Warning: major spoilers for season 3 of The Great ahead—proceed with caution.

“Grief is fucking weird.”

Those words, uttered just moments after The Great kills off one of its two main characters, are a harbinger of what’s to come in the newly-released third season. While Elle Fanning’s Catherine the Great has dodged death threats and political coups since touching down in Russia, the queen is safe—for now. Instead, it’s her lovably obtuse and oddly tender husband, formerly known as Peter the Great (played by Nicholas Hoult), who meets his demise in the season’s sixth episode. 

Circumstances around the actual king’s death remain murky—but it’s been widely reported that Peter was assassinated by Alexei Orlov, younger brother to Catherine’s then-lover, Grigory Orlov, while jailed. The show takes a steep departure. Plagued by the fear that he be remembered only as a doting stay-at-home husband to his powerful wife (“Yeah, ‘cause that’s what history remembers—good fathers,” an adult-sized hallucination of his newborn son Paul taunts), Peter sets forth on an ill-fated invasion of Sweden. Catherine attempts to ease his worries and halt the mission, but Peter won’t be deterred. He proceeds on horseback across a frozen lake—stopping to turn to his wife with a faint, “Actually—” before promptly falling through the ice as Catherine watches in horror. 

“Gosh, that whole day was filled with so much emotion,” Fanning tells Vanity Fair. “[Series creator] Tony [McNamara], Nick and I, we went into the woods secretly before the last shot we had together. We took a little vodka shot and did a cheers. That was a very special moment.” Once the last huzzah had been uttered, Fanning was left to lead the show without her other half and—eventually—make the loss worth laughing about. 

“I was most scared of the episode after his death,” she says, “which is when Catherine’s in her manic grief and extreme denial. I was putting a lot of pressure on myself to portray that in a certain way. It was like, wow, well, Nick’s gone. [It’s] such a hole in the show. I didn’t want it to go downhill. But also now a big death has happened, and we don’t want the show to get sad because we’re a comedy. It’s this tightrope of battling the tragedy and the comedy and the absurdist.”

Fresh off her appearance at the Met Gala (Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell were two of her tablemates), Fanning spoke to VF about mourning her royal partner and how that musical ending brought her real-life catharsis:  “I started [the show] when I was 20, now I’m 25. So a lot of these experiences have molded me.”

Vanity Fair: Before we get into this season’s major event, I want to ask about the state of Peter and Catherine’s marriage in season 3. They’ve decided to move on from some sizable hurdles, but they’re still sleeping with knives underneath their pillows. What is it that keeps them so invested in each other?

Elle Fanning: Obviously, it’s complicated, but I do believe that it’s a matured love in season three. In season two, Catherine—at the end, when she stabbed Pugachev thinking it was Peter, her guttural reaction to that made her realize, oh wow, I can’t lose this person. Because in a lot of ways, he’s the only one who understands her fully at court, which is really fascinating. He’s ruled the country. Whether you think he did it badly or not, he does know the pressures of that unlike anyone else. So Catherine realizes that he does truly see her for who she is and she doesn’t want to lose that companionship.


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