The third season of Hulu’s historical dark comedy «The Great» features a shocking plot twist — though, perhaps not so shocking to anyone familiar with the real history on which the show is (very, very loosely) based. After dodging numerous near-deadly feats and assassination attempts, Peter III finally meets his maker in a sudden and shocking way. In real life, Peter III’s death was just as sudden, but it happened very differently.
How Does Peter III of Russia Die on «The Great»?
As we’ve expected, the third season of «The Great» features Peter and Catherine alternating between plotting against each other and expressing their tangled, twisted love for each other. Peter spends the first half of the season undermining Catherine at every turn and chafing at her being in charge. The final straw comes when he can’t resist the idea of invading Sweden.
Peter essentially steals Catherine’s army and marches them off to what he is sure will be great victories and glory — all to leave a grand legacy of his own. Catherine, of course, finds out about this and chases him and the army down. She finally catches up to him by a frozen lake in the dead of winter, where they argue again. Catherine tries to convince him (or trick him) to leave this expedition behind and come back with her, but Peter resists all her attempts. Instead, Peter tells Catherine that he loves her with «my whole f*cking heart and all my body and whatever ineffable spirit animates me.»
Then, as he goes to ride back across the frozen river, he stops and turns back around. «Actually, I-» Peter begins to say, but whether he was finally turning back is left unknown because, at that moment, the ice cracks, and Peter plunges into the freezing water. Help is too late to save Peter, who is tangled up with his horse, and he sinks to his death.
How Did Peter III of Russia Die in Real Life?
In real life, Peter III’s death was shrouded in mystery and conspiracy. In 1762, a coup led by the real Catherine the Great forced the unpopular emperor to abdicate the throne. He had only been emperor for about six months following the death of his aunt, Empress Elizabeth (another historical figure whose life is portrayed very differently in «The Great»). At the time, Peter was reportedly planning a war against Denmark, not Sweden, as «The Great» suggests.
After his abdication, Peter was arrested and held by pro-Catherine forces. Then, only eight days after the coup, Peter died suddenly. The official cause of death was given as a severe case of hemorrhoidal colic and a stroke. Still, rumors persisted that he had actually been assassinated, possibly by Alexei Orlov, the younger brother of Catherine’s «favorite» and coconspirator Grigory Orlov.
«The circumstances and cause of death [of Peter III], and the intentions and degree of responsibility of those involved can never be known,» wrote scholar Robert K. Massie in his 2011 biography of Catherine, «Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman.» It’s a historical mystery that persists to this day.