As Catherine, her look is a ridiculously exaggerated version of a Disney princess. Under the ministrations of hair and makeup artist Sharon Long, Fanning’s cheeks are rosier than ever; her hair is blindingly blonde. She looks like a painting of a person, like strawberries in cream, sprinkled with hay. In fact, her look is very, very similar to the one she had as Aurora in Maleficent. Instead of love at first sight, she puts her husband under house arrest, ordering the guards, “He cannot walk unimpeded around court ordering a salmon or a cock-sucking.”
The strange thing about The Great is that every actor in it is very good, every line is funny, and every frame is as stylistically compelling as a Fabergé egg. It is unlike anything else on TV—wildly entertaining, completely disgusting, and concerned with Enlightenment-era philosophy. It looks like a period piece, but it’s ahistorical. There is shocking violence, an orgy (or its equivalent) in every episode, and there are moments that are strangely moving. Nicholas Hoult, as Catherine’s husband emperor Peter, is essentially playing a Hugh Grant character better than Huge Grant can. When the show premiered last May, it was received with positive but quiet reviews. Even in a pandemic, we are as glutted with good entertainment as 18th century Russian courtiers.
In its second season, which premiered November 19, the show is finally getting the attention it deserves. A big part of that is Fanning’s continued emergence as a fashion leader. Styled by Samantha McMillen, she’s been walking the world’s red carpets in a diaphanous black Gucci gown and a metallic pink Vivienne Westwood corset dress festooned with pearls. In an all-time triumph, she wore a giant, gold-plated metal crop top by Balmain, looking like a crystal-encrusted python was encircling her neck.
If it takes Fanning being beautiful and well-dressed to draw attention to The Great, that’s only in line with the show’s themes. If The Great has a message, it’s not a transparent one. Is the show trying to tell us that hyper-focusing on beauty and material excess is like turning the entire world into a manure pile just to watch a single rose grow? Is it a critique of the limits of #girlboss-ery? Or is it just a funny show that knows we like to watch pretty women wield pistols?
One obvious through-line in the new season is the question of change—can an evil, cruel, person become loving? Can a whole nation, like Russia, change? Elle Fanning, clearly, is capable of change. She was always a huge talent. Now, she’s becoming a comedian. Huzzah.
Jenny Singer is a staff writer for Glamour. You can follow her on Twitter.