I’ve decided to finally sit down and write something of a shipper’s manifesto for Peter/Brockdorff from the Catherine (2014) miniseries. I know, I know. I didn’t really see this ship right away and I have permanent slasher goggles on. So, in part this post is to distill and point out some of the things that have, in the end, led me to ship this like crazy. Also just for squee and joy because, hey, this is fandom not an academic pursuit.
To be quite clear, this is not an argument that this ship is canon in any way, shape or form. That would be silly. This is more of a love declaration and an explanation of why I think the ship works and what little bits and pieces from canon make it a plausible ship, even if completely removed from canonicity.
I. HISTORICAL BACKGROUND
It’s no necessary, the show certainly fudges around with history as period dramas are known to do, but the historical background is really what got me to take a second look at this ship. So, who is Christian August von Brockdorff anyway?
Short answer: Peter’s chamberlain, most likely from before Peter even came to Russia (ie: in his capacity as Duke of Holstein), who followed Peter from Kiel to Petersburg, even though Russian ministers tried to stop him.
Longer answer: Peter grew up in Kiel, Holstein (a Prussian duchy, which he was to inherit). Peter’s father was close with Brockdorff’s father. A Lady Brockdorff was also prominent at the Kiel court but it’s uncertain whether she was Christian’s mother or another relative. Most likely Peter and Brockdorff knew each other as children/teens and that Brockdorff was already Peter’s chamberlain. (If you’re wondering if it’s even possible for a child/teen to become a chamberlain, my research has concluded that, apparently, yes. I’m also assuming they’re agemates because the best estimate I can find of Brockdorff’s age is circa 1730s.) First of all, there are mentions of Peter interacting with a “chamberlain Brockdorff” in a couple of sources on Peter’s life at the Kiel court, though it’s not clear who exactly is meant. Secondly, Catherine’s memoires note that Brockdorff is Peter’s chamberlain in his capacity as Duke of Holstein. And thirdly, most importantly, is the reason why Brockdorff was not able to follow Peter to Russia straight away.
When Peter was taken to Russia at the age of 14, the man in charge of his education (something of a head tutor), Brümmer, came with him. Brümmer then advised Russian ministers that Brockdorff had such an influence on Peter that he should not be allowed into the country. (Brümmer considered it negative influence, but given the man’s tendency to be abusive and generally not give a damn about Peter’s best interests, his assessment is highly suspect. Catherine didn’t like Brockdorff either, but they had a personal rivalry going.) So when Brockdorff tried to follow Peter to Russia, he was turned away at the border. (The orders given to the governor of Riga instructing him to not let Brockdorff into the country also refer to him as “chamberlain Brockdorff.”) That’s a hell of an influence Brockdorff would have to have for Brümmer to make a convincing case that a teenager ought not to be allowed anywhere near Peter. (I also have the theory that Brümmer just didn’t like Brockdorff. For fanficcy purposes it’s wouldn’t be too farfetched to assume that Brockdorff attempted to shield Peter from Bümmer’s cruelty in one way or another or encouraged Peter to throw his weight around, so to speak, to try and get Brümmer sent away from court.)
But here’s the really fun part! Brockdorff didn’t stop trying to get to Peter. Finally he found a way to get to the Petersburg court – he traveled incognito (allegedly as a glass merchant), basically sneaking into the country. Finally, he came to Petersburg, got a warm reception from Peter and stayed in his existing position as chamberlain. He continued to have a lot of influence on Peter (which really irritated Catherine as they didn’t get along), and on Peter’s ascension to the throne, Brockdorff received the Order of St. Alexander Nevsky.
If this sounds like it’s setting up for lots of loyalty kink, that’s because it is!
II. BROCKDORFF IS ALWAYS THERE
Well….ok, maybe not always-always. But he is in roughly 42% of Peter’s scenes. (Roughly, because I could have made a mistake and it depends on what you consider distinct scenes.) That’s a lot of scenes for a minor character, especially since Peter spends a significant amount of his time with Catherine. Now, he doesn’t always have lines in these scenes, but I did start getting the impression that Brockdorff kind of followed Peter around like a puppy.
He’s even there when it doesn’t seem like he has a “duty” to be. Or any comprehensible reason. Like when Peter is woken up in the middle of the night to go watch Catherine give birth and Brockdorff is there with him. (He also apparently stayed for the whole night.) I mean, other than like providing moral support, why would he be there? And why would he want to provide moral support in the middle of the night unless he cares a hell of a lot? Or, if Peter asked him to come, that would make Brockdorff the person Peter relies on for moral support, even (or especially?) in situations when he’s uncomfortable or anxious. (It would also line up nicely with the scene when Peter comes to see Catherine after her illness. He goes in to see her alone, but before that, in the hall, when he runs into Betskoi and Catherine’s mother, Brockdorff is there. I can just imagine the “can you come with me, this will be so awkward” / “ok, but you have to actually talk to her alone. It will only be more awkward if I’m in there with you” exchange.) See how this works?
III. PROTECTIVENESS AND LOYALTY
Brockdorff is totally one of those composed, emotionally conservative people. But his protectiveness of Peter comes out in all these little ways and very often when it matters most. He’s always-always on Peter’s side first, no matter how frustrated he might get with him.
Everything Brockdorff does is kind of subtle and he never quite steps out of line. He’s diplomatic and a straightshooter, by personality as well as by necessity given his position and the difference in ranks between him and Peter. But he’s always trying to look out for Peter in one way or another, whether that’s stopping Karamaldi from leaving when Peter needs a good doctor on hand or staring down the Prussian ambassador, whom Brockdorff perceives as manipulative and a threat, or thinking of buying Peter’s son a present for his birthday when Peter is too deep in “he’s not even my son!” angst to consider appearances. He’s the one person (aside form Liza) who’s always unquestioningly on Peter’s side.
The last scene is really what gets to me. “Go, I’ll delay them.” And of course it’s obvious that there’s no way Brockdorff is going to be able to actually make much of a difference against an entire guards regiment all on his own with nothing but a little measly canon. But it’s all he can really offer Peter and it comes not without the chance that he’s putting himself in danger. What if Peter had agreed to try and run in a last-second change of heart? Imagine the actual danger that would have presented. And even without that, Brockdorff still faces the off-chance that someone will get antsy and fire back. Or that he’ll be arrested as well for any attempts to resist/fight back. And even though Peter tells him to not put up a fight, that this is not a sacrifice he will accept, Brockdorff can’t help himself. He fires away at the approaching guards anyway. It does little good, but it’s all he has to offer at this point.
IV. SOME INTERESTING EDITING CHOICES
So, I know that this was most likely not at all intentional on the part of the directors/editors of the show, but as soon as I saw this quote in a discussion about characters and their chemistry on a certain anon meme, I thought of the scene where Karamaldi makes his announcement that Peter has smallpox. The quote in question is this:
“But part of chemistry is definitely down to the actors, directors, and/or writers. If a director cuts to Character B's face right after Character A is hurt, I'm going to think about how Character B must be feeling about Character A getting hurt. There might be five other characters in the scene, all of whom care that Character A just got hurt, but I think most about what Character B must be feeling because that's who the camera focused on.” – an anon memer
And, I mean, it’s true. Because think about it. When Karamaldi makes that announcement, there are three people in the room (aside from him and Peter): Brockdoff, Catherine and Saltykov. You would expect the next shot – a close up shot – to be on Catherine. She’s the one for whom this has the most impact, she’s the one who would supposedly care the most. She’s also the show’s protagonist. That next shot, accompanied by the dramatic music, ought to be hers. But instead…the camera cuts away to Brockdorff.
I mean. Someone sat there in that editing room and made this choice. And the director approved it. I don’t know what they were thinking about, but I know what I was thinking about. In combination with the rest of the scene, it’s even more…ah…telling. (By the rest of the scene, I mean Brockdoff stopping Karamaldi from leaving and when Karamaldi tells everyone to leave the room, Brockdorff is the last to go. In fact, he even has this second of hesitation, which no one else does.)
V. SOMETIMES, THEY’RE JUST ADORABLE
I mean, how is this scene not super cute? And Peter’s so obviously happy. A lot of that is afterglow, sure, but then he has this…wistful, content smile. And we’ve seen it come out before with Brockdorff, like in that scene where Peter is telling him about how he would invade Denmark if he had a read-to-go regiment at his disposal. The only other person he smiles at like that is Liza. Well, actually, no. Catherine gets that smile a couple of times. Once when Peter is telling her about how he wants to fly a kite and watch it burn up in the air and the second time in an uncharacteristically hopeful scene shortly after they’re married. (The scene when he tells her about going to see Ivan Antonovich and she says they must thing of a way to “protect [them]selves”.)
VI. IT’S A FUN DYNAMIC TO WORK WITH
All canon tidbits aside, this is just an incredibly fun dynamic to play around with (at least for me). It has all the potential for loyalty kink in the world, that’s one. Two, it fits nicely in to the protector/protectee dynamic that I enjoy. However, for extra fun, it’s not quite that straightforward because of the power imbalance. Peter might be the more vulnerable one, the emotional protectee, so to speak, but he has a lot more power in this relationship. Not only is he Brockdorff’s socioeconomic superior, but the difference in rank is quite formal and it leaves Peter with the practical upper hand.
There’s also a nice interplay of contrasts. The way the private and the political and the public-social gets all mixed up and intertwined at court. The difference in personalities – Peter all excitable and volatile and also vulnerable while Brockdorff is reserved and unflappable and composed. They balance each other out nicely while also being wide-open to conflict and ~feels. Especially with someone like Brockdorff, there are all sorts of issues that can be taken up – what happens when your private and professional lives mix? Is it proper to be in love with your Prince? Does it matter whether it’s proper or not? How do you remain professional and yet show you care? And I love how much implicit trust Peter shows without even really realizing it. If co-dependency is your thing, this ship is wide open to that as well.
And angst, guys. All the angst that comes with complicated relationships and canonical character death. Come on, it’s ripe for the picking.