Catherine the Great – Recap Episode 1

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I think it’s fair to say that many of us have been waiting for the HBO/Sky miniseries Catherine the Great (2019), starring Helen Mirren as the titular Russian empress. It’s been hyped on various media websites for at least a year now, but other than the announcement of the leads and a couple of tightly composed promo shots, not much else was known until a few weeks ago in advance of its release, and that always makes me slightly nervous … as if the production company isn’t sure enough of the end product to give potential audiences more to go on than a couple of stills and some rather vague interviews with the principle cast.

So, when HBO finally dropped the first episode of four last week, I went into it a bit trepidatiously. I was reasonably certain that no matter what, the fact that Helen Mirren would, of course, be fabulous, but that’s like accepting the fact that water is wet. She is always fabulous, no matter the material. And the fact that she’s listed as the producer of the series, well, I suppose she’s got a more vested interest in the series not sucking than other roles she’s done in recent memory.

I will put the caveat out right now that I don’t know a whole lot about Russian history, but then again, I probably know more than the general target audience of this show. So, when the opening sequence began, I was already in a bit of a quandary. The script garbles a lot of the first 20 years of Catherine‘s life in Russia, which it kind of spits out in weird fits of exposition between scheming courtiers, so that by the time I could get a reasonable handle on the timeline, I was already confused.

Near as I can tell, the story begins in 1769, based on the coming-of-age ceremony of Paul, Catherine’s son and heir, which provides an anchor point for the plot of the first episode. But major players in the coup that brought Catherine to the Russian throne are introduced as near strangers, mainly the “young” Lieutenant Potemkin, who is being played by the not-exactly-young 50-year-old Australian actor, Jason Clarke. And indeed, the historical Catherine would have been 40-years-old, and Paul was 16. In all cases, the actors are obviously significantly older than their historical counterparts, which I guess I understand from an aesthetics point of view … Helen Mirren is 76, almost twice the age that Catherine the Great would have been in 1769. Casting everyone else according to the actual ages of the historical figures would have made her look even older by comparison. I’ll be honest: the fact that everyone was significantly older than the script was telling us they were was rather distracting.

Grigory Potemkin, looking very much not 30-years-old.

The worry lines on Paul’s forehead make him look like the world’s oldest 16-year-old. Then again, it couldn’t have been easy being Catherine’s only legitimate son…

And because I wasted so much of the first 10 or 15 minutes of the episode worrying about whether or not it was set in 1769 and how on earth Catherine had no idea who Grigory Potemkin was when he had been part of her inner circle since her successful coup against her husband seven years earlier, I will admit that I struggled with absorbing anything else of meaning from the plot. What I did grasp was that Catherine and her longtime partner Count Orlov were trapped in a loveless union, that Orlov was probably going to physically assault someone before the episode was over, and that Catherine’s BFF, Countess Bruce, was basically Catherine’s surrogate vagina through which men are tested before being passed up the food chain to Catherine. There was something about an imprisoned threat to the throne who gets gruesomely, yet expeditiously dispatched almost as quickly as the audience can piece together who he is (hint: Ivan VI, deposed as a baby and imprisoned for two decades), and we see that Catherine’s main adviser is attempting to both cling to his power with her while grooming her son for a probable overthrow of his mother’s regime at some point.

“Whatever, Sarah. What about the costumes?”

Well, glad you asked. There’s a lot of interesting tidbits about the costumes from Catherine the Great that have finally made it into the media in recent weeks. And in all honesty, the costumes are pretty decent. The costume designer, Maja Meschede (who worked as a costume assistant in The Duchess and Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day), has given some nice interviews with outlets such as Jezebel, Forbes, and Slate. Interesting tidbits include the fact that Meschede acknowledges that not all the costumes are designed to be historically accurate from the skin-out:

“We make very comfortable corsets with elastic elements and Helen had a zipper in her corset and she could put it on fast. We use the lightest materials possible to help make them lighter because if you look at original boning with the corsets, that becomes even more heavy so we used a lot of tricks and safety pins instead of a cage. And whenever possible we got Helen out of the corset for a moment or out of the skirt just to help every day. But Helen was amazing. She never complained.” — Maja Meschede.

I really appreciated the fact that Meschede is upfront about the modernizing elements worked into the costumes, without the usual posturing about how historically accurate everything supposedly is or the eye-rolling about how uncomfortable period clothes are. Also, it was a nice detail to add about how Helen Mirren is a professional and wasn’t bitching about the clothing being too restrictive or whatever. Part of why I love her. Listen up, starlets, this is how you fucking do it.

One of the most noticeable details of Catherine’s court dresses in the series are the incorporation of the long ruched sleeves, ostensibly taken from Russian peasant costume. Over this is worn a sort of loose robe, which Meschede interpreted as kind of a sleeveless robe a la francaise.

Catherine II of Russia, Portrait by Albert Albertrandi, circa 1770.

Clearly not skimping on the details (something I really do appreciate and wins a ton of points in my book), the show even throws little Easter eggs, such as Helen Mirren’s initials picked out in pearls on the back of her gold State Speech gown:

2019 Catherine the Great

And the nod to Mantegna’s Dead Christ in the scene in which Catherine views the assassinated body of Ivan VI:

The dead Christ and three mourners, Andrea Mantegna, c. 1470-1474

I also appreciated the details of Catherine’s informal clothing, which were varying flavors of Orient-inspired robes, banyans, and jackets.

Meschede also mentions renting costumes from places such as Tirelli Costumi, which is probably where most of the male court costumes came from. I’d say this one is a likely candidate for being one of Tirelli’s inventory:

A fun detail at the end of the episode is the Transvestite Ball, a tradition started by Catherine’s predecessors, in which courtiers would cross-dress — men wore women’s clothes, and women wore men’s clothes. Catherine was apparently quite fond of these parties, and evidently everyone took them very seriously.

I like the way Paul looks like a complete mess, even in drag.

I am still not buying the love story that they’re trying to develop here…

Overall, I am not so put off by the mishmash of history to continue to give the series the benefit of my doubt going into the second episode (which airs tonight on HBO). And the costumes, so far, are a solid B+. So, stay tuned for next week’s recap!

 

Are you watching the new Catherine the Great miniseries?

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About the author

Sarah Lorraine

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Sarah discovered her dual passion for history and costume right around the age of twelve. Dragged kicking and screaming to her first Renaissance Faire at Black Point, she was convinced she was going to hate it, but to her surprise, she fell head over heels in love with the world of reenactment and dress up immediately. Her undergraduate degree is in Clothing & Textile Design, and she has a Master's in Art History and Visual Culture. When she’s not hauling crap to SCA events and ren faires, Sarah enjoys reading true crime books, writing fiction, and sewing historical clothing from the Middle Ages through the 20th-century. One of these days, she might even start updating her old costuming blog again.

25 Responses

  1. Susan Pola Staples

    I’m so watching it. Knowing something about Catherine II is helpful – such as Paul wasn’t Peter III’s son. Catherine’s aunt-in-law, Tsaritsa Elizabeth Petrovna kinda engineered Catherine’s first affair due to Peter not being able to consummate the marriage or being sterile. Take your pick. Also Potemkin was supposed to be the love of her life.
    Also Paul was as drippy as he is being portrayed, maybe even worse.

    I adore the costumes.

    Thanks for the post.

    Reply
    • SamIAm

      I don’t think one can say for certain that Paul wasn’t Peter’s son. Certainly Catherine didn’t want him to be. Elizabeth had her doubts Peter was getting it done and helped facilitate other relationships. But Catherine and Peter were still sleeping together at that time. And most believed that Paul greatly resembled Peter as he grew.

      By the time Paul is 15ish, most had come to believe Peter had fathered Paul after all.

      Also, it wouldn’t have mattered. In Catherine’s time and for generations before, the reigning ruler dictated their heir. When Paul took the throne, he codified the laws of succession for exactly that reason.

      Reply
  2. MoHub

    Love the shout-out to Mantegna. He was the king of foreshortening effects in his paintings.

    Reply
  3. Shashwat

    The fabrics are exquisitely lush,but the construction of the costumes disappointed me.Those sleeves indeed originated from traditional russian gentry clothing,and were seen in some of catherine’s well known portraits.However,the portrait above is clearly not meant to portray the queen in a rigidly courtly environment.A couple of other portraits show her with the same sleeves in a military inspired outfit.Moreover,the series dressed her in ruched sleeves in literally every formal outfit.and even other ladies.As the paintings and extant garments show,the Russians wore proper back lacing robe de cours with lace tiered sleeves for almost every formal occasion.Unlike France or England,even the less wealthy ladies wore simpler robe de cours with smaller hoops but a proper train fastened at the waist.The costumes are. somewhat inaccurate in their context,but even the construction leaves a LOT to be desired.The designer might be shown some slack,but:1)that dress is accompanied by an overrobe,not a loose francaise

    Reply
    • Shashwat

      2)The inner gown is a one piece,no bodice and petticoat.This is visible in some other gowns from a slightly later period.At first they looked like robe a la turques to me but even chemise dresses hadn’t come in vogue at that time.3)those robings on the overrobe?Not something you see in Russian fashion.Francaise gowns weren’t that popular in russia for formal occasions,and they never went for robings.Embroidery was everything3)And if they wanted to replicate one peculiar look for all costumes,where is the sash at the waist?It is not a francaise basted close,so the sash is mandatory
      Not impressed by the weird mishmash of francaise and regional fashion.Sorry for my long rant,but completely pathetic costumes are better than seemingly accurate costumes which can mislead the fashion enthusiasts.Anyways,the costumes look droolworthy waist down,like a proper francaise.I liked they did the entire costume in one fabric. Clearly no skimping on costume budget.If only they went with proper Francaise gowns.

      Reply
    • Kdog

      It’s funny, you pretend to know a lot but it seems you have never worked on a film and tv show. This is not a documentary or history film. There are issues in itself on set on using colours and patterns as it has to fit in with the set design and lighting. Also, if you would have done your research you would have known that they created 60 costumes tor Helen Mirren alone and 3000+ costumes for extras for the series in 3 month. There is given to be something that have needed to de done to get all the costumes ready in time if not creating repetition in using similar sleeves. Not a bad job I would say given the fact that there was likely a limited budget and very limited time. I dare you to do better!!!

      Reply
  4. Peter Dance

    Just wondering, what’s your technique for always getting such excellent screen-caps?

    Reply
  5. Linda Unger (@LaRue6358)

    The costumes don’t disappoint, but the first episode was a mess of confusion and I found my attention wandering. I often say I would watch Dame Helen read the phone book, and now I feel like I have.

    Reply
  6. Lina

    Thank you for the review! As a lover of the Russian history, I am really dissapointed in the show. I was expected the show to be about a finale decade of the rein of Catherine II. That would have suited the ages of Helen Mirren and Jason Clarke much better! Both look amazing, but not believable for young Catherine and Potemkin. The show is all over the place concerning the historical accuracy. Ivan VI was killed in 1764, which would made Catherine 35 y old, Potemkin 25 y old and Grigory Orlov 30 y old and his brother Alexei 28 years old (played by Kevin McNally….) Even considering that in the 18th century nobody used botox injections, almost everybody had smallpox, bad hygine and malnutrition… Nobody of the main cast looks age appopriate for 1760s… Or acts like that. Helen Mirren is an amazing actress but I dont buy her as 35-40 y old Catherine who just usurped the throne, and had to deal with uncertainties of the first years of her rule. FYI (I think it is the second episode though): what do you think about the “peasant” costumes? And why do Russian officers in the Turkish war (so around 1770) have mustaches?? Historical sources, I read, say that soldiers were allowed to grow mustaches, but I think all officers were clean-shaven (no mustaches on the portrets..).

    Reply
    • Sarah Lorraine

      Oh, god, I didn’t even mention the weird age differences for the actors portraying the Orlovs! That was a huge “wait, wtf” moment, when Kevin McNally, who was born in 1956, refers to Richard Roxbrough as “my older brother”. Roxbrough is like 8 years younger than him in real life, and more to the point, LOOKS IT.

      It just was so weird and jarring.

      Reply
    • SamIAm

      I wonder if a large part of the reason they went older is to get across the point that Catherine was a fully formed women who had lived a whole life before she took the throne.

      By the time she’s crowned, she’s been married for nearly half her life, has a nearly grown son and other children, and has been navigating court life for years.

      It’s much easier to get that point across without exposition if your actress is older.

      Reply
    • Damnitz

      Many thanks for your comment here. Very interesting.

      It all reminds me, which impressions I had looking “The Duchess”, when the 10 years old Charles Grey was portrayed in 1774 by Dominic Cooper, who obviously was not a young boy. Not mentioning that the duchess was 7 years older than Grey, although the difference in age of the duke and the duchess (9 years only) was exaggerated.

      I can’t really see the problem of the use of maybe 2 different actors for a role (OK, “Peter the Great” with Maximilian Schell in the leading role is a good example how it could all go wrong nevertheless).
      The wars during the final years of Catherine the Great and her statements about the French Revolution would offer enough of material for such a project. (Besides more interesting than to repeat the same period reflected before.)

      Reply
      • Lina

        I’ve watched all 4 episodes now and my honest opinon: it is a total waste of Helen Mirren. The show is all over the place and doesn’t take enough time to delve deeply in any events or relationships between the main characters. I don’t think a show should be very historically accurate to be entertaining (I really like Rome despite it is not historical), but I expected more depths, especially because Helen Mirren was herself personally involved. A much better decision would be to focus on the final decade of Catherine’s reign, death of Potemkin, Paul’s waiting to take the throne etc.

        Reply
  7. Lmaris

    My only quibble with the opening episode was that Mirren is just too old for the role she is playing. She is a great actress, but there are other great actresses to play Catherine at this point in her life.

    My preference would have been to start at the beginning, with Catherine’s entry into St Petersburg for the first time, not half-way through her story. Maybe there will be flashback episodes, but the only thing more tragic than seeing Helen Mirren playing a 35 year old woman would be her playing a 15 year old as anything other than as comedy.

    Reply
    • Sarah Lorraine

      I remember when the 2005 mini-series “Elizabeth I” came out and everyone was like, “OMG Helen Mirren is playing a character 15-years younger than her! Gasp!”

      Of course she nailed the role and the age difference didn’t really matter in the end. But now we’re sitting here watching her play a character almost 40-years younger than she is and… it just stretches credibility, particularly when there’s no attempt to recalibrate the ages of her character and the other characters around her. So, the script is like “Young Lieutenant Potemkin” and he’s clearly being played by a guy who is in his 50s. Same with the Orlov brothers, who look very much in their late-50s and mid-60s, respectively, with the older actor playing the younger brother AND ACTIVELY REFERRING TO HIM AS “OLDER BROTHER”. It’s just really distracting.

      Most of the articles I’ve read that are critical of the show so far are pretty much in agreement that if Helen Mirren was going to star regardless, they should have reworked the script to focus entirely on the last decade or so of Catherine’s reign.

      Reply
  8. Roxana

    Catherine would probably have loved to be as thin and good looking as Helen Mirren at any stage of her life. Physically they are not a good match regardless of the age difference. It’s like casting John Fielgud as Cardinal Wolsey or Jeremy Irons as Pooe Alexander VI.

    Reply
  9. Susan Pola Staples

    I’m not bothered by the casting of Dame Helen and the others, bc it’s something that has been done before. What would have bothered me is casting poor and untalented actors in the role no matter what they’re age.

    Reply
    • MoHub

      It’s also good to note that people at the time were considered older at a younger age. A fifty-year-old could be considered elderly and at death’s door, so we need to be aware of the saying that “50 is the new 30,” and extrapolate.

      Reply
  10. SamIAm

    I don’t mind the older ages of the actors. We’re constantly fed too young actors or mismatches in other ways. Regardless of the age she was, Catherine’s portraits don’t show a very young looking woman.

    But having them then refer to Potemkin as young is very jarring.

    I also think there’s poor casting all around. Even as he lost favor Orlo, and his brother, were dashing, reckless and vibrant men. These Orlov men as portrayed here are mewling, pouting, bland and forgettable. I tended to see a bunch of rough and ready soldiers or a rugby team when I think of them. Instead, we get this.

    Potemkin is supposed to be elegant, dashing as well, and in this version, he spends a lot of time pouting which I refuse to believe would be attractive to a women who overthrew her pouting husband. Potemkin is to be a capable leader of military men. He ought to look polished and capable, precise and careful. Clarke’s Potemkin is careless and sloppy.

    Paul seems to be decent casting though.

    Panin should be older I think.

    Overall, I’m enjoying the spectacle but so far, it’s a waste of everyone’s capabilities here I think.

    Reply
  11. CatnipTARDIS

    Helen Mirren is actually 74, not 76. I actually love the casting. Previous portrayals of Catherine II largely have been by actresses too young; there are exceptions, but the average age deviation is squarely on the young side (isn’t everything?? oi). Although Catherine was German, it’s nice to see an English-speaking production starring someone with Russian ancestry, especially seeing as the target audience probably doesn’t even know Catherine was German.

    Reply
  12. Damnitz

    With all actors too old for 1769 and especially Catherine herself not looking like Catherine the Great except the magnificent robes, I would be very much confused too.
    The hairstyles are more looking like late 1770s. Therefore maybe 1769 is not correct or the producers were not sure what they did anyway.
    For example if Catherine the Great is looking as she has the Age like when she died in the 1790s, what will they do, when the story continues? Will she look 100+ in the 1790s?
    Surely for cinema I would assume, that they would have changed the look of Helen Mirren as they did for actors who played Winston Churchill for example. She was just looking so much different than the great actress portraying her… Perhaps we should hope, that the stoy will get more interesting aspects when French philosophers and that stuff were more important (Diderot for example).

    Reply
  13. Kdog

    I love the costumes and the detail that went into them. The colour palette is amazing and the designer did an amazing job working hand in hand with set design, makeup, camera and light. You can really see how ever single dress works in its setting and scene. This is most certainly not an easy task. People should not forget, this is not a documentary or history film, it is a drama tv show with a level of creativity. There are certainly limitations during a production that size to be put into perspective before anyone can judge the costumes. The author gives this work a B+ without having any background knowledge. I don’t believe the author has ever worked on a production like that to be fully impartial to be a judge. Knowing and having studied historic costume design is no foundation to that. There are a million of factors to consider like, time to prep, crew size, budget, directors vision, camera, lighting, availability of technicians and fabrics etc. From a few interviews I have read about the designer I learned the Helen alone has 60 costumes made for the 4 episodes in 3 month. There are also 3000+ costumes for extras. The costume the author pointed out as coming from Tirelli is actually a fully made costume by the designer. She showed them off in London during an exhibition. I was told by her that it took them 2 weeks to get the exact colour for Potemkin’s uniform. That’s what I call dedication. I understand that the author points out that some costumes would come from Tirelli but just to affirm, these would not be in a as hired state. These where most certainly up dressed and changed to fit the show and scene. Otherwise, you would probably recognise the from another production and no designer would like that.

    So to summarise, I think the designer did an awesome job. The costumes look magnificent and work well in style and colour in each an every scene. I can’t really comment on the acting and the show itself on this forum as it is about costumes and costume making.

    To the author, I dare you to do better yourself.

    Reply
    • Shashwat

      Even I loved the costumes in their context,but the B+ was meant for their historical accuracy and not their quality.The author clearly appreciated the job,particularly the details.Pointing out a few accuracies is not a way to demean the efforts,just a matter of interest for those interested in fashion history.We all agree that Emma Watson IS Hermione Granger,but at the same time she is too pretty compared to how she is described in the books.The costumes of the production are lovely indeed,it’s just that they had a vast budget and a lot of effort(clearly evident in the details) were put in,so they could have made costumes slightly more true to history.Again,these are some of the most beautiful 18th century costumes for a series since Outlander.

      Reply

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