It’s never particularly easy to tell a story people already know. Making a compelling drama out of a tale with an ending people are familiar with is difficult enough, but the problem is compounded even further when that story is about an event that an entire country has turned into a national holiday.
This is the problem facing Gunpowder, HBO’s latest three-part prestige miniseries that aims to tell the true story of the infamous Gunpowder Plot, the 17th century conspiracy to blow up England’s House of Lords and kill King James I. The failure of this attack is celebrated every year on November 5, otherwise known as Guy Fawkes Day, when figures of the famous plotter are often burned in effigy. As a result, almost no one knows about Robert Catesby, or the other men who helped plan and push the conspiracy forward in much more direct ways than Fawkes himself actually did. As such things go, it’s not a bad place to begin a retelling. However, even though the drama has much to recommend it, it ultimately seems much more concerned with the atmosphere of history, rather than the people behind it.
That said, Gunpowder does an admirable job of dressing up a dark tale in its best possible clothes. Its cast is immensely talented, its story is well-presented, and it doubtless will lead more than a few people to rethink Guy Fawkes Day when it rolls around again next year. The series directly confronts many of the horrors of the time period, ratcheting up the tension as suspected Catholics hide in priest holes, face interrogation, and die in increasingly violent ways. It’s probably not an accident that the bulk of this series feels like a more historically minded Game of Thrones – a struggle for the future of a crown and a country, book-ended by a whole lot of bloodshed. Gunpowder’s dedication to historically accurate depictions of torture is admirable, but it also requires a strong stomach to get through. Between beheadings, disembowelments, stabbings, rackings and an elderly woman being crushed to death, there’s plenty here to make you realize people can be plenty horrible to one another without the need for dragons or other supernatural elements. (Sorry, Targaryen fans.)
And yet despite all this, so much of Gunpowder feels empty, as though much like its titular plot, it’s waiting for a spark to really get started.
Game of Thrones star Kit Harington plays Catesby, a man who, as it turns out, he’s descended directly from. Perhaps the familial collection predisposed the actor to seek out this role, but whatever the reason, Harington throws himself into it with admirable gusto. Granted, Catesby as a character isn’t that far from Jon Snow, but it’s a solid, dependable performance that’s still different enough from his Thrones role to be interesting. The story tries to illustrate why Catesby might want to kill the king – the first episode’s entire first half is dedicated to the persecution of several of his family members – but it ultimately falls short when it comes to really digging into his psyche. Catesby, like the other main characters of Gunpowder is generally drawn in exceedingly broad strokes. He’s angry. He’s devout. Sometimes, he’s angry and devout. Oh, and he’s also a fairly terrible father, who feels distant from his young son as a result of his wife’s early death. (This is a subplot that likely could have added some interesting layers to Catesby’s character, but doesn’t really go anywhere in the end.)
Additionally, Gunpowder doesn’t exactly do a great job setting up the complexity of the political and religious situation in early Stuart England. While the series makes clear that at this particular moment English Catholics feel hunted in their own homeland and a Scottish Protestant King is afraid of a certain segment of his subjects, it doesn’t go much deeper than that. The conflict between Catholics and Protestants in England dates back to the massive religious changes made during Henry VIII’s reign, and situations worsened and bettered for both groups depending on many factors.
Catholic Queen Mary I persecuted Protestants relentlessly. While the Protestant Elizabeth I was slightly more tolerant of differences in religion amongst her subjects, she nevertheless lived much of her life in fear of assassination attempts aimed to put her cousin, the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots, on the throne. (The fact that this was, in fact, James I’s mother seems as though it should at least come up somewhere in this story, but it doesn’t. Part of the reason the Gunpowder plot ringleaders are so disappointed in James is that they hoped the new monarch might reevaluate some of the public laws about Catholicism!) Perhaps there are many viewers who would find such historical details tiresome, I can only argue that it likely would have added a lot of needed context to both sides of the story.
Though Gunpowder clearly emphasizes with the plotters, the fact that it doesn’t bother to delve very far into their motivations is disappointing. We already know they’re not going to succeed in their plan. Therefore, the only way to get viewers to really invest in this story is to tell us something else about what happened, why it happened or what it meant. In some ways, Gunpowder does try to do this by refocusing the narrative on Catesby. Most people connect the Gunpowder Plot to Fawkes, but in reality, he wasn’t the ringleader, even if he is remembered as its face today.
Catesby’s a much more human figure in this version of the story, and one that’s easy to root for. But his motivation doesn’t go much further than the fact that he’s angry over what is obviously rather terrible religious persecution, and for all that Fawkes is the eventual face of this movement, he’s something of a furious cipher here. (It’s strange, isn’t it, that a series which aims to tell a version of the Gunpowder plot that isn’t about Fawkes somehow manages to make him the character you want to know the most about, in the end?)
This is an issue that plagues Gunpowder throughout. Perhaps it was inevitable, given the series’ somewhat truncated run time. Clocking in at just three episodes, it only has time to really focus on the action and conspiracy-oriented sections of the plot, rather than the inner workings of those involved in it. For those who like such things, however, there’s a lot to enjoy here, as the series presents a fairly twisty and tense tale of spycraft and political intrigue – Mark Gatiss’ performance as the cagey Robert Cecil is particularly good – with several well-done action scenes thrown in. The final standoff between Catesby and his men and the King’s forces is particularly good, and surprisingly tense, especially as we all already know how it will end.
Given its dramatic subject matter, strong performances, and handsome production values, this series should satisfy anyone with a love for British historical drama. It’s thoughtful and well-made. But despite the fact that Gunpowder offers up a new look at a story we all thought we already knew, it still doesn’t seem as though it really has anything to say.
Season 1, Episode 1-03 (S01E01-03)
Gunpowder airs on HBO
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Lacy is a digital strategist by day and a writer because it seemed like a good start to her supervillain origin story. Favorite things include: Sansa Stark, British period dramas, and that leather duster that Aeryn Sun wears in Farscape.
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Lacy Baugher | Contributor