Review – Gunpowder: Episode 1 (BBC One)

Kit Harington Takes On an Exciting New Role as Robert Catesby in Gunpowder

Gunpowder is a historical drama about the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605, starring Kit Harington, Mark Gatiss, Liv Tyler, and Peter Mullan. The first episode sets up the story of this three-part miniseries, released in October 2017 by BBC One and in December 2017 by HBO.

Here’s What Worked:

The Acting

Gunpowder Ep. 1 (BBC One) Kit Harington as Robert Catesby
Kit Harington as Catesby

Harington plays Robert Catesby, the brains behind the operation of the Gunpowder Plot. Everyone knew he could pull off angst due to his role as Jon Snow in Game of Thrones, but Catesby has a bit more fire to him than Ned Stark’s bastard. Harington shows us a Catesby that is so outraged by the persecution of Catholics, that he is driven to create this plot, against the wishes of his priest.

Peter Mullan portrays the priest, Henry Garnet. Mullan conveys to the audience a man who fears for his life but is still dedicated to his faith. He does all he can to protect his fellow Catholics, but does not approve of Catesby’s quite literal fight-fire-with-fire approach.

Gatiss plays Sir Robert Cecil, a man who puts forth the idea of persecuting Catholics even more harshly than before. He justifies this as protecting the king. After the first episode, I’m still not sure where his anti-Catholic stance really stems from, but it makes for a compelling story. Gatiss always does well when playing a character like this – manipulative and with plenty of power.

Liv Tyler plays Anne Vaux, a relative of Catesby’s. I’m not sure what her role in the bigger plot is going to be, but so far she has proven to be someone Catesby can rely on. Her aunt is executed in the first episode, and she really made me sorry for her.

Historical Accuracy

So far, it seems the show is historically accurate. The Lady Dorothy who is executed in the first episode for hiding a Catholic priest in her home is made up for the show. Her execution was based on a real one that happened. Lady Dorothy refused to admit her crime, so that her niece, Anne Vaux in this case, would not lose her inheritance, just like the real woman who was executed. The execution itself was also accurate. They tie her down with a rock under her back, then place a door on top of her, where they add weights until her back breaks. The only thing they got wrong in this scene was that this execution happened under Elizabeth I’s rule, not James I’s, who is the king in the show.

Catesby is also accurate. He really was a passionate man who believed violence was justified when your cause was just. Also, Harington even looks like Catesby. Fun fact: Harington is a descendant of Catesby on his mother’s side. Her maiden name is Catesby, and Harington’s full name is Christopher Catesby Harington. And Anne Vaux was a real woman who was related to one of the Gunpowder Plotters. It was not Catesby in history.

Here’s What Didn’t Work:

The Pacing

Gunpowder (BBC One) Ep. 1 on HBO
Gunpowder Ep. 1 (BBC One)

The show opens with a search of Lady Dorothy’s house. Catesby and Vaux are present, and Sir William Wade has his men basically raid this house based on word that Henry Garnet is there. It should be a tense scene, since Garnet is hiding in a wall compartment with another priest. A third priest, Father Daniel, hides beneath a bench by the window. I lost a bit of the tension, though, as this opening scene lasts for about twenty minutes. At one point, I jumped on Twitter and looked at Super Bowl predictions until something happened. This ended up working out in my favor, since I was just as surprised as the characters when Daniel revealed himself to spare Garnet. Of course, it also condemned Lady Dorothy to her gruesome death. They gutted and dismembered Daniel in his execution when he refused to give up Garnet’s location.

Also, the show only has three episodes. By the end of the first, Catesby just gets the idea for the Gunpowder Plot, so this has me worried. The Gunpowder Plot takes place in 1605, and the entirety of the first episode is in 1603. Is each episode to span a whole year? I just felt like the entire pilot was wasted on exposition, which works sometimes, but not when you’ve only got three episodes to tell your story.

The Protagonist/Antagonist

Gunpowder (BBC One) Ep. 1 on HBO b
Gunpowder (BBC One) Ep. 1

I’m not really sold on who we are supposed to root for in this show. Catesby is not exactly an endearing character, since he defies his priest because of his anger. After the brutal executions of Lady Dorothy and Father Daniel, the viewer kind of understands where he is coming from, but we still don’t really empathize with wanting to blow up the House of Lords. Catesby endears us even less to him when we find out that he hates his own son. The mother (a woman he loved very much) died while birthing the poor boy. This completely closed me off to liking Catesby. Main characters don’t always have to be likeable, but they should be relatable, and we didn’t really get that either with the first episode.

I also don’t know who the antagonist of the show is. Cecil is sort of poised as the villain because of his encouraging the king to deliver harsher punishments to the Catholics. King James I opposes harming Catholics because he wants to maintain peace with Spain. Then there is also Sir William Wade, a soldier of the king’s justice. Wade carries out the arrests and punishments of Catholics. He seems to have some mercy in him though, as he offers plenty of opportunities for his prisoners to confess so that they might live.

James I also confuses me. The king provides an almost comic relief role when he is first introduced. He has no personal vendetta against Catholics, he even wants to allow for them to live and worship peacefully, so I actually like him. He allows himself to be manipulated by those around him, but in such a way that I dislike Cecil and feel sorry for James I.

Overall, I think this is an interesting show so far. I want to know more about the characters and determine their role in the story. I just want it to pick up the pace and excite me more. I’m looking forward to episode two!

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