Catherine is days from giving birth, and the court is betting on whether it will be a boy, a girl, or part-horse. Come on, guys. She’s inaugurating a new salon and Shaky’s paintings are everywhere! They’re so good. RIP Shaky and her fanciful eye patch. Catherine is still desperately trying to please her mother, Joanna, who has an odd dislike for Beethoven? I know Beethoven was seen as pushing the musical envelope of his time, but he was also negative eight when Catherine became empress. Maybe this is like a Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure situation, and Joanna ran into him at the San Dimas mall. One can dream.
Joanna refuses to be impressed or pleased because she sees Catherine as a hopeful and naïve optimist who surrounds herself with traitors intent on killing her. Also, she wants her other daughter to marry Louis of France, which can only happen if Peter takes back the throne. She sees this as a Michael Scott win-win-win where Peter gets Russia, Catherine is safe, and Joanna gets to lord it over all the other ladies with daughters.
Catherine gives her peanuts from the Americas, and Joanna hilariously keels over from a nut allergy. She is fine! Nut allergies are nothing to sneeze at. Unless sneezing is your particular allergic reaction to nuts. Joanna needs to rest, but in the meantime, she’s made Catherine a list of everyone she needs to kill. As an alternative to this, Catherine bans peanuts.
Remember how Ambassador Sunduk from the Ottoman Empire was murdered by Arkady and delivered back to the Ottomans without a head, and then Catherine sent a carriage full of gold to apologize? The Ottomans have sent something back! It is a large box that Velementov expects to be full of poisonous bees. The sultan sends a note to Catherine agreeing to discuss a way forward for their two nations. He also sends these sinister-looking red candles, which, okay. These candles. Was I the only one who thought they were made of the blood of the Russian ambassador and when they were lit, would start to drip blood and then everyone would panic? Was I the only one!! They just look so intensely evil, and instead, everyone is like, wow, what great candles these are. And then!! The candles turn out to be poisonous murder candles because of course they do.
In other death news, Peter is grumpy because he has to follow Russian tradition and dig the graves of his wife and child to prepare for Paul’s birth. This is accompanied by the men of court singing a solemn dirge for seemingly hours on end. To make things worse (how?), Arkady’s teenage son Alyosha laughs at Peter when his shovel breaks, and Peter attacks Alyosha. Arkady stops him, and Peter later apologizes, which is growth for him. Seeing Peter, who is white, almost hit a Black child with a shovel because he acted the way teenagers act is Not Great. And no one is saying it is; this is a messed-up thing Peter does. But optics matter, and impact matters, and here we are. Peter decides to apologize in part because no one ever apologized to him as a kid. Great! Good self-reflective work, Peter.
He immediately fails again because Grigor and Arkady say that if Catherine dies, he can just start with a clean slate. Peter punches Grigor and says he wants Catherine and Paul and not anyone else. My heart, it cannot take it. Arkady and Grigor leave, and Peter sadly says he’s sorry again. He’s working on it.
What would you do if Gillian Anderson very concertedly hit on you? Okay, now what if she were your partner’s mother, but also you only recently developed any kind of conscience? This seems like a tough situation for Peter. He’s trying so hard, and then she slaps him, which, omg. And even then! He says he has to leave because he has a soufflé class, which is an excuse I would like to borrow for every occasion. His later excuse is that he has graves to dig. Well done, sir.
Peter gets a tonic from the doctor to help quell any sexual urges (such is the Anderson power), and it’s unclear if it works, but it does make him hallucinate and see his father Peter the Great, as played by Jason Isaacs. Peter the Great lives in the now and doesn’t have time for things like missing people. Our Peter says he wants to be a good father. We know you do, Peter. His hallucinated dad is, of course, terrible, and Peter tries to stab him. This fails. (Side note: Why couldn’t we get a scene between Jason Isaacs and Gillian Anderson? Can you IMAGINE?)
Did we not talk about public birth yet? Catherine is shown to a room with spectator seating. When she expresses dismay, the doctor says not to worry because when she shits herself, an attendant will be standing by to whisk it away, effortlessly and elegantly. Also, the pain will be so terrible that she won’t even notice the people. Childbirth with an audience seems a bit much, but it did happen, albeit primarily in France, according to some. Catherine’s own birthing experience of the real Paul was extremely sad, as she was isolated for two weeks before giving birth. Then the baby was immediately taken away by Empress Elizabeth. Elizabeth in The Great would NEVER.
As might be expected, Catherine is very angry about the Ottomans and their poisoned candles. She tells Velementov to prepare for war. This is a real bummer for him because he just threw his battle plans in the fire. And that’s why you always file backup copies.
Catherine realizes her mother doesn’t believe in her and never has. Joanna tries to persuade her to step down, saying her child will become her empire. This is some post–American Revolution “oh, you mothers are the real heroes for teaching your male children to love their country” nonsense. Catherine says no, it will not — Russia is her child. BAM. Joanna thinks she is mad and needs help, which is all so crushing! Catherine orders her to leave the palace and Russia. Can you imagine ordering Gillian Anderson to leave?
Before she goes, though, Joanna pays a visit to Peter, who just gives up. I am not pro-this, but also, this scene is Very Good. Nicholas Hoult and Gillian Anderson might both be the sort of people who have chemistry with everyone? So together, it’s just very nice. But! Still morally reprehensible, etc., etc.
Then they’re having sex against one of the palace windows, and — she falls out. Or, as my notes say, OMG. OMG. SHE FELL OUT THE WINDOW. OMG. AHHHH. I did not expect this!! What a memorable end. Elizabeth sees what happens, and she and Marial take care of it for Peter. They bury her in one of the graves he’s been digging. The next morning, Catherine sits by it with him, and they talk about her mother, who she does not know is lying right there. They decide they will be better parents than their own. Catherine is clearly having A Moment about Peter and almost kisses him, but her water breaks. IT IS TIME.
• Will Elle Fanning forever remember the time Gillian Anderson wrapped her up in sheets like a burrito?
• Can we bring back Jason Isaacs as a hallucination ghost who just pops in every now and then?
• WHY DID NO ONE SUSPECT THE CANDLES?