TV Review: Gunpowder

HBO, TV Review, Drama, England, Gunpowder, Guy Fawkes, Kit Harington, mark Gatiss, Liv Tyler

SYNOPSIS: Every year on Nov. 5 the English mark the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot in London in 1605 with bonfires and fireworks. Though known as Guy Fawkes Day because many people believe Fawkes devised the plot, the actual driving force was Robert Catesby, a 30-year-old Warwickshire gentleman.

HBO, TV Review, Drama, England, Gunpowder, Guy Fawkes, Kit Harington, mark Gatiss, Liv Tyler

REVIEW: In the United States, when we think of The Gunpowder Plot, we typically will only be aware arbitrarily of the event due to the Guy Fawkes mask made popular by the comic and film V FOR VENDETTA and the visage as used by the hacker group Anonymous. In England, the events of November 5, 1605 are much more significant and represent a major historical moment when the conflict between the Church of England and the Catholic Church came to a head. GUNPOWDER is a passion project for star Kit Harington, who can trace his own familial line directly to the character he plays in this mini-series, Robert Catesby. The series aired on BBC One in October and is now hitting North American airwaves via HBO. Fans of Harington as Jon Snow will likely be turning in to see if GUNPOWDER serves as a historical parallel to the epic fantasy drama. While the two series do share some thematic and visual similarities, don't expect to see anything quite as action packed as dragons or White Walkers.

GUNPOWDER is a bit laborious for the casual viewer as it thrusts you directly into the events leading up to the assassination attempt on King James I. After some brief summarization, we get right into seeing Kit Harington do his usual brooding. Barely changing his hair or beard from what viewers would see on GAME OF THRONES, Harington looks like Jon Snow but he certainly doesn't act like him. While Catesby is prone to jump into things without looking, he is not much for sweeping speeches or rousing dialogue. In fact, most of the talking in this drama is done by everyone but Harington. The bulk of the speaking is handled by Mark Gatiss (also a Game of Thrones veteran) who does a great turn as Sir Robert Cecil. Liv Tyler is also good in her limited time as Anne Vaulx as is Peter Mullan as the Catholic priest Henry Garnet. Tom Cullen portrays Guy Fawkes who is a military veteran who acts mainly as muscle for when Catesby's plan to blow up Parliament goes into full swing.

Full swing is a difficult term to assign to GUNPOWDER as the actual planning of the Gunpowder Plot does not even begin until the second of the three hour long episodes. The first hour is a very slowly paced chapter that sets up the large cast of characters and tries to rouse sympathy for the persecuted Catholics by the largely Protestant upper class of the country. Like any film about a group fighting against the powerful that restrain them, you will be horrified to see how the English treated people simply because they believe in a slightly different form of the same religion. There is also a brief look at the Spanish Inquisition where the Catholics torture and kill some people just for being Jewish, but this story is more about the English so that is glossed over in favor of the main story. The dilemma with this series is that if you really want to manufacture sympathy in an audience, you need to do more than have one group scream about another. GUNPOWDER aims to do that with violence and gore. While not quite as graphic as GAME OF THRONES, this show does not shy away from some truly horrendous death scenes.

While you may be expecting to see the standard forms of torture and execution, GUNPOWDER lingers on some unique methods of dispatching those found guilty by the court. I never thought I would see someone hung and then disemboweled in the same execution, but now I have. There is torture aplenty and one death in the first episode that made me cringe and then google whether that was actually a way people were killed (it was and it is pretty f*cked up). GUNPOWDER is very accurate historically but does not resort to nudity or excessive profanity to sell the era. The dialogue feels authentic and the production benefits from filming in actual historical locations through England. GUNPOWDER is a very nice looking series albeit one that doesn't have enough tension or story to sustain the three hour running time.

HBO, TV Review, Drama, England, Gunpowder, Guy Fawkes, Kit Harington, mark Gatiss, Liv Tyler

GUNPOWDER lacks a certain something that helped make GAME OF THRONES the international success that it has been: an engaging plot. While there have been numerous historical events that have warranted the mini-series treatment, The Gunpowder Plot is not one of them. If the series had been condensed into a feature length tale it may have fared better than this overlong production. Still, Harington proves that he has star power and carries this over the finish line. There are a few excellent fight scenes that will make you wonder what they are doing in this otherwise buttoned down drama but they are sparse and don't have the scope necessary to make this the crowdpleaser that the trailers make it out to be. If you want, you can skip the first two episodes and just watch the recap that precedes the third part and you will see the best that GUNPOWDER has to offer. For the Anglophiles out there, you will enjoy the full three part series but everyone else will be looking at their phones as they wait for something to actually happen when there aren't eviscerations and explosions on screen.

Gunpowder debuts December 18th on HBO followed by Part 2 and 3 on December 19th and 20th.

TV Review: Gunpowder




About the Author

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Alex Maidy has been a editor, columnist, and critic since 2012. A Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic and a member of Chicago Indie Critics, Alex has been's primary TV critic and ran columns including Top Ten and The UnPopular Opinion. When not riling up fans with his hot takes, Alex is an avid reader and aspiring novelist.