than ever, the acclaimed Hulu series has reached new heights in its third installment and also served us with the most gut-wrenching turn of fate yet in the well-awaited death of Peter III. While some saw it coming, for historical and logical accuracy, many were still devastated to see the character go in such a sudden way.

Despite the loss of Peter, played by the talented Nicholas Hoult, and the subsequent lack of flavored salts and stuffed quails in the following episodes, the character's definitive exit from the series is what made this latest season truly great. It's not often that a main character's death can work in favor of a show, but with Tony McNamara holding the pen, the impossible truly becomes favorable. Here's why Peter's death was the best move for The Great, and not just because it allowed for Elle Fanning, the woman behind Catherine herself, to deliver a career-defining performance.



RELATED: 'The Great' Season 3 Ending Explained: What Happens to Catherine and Peter?

How Does Peter Die?

Killing Off [SPOILER] Was the Best Thing for 'The Great' (1)

The third season begins with Peter and Catherine dealing with the fallout of Catherine's failed, and regretted, assassination attempt against her husband at the end of Season 2. Instead of attacking Peter, she lands five stabs in the back of his lookalike, Pugachev (also Hoult), who had been hired for such purposes. The opening episode of Season 3 depicts a rattled couple in therapy trying to move past the mistakes, grievances, and ups and downs of the previous two seasons and begin again. Accepting her deep love for Peter, Catherine is inspired to turn the page and continue on her quest to modernize Russia and maintain loyalty in court. This proves tricky as her desire to create equality among the serfs, merchants, and nobles causes more tension than peace, and when she and Peter disagree on whether to ordain their son Paul to become the next Emperor. Peter begins to fear that his status, below Catherine, and his inability to have made his reign or life a legacy will be detrimental to Paul's upbringing.

Eventually, Peter decides, after much coercion from Sweden's defunct King Hugo (Freddie Fox), to steal Russia's army and take the Scandinavian country. As he, Hugo, and Velementov (Catherine's previous right-hand man and head of the army played by Douglas Hodge) march towards Sweden, Catherine and Peter's best friend Grigor (Gwilym Lee) track them down to talk reason into Peter. Standing on top of a frozen lake, Catherine pleads with her husband to come home with her and work things out, but Peter assures her he needs to do this. Peter hops back on his horse, declares his true and undying love for his wife and son, and begins trotting across the lake. Before reaching the end of the lake, Peter has a sudden change of heart, but as he goes to turn his horse around and call out for Catherine, the ice breaks, and Peter and his horse fall into the chillingly cold water. In one swift and heartbreaking moment, Peter III is gone.

What Does This Mean for 'The Great' Moving Forward?

Killing Off [SPOILER] Was the Best Thing for 'The Great' (2)

An accepted and usually expected standard across screenwriting is to not kill off beloved main characters for mere shock value, and most of the time, killing off a central figure in a successful series such as The Great would be perceived as a mistake. Yet the choice to end Peter's story here is a genius, yet saddening, move to enrich and complicate the season's storyline. The impact of this decision comes down to one single, crucial fact: Catherine was always meant to rule alone. Historically, Catherine's coup against her husband was successful almost immediately, and Peter III was imprisoned for six months before his death. Upon his imprisonment, Catherine was crowned the sole ruler of Russia, and titled "The Great."

In terms of accuracy, the show veered off from what really happened and built a universe in which Catherine secures her solo reign and Peter remains alive. While this was entertaining and plot-building for the previous two seasons, the charm of it was wearing off. As much as we love him, Peter was consistently holding Catherine back from achieving her full potential. Politically and emotionally, Peter's impact on the Empress was causing major failings in her abilities to make her plans for Russia happen, to the annoyance of many of her supporters, particularly Orlo (Sacha Dhawan). The first two seasons hovered on the precipice of Catherine building her own empire and ruling, without the constraints of the unfit Peter or of anyone else, and despite the true love that blossomed between them, allowing Peter to continue to live and run amuck would have steered the show from of its real purpose: telling the (occasionally true) story of a powerful female leader.

Is Catherine Going to Be Okay?

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While Peter's death was an important step forward for the show, it was also the breakthrough in the story that allowed Fanning to curate an incredibly powerful, artistic, and raw depiction of grief and madness. In the wake of Peter's accident on the ice, Catherine, completely undone by what she has seen and the monumental stress that has been the previous two seasons, goes into a state of mental shock. She becomes convinced that she and Grigor had imagined it, and that Peter really had just ridden across the lake and towards Sweden. To Grigor's confusion, Catherine returns to the palace and plays out this fantasy in court, throwing a lavish party, making rash decisions like declaring divorce legal, and becoming visibly undone in front of her friends and advisors.

Fanning's performance during the latter part of the season is nothing short of career-defining. Catherine is beaten down, heartbroken, and above all else, disappointed. For two seasons, the Empress has charged through life full of hope and a sense of destiny, determined to reform Russia and make space for herself in history, and despite the challenges she had faced before, the death of her beloved husband was the final straw. Eventually, under the duress of her friends and court, Catherine is forced to admit to herself and to everyone else that Peter is dead, and that it is time to face the music. The steep descent into madness that Fanning executes not only artistically conveys the burden of grief, power, and a crumbling country, but also brings this character to a new place, one that we have not seen before. Catherine has lost before — her first love, her mother, her childhood, and many attempts at reform, but this final loss allows Catherine to die and be reborn herself. The character is finally pushed too far, and what follows in the season's second half gives us the change in trajectory the show needed to build into a new era.

As we mourn the passing of one of television's funniest and most disturbing leading characters, we can be comforted by the fact that The Great gave us a complicated, thrilling, and hilarious third chapter in Catherine's life. After all, death is often the driving force behind change, and as Season 3 ends with Catherine regaining the favor of people across Russia and cutting her hair, audiences alike can remain hopeful for an epic fourth season.

All three seasons of The Great are available to stream now on Hulu.

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