In HBO’s three-part historical miniseries Gunpowder, Game of Thrones’ Kit Harington finds himself in familiar territory, amidst political scheming, religious fanaticism, brutal violence, and good old-fashioned swordplay.
Outside of the U.K. or history class, the average viewer is most likely to be familiar with the so-called “Gunpowder Plot” of 1605 due to the elements of it that have lodged elsewhere in the public consciousness. Alan Moore borrowed elements of it for his V for Vendetta comics, adorning his mysterious antihero with a smiling Guy Fawkes mask. That mask has also, even more infamously, been adopted by the hacktivist group Anonymous, and subsequently become a staple at protests and other forms of civil disobedience. For those with only a passing familiarity with the attempted regicide of the Gunpowder Plot, HBO’s new miniseries is an engaging, occasionally thrilling primer… even if it does leave the scheme’s best-known conspirator (Fawkes) largely a cipher.
Harington is well suited to lead Gunpowder from a standpoint of lineage: He’s related to both Gunpowder Plot conspirator Robert Catesby (on his mother’s side) and to two of the targets of that assassination plot (King James I and Lord Harington). That no doubt explains why Gunpowder is very much the story of Harington’s ancestor, Robert Catesby. While the other conspirators are all fleshed out to varying degrees, it’s the execution of a beloved relative that sets Catesby on the path toward attempting to blow up both Parliament and the King of England. Well, that and an unwavering devotion to the Catholic Church, which is under the bootheel of the Protestant James I.
Over the course of its three hourlong episodes, Gunpowder follows the origins and evolution of the Gunpowder Plot and those who planned it. Determined to strike a blow for both Catholicism and his own personal vengeance, Catesby assembles a small group of the faithful, including Thomas Wintour (Edward Holcott) and Guy Fawkes (Tom Cullen), with a plan to sneak 6,000 pounds of gunpowder into a secret cellar beneath Parliament, and thus murder both the lords of that House and the King above them. Working to foil that plot are Secretary of State Lord Robert Cecil (Mark Gatiss) and the vicious William Wade, lieutenant of the Tower of London. Above it all, James I (Derek Riddell) works to secure a treaty with Catholic Spain, even as he oppresses, tortures, and executes Catholics in his own kingdom.
Three hours proves to be just about the perfect length of time to tell this story, providing breathing room enough to explore the various characters involved without feeling overlong. In between the political maneuvering and long speeches about devotion to God, there are some genuinely standout sequences. One early scene mines enormous tension out of watching Wade search a room for the hidden spaces in the walls where a priest has been stashed; there’s also a rousing prison break in episode two.
The horrific execution and torture scenes certainly don’t cast the king or his followers in a positive light, which is perhaps necessary given that the hero of the piece is, when you get down to it, plotting a terrorist act. It’s a shame that Gunpowder never really delves too deeply into the moral relativism of both sides of the conflict, but like the old saying says, one man’s hero is another man’s villain.