The Great creator Tony McNamara on the show's biggest challenges and why he changed the ending
Warning: This article contains spoilers for season 1 of The Great.
The often anachronistic, occasionally true 10-episode series follows the younger years of the eponymous Catherine the Great (Elle Fanning), the longest-ruling female leader of Russia, as she plots to overthrow her childish (and dangerous) husband, Emperor Peter (Nicholas Hoult).
The show, which is up for two Emmys at this year's awards — Matt Shakman's directing of the first episode, and writing for McNamara — is frequently ludicrous, and McNamara had some trepidation about how it would be received.
"I think when you know you're making something that's probably a little bit different, you don't know whether that difference is going to be good or the thing that makes people not like your show," he tells EW. "So it was a bit like The Favourite [which he co-wrote]. We never knew when that was made whether the people would like it. You know? We liked it."
The series, which premiered in May during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, was ultimately well received by fans and critics alike, something that McNamara credits to its timing. "It's a good time for something that's sort of fun and anarchic and loose to come out when the world's tight and anxious, so its timing was probably good in that emotionally it was probably what people needed: a bit of a cathartic, anarchic comedy rather than pent-up anxiety in lockdown," he says.
Below, the first-time Emmy nominee also opens up about why he changed the script from a film to a series, what lines he's not willing to cross, and the biggest writing challenges presented by the show. Plus, he reveals the show's original ending, and teases what's to come in season 2.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The script for The Great was originally for a film. At what point did you decide to turn it into a series instead?
TONY MCNAMARA: Nick [Hoult and Elle Fanning] read the movie [script], and they both liked it and said they're interested. And while they were reading it, I talked to my wife and she was like, "Why don't you do it as TV? You're always complaining that [a movie] is not enough time to tell the story properly. And you love making TV so much." So when Nick and Elle came back, I said, "Oh that's great! Do you want to do it as TV?" They hadn't done TV in a long time. I think they were excited about what it would be as a TV show, so that's how it started.
The show has so many outrageous moments. Was there any one in particular that was the most difficult for you to conceive, as a writer?
Well, originally it was a play. I think the biggest thing was how to create the language of the show, the style, and particularly sort of the dialogue, how the dialogue would work. I wanted it to be a kind of a mashup of contemporary and formal period sort of language. So that was probably the thing I experimented a bit with when I was writing the play. I was trying to find this language that I liked, that I felt like would also make the show accessible.
Yeah, mixing up the F-words with the royal talk.
[Laughs] Yeah, the royal talk. Now, I'm just gonna say that when people ask me. I'll just say, "You know, I had to mix up the F-words with the royal talk."
Let's talk about Peter. He's so awful, but he is also very human, too. Did he change at all from the play to the series, and how did you balance the tightrope that is that character?
I guess for TV, you get a lot more time, so he's much more complicated than he was in the play I suppose. I didn't want him to be what he looked like. I wanted him to be more than a sort of buffoon and a tyrant. I was interested in why young men or men in particular and leaders are unevolved little boys on some level. To me, he's not a malicious person, he just doesn't understand. He's got power and doesn't know what to do with it, and he doesn't really know how to react to things. And because I had Nick, I knew I could get away with a lot because Nick, as a person, is a very good-hearted, wonderful person. So I knew you'd see that on screen just because he brings that. I knew he'd get away with a lot of bad behavior, and still keep the audience. So it was sort of a mix of all those things.
All sorts of bonkers things happen on the show. Was there any line that you wouldn't cross?
As the writers' room would tell you, I don't think there's anything we can't do. I don't really have a break, I guess. If it fits the world and it feels true to the characters, then I'll do it. I don't really have what my wife would call "social laws" or something. Just like, "Oh, yeah, that seems funny and true. Let's do it even if it's sort of really on the edge." I don't mind.
The Great features a really great ensemble. Was there any character that you found harder to tap into than others?
Not really. I think when you create them all, they're not that hard because you created them. So there wasn't really anyone I found hard. The hardest thing is I've got a lot of characters. So sometimes it's a bit sad that there's characters who don't get as much as they could. That's probably the hardest thing is balancing a cast of 12.
I think it's very important to me, it's a part of building a really good world for the show. People have to feel like the other characters exist separate to the main characters and that they have their own life. I work really hard at that. And then I'm also really conscious of the fact I've cast really, really great actors around Nick and Elle. I really want to give them stuff that shows their talent and rewards them for being in my show. They're just such great actors that I really want to give them moments where they get to sort of strut their stuff so to speak.
When I talked to Elle, she mentioned being surprised at the ending, in which we build to a coup that we don't actually see happen. Did you consider ending it a different way?
Yeah, I was going to end it a different way up until about a month before we ended. I changed my mind about how it should end. I left the last two episodes really late. I didn't write them until we were pretty much like five weeks into shooting, because I wanted to watch the show. I was watching episodes that we were cutting, trying to understand the show and what it looked like and how everything was playing out. And I felt like [ending with the coup happening] was probably the ending I was going to do. And then I was like, "Well, that's what I think everyone's going to think, so I don't want to do that anymore." I just was more interested in her story in an emotional sense. I think people were probably expecting that we're driving to a coup, but what are we driving to emotionally for [Catherine]?
Interesting. Were you not worried about getting a second season?
Yeah, I guess it was a risk, because if we didn't get a season 2 it would not have been a great ending. [Laughs] I didn't think about that. I think I was assuming. I mean, I worked out how the second season would work before I did it, so that I knew I could kind of end there and keep going and change perception of how the show would work.
Can you tell me anything about season 2?
It'll be fun. I don't really have anything I can say. I mean, I think it just builds on what we did and turns it on its head a little bit. I think it's the same kind of show, but hopefully surprising in a slightly different way.
Do you know yet if it'll pick up right where the first season left off?
Ah, I don't know. But I don't think so.
Interesting. I know the original film script followed Catherine's whole life, sort of like The Crown.
Yeah, I mean, you know, the young version's sort of the most interesting in a way, to me. I think we'll do that for a while. Plus, I've got Nick and Elle. How could I let that go?
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.