How Aunt Elizabeth Quietly Became the Best Part of Hulu’s The Great

TV Features The Great
How Aunt Elizabeth Quietly Became the Best Part of Hulu’s The Great

Hulu’s satirical period drama The Great bills itself as “an occasionally true story,” fully admitting that its take on the life of Russian empress Catherine the Great isn’t always terribly interested in following the letter of the law when it comes to depicting what actually happened during her reign. Instead, it’s a show that deals with more modern questions of propaganda, perspective, and who gets to decide what the concept of “history” actually means. And while, technically, The Great is primarily Catherine’s story, she’s far from the show’s only complex female character, and it unabashedly centers issues of female autonomy and power, alongside what it means to try to wield both of those things in a society that doesn’t necessarily want women to have either.

As a result, the female characters of The Great are all given arcs, agency, and goals of their own, and many (most, actually) are only tangentially related to Catherine’s story. But none of these women are as weird—or frankly, as much fun—as Peter III’s Aunt Elizabeth (Belinda Bromilow), a mercurial powerhouse of a character who, after three seasons, has quietly become The Great’s most layered and intriguing figure.

Technically, Elizabeth is one of The Great’s biggest swerves from history—the real Elizabeth Petrovna was Peter the Great’s daughter, not his lover, and also ruled as Empress of Russia in her own right for twenty years prior to her nephew Peter III’s reign. And, according to most accounts, she was actually pretty darn good at it. (She was quite popular, encouraged the development of education and the arts, and didn’t execute anyone for the entirety of her rule Huzzah! We stan.)  

So, on the surface, The Great’s version of Elizabeth doesn’t always seem to bear much resemblance to her historical counterpart. Yes, she’s still Peter’s aunt and her affection for him is both genuine and accurate—he was her hand-chosen heir, after all—but her role in his reign is basically made up of whole cloth. (Particularly since he technically only ascended to the throne upon her death!) But, as anyone who watches The Great already knows, this is a series that isn’t as interested in historical facts as it is in the complex truths those facts often overlook—about who is allowed to decide what history we remember, about how we frame female power and accomplishments, and about the complicated humanity of the people whose stories we tell.

And nowhere else is this dichotomy more clear, or used to better effect than in Elizabeth, a fictional reimagining of a woman who could very easily have been positioned as a ridiculous cautionary tale for Catherine at various points over the course of the show’s three seasons. A different kind of show would have likely left her character to languish as the designated screwball comic relief, forever the butt of a joke she’s never allowed to be in on and given little depth or agency of her own. (Or, worse, set as Catherine’s adversary, simply because they are both women.) Instead, The Great quietly molds Elizabeth into the series’ most fascinating character, a woman who serves as both its story’s heart and conscience by turns.

Deeply eccentric and often flighty, Elizabeth talks to butterflies and engages in orgies and other weird sexcapades with many of the palace guards and nobles. She never seems that interested in the throne of Russia—at least not until she thinks she may have to take it from Catherine to hold the country together—despite the fact that she is frequently presented as the person who’s probably best equipped to rule it. Because underneath all the woo-woo weirdness, Elizabeth is a surprisingly rich and complicated individual. She’s empathetic and compassionate, but unafraid to be ruthless when the need arises. Her whimsical demeanor means many people underestimate her intelligence and her genuine gift for strategy. And, perhaps most importantly, Elizabeth is a realist, a woman who understands people (and human nature) in a way that neither Peter nor Catherine can manage. Whether it’s the fact that she’s older, or simply that she’s suffered more loss in her own life, it is Elizabeth who ultimately sits in the space between Catherine’s overly optimistic idealism and Peter’s aggressive oppression, quietly pushing them both toward a third, perhaps more achievable, future for the country they all love.

Elizabeth is Catherine’s main cheerleader throughout the series and one of the first to see the younger woman’s potential. She backs her coup despite the fact that Peter is clearly the most important person in her own life. Even though Elizabeth helped her take his throne, she’s still the biggest Catherine and Peter shipper on the show. (Your mileage may vary on whether you think her obsessive dedication to making sure the pair continue the family line is over the top or not.) And she’s the driving force encouraging Catherine to stand up and lead in the wake of Peter’s death—or to finally admit that she can’t, and simply get out of the way. 

Yet despite her outsized presence in her life, Elizabeth doesn’t exist solely to serve Catherine’s story either. In fact, she is granted the sort of growth and interiority within the world of the show that few characters who aren’t named Peter or Catherine can match, and her character contains surprising emotional depths. She’s a survivor who’s borne multiple tragedies and seemingly unthinkable losses with grace and grit. She’s a progressive thinker, and intensely loyal to the people and causes she cares for. (A trait which also makes her capable of some extremely dark shit, in case anyone forgot that she actually murdered a child back in Season 1 to secure Catherine’s place in the line of succession.) And while she serves as a necessary reminder of the ways in which an older woman can still be openly and unapologetically sexual, she’s also allowed to treat sex in the same ways that men do: something meant for fun, for leverage, for control, or some combination thereof.

Season 3 sees Elizabeth finally step into her power in deeply satisfying ways. She pushes back against Catherine’s worst and most self-indulgent tendencies (that daily Russian roulette is going to haunt me for a long time), she bullies her nephew into being a better husband, and she constantly pushes everyone around her toward Russia’s best interests, whether that means scheming behind the empress’s back, threatening to take the throne for herself, or finding the strength to give it up again after claiming it as her own. (I don’t know that I think that Catherine, much as I love her, would—or could—have done the same.) She grieves Peter and the irreplaceable role he played in her life while acknowledging that she, Catherine, and Russia must still move on without him, and even eventually finds a way to let go (at least a little bit) of her obsession with securing the legacy of her dead love Peter the Great. 

“The world burns a person down many times,” Elizabeth declares during the season finale. “And you shake off the ashes and walk into the next fire, knowing that the fire never gets to the core of you. That is me, and that is who is needed right now.” And whatever happens next in this occasionally true universe—Hulu doesn’t appear to have decided yet whether the show will continue beyond its third season—there’s no doubt that Elizabeth will keep rising to ever greater heights.

Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV

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