Guy Fawkes is the most famous conspirator in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, a thwarted attempt to assassinate King James I. Fawkes was caught guarding the gunpowder that was meant to blow up the House of Lords during the state opening of Parliament, and the yearly English holiday commemorating the event bears his name. But the HBO miniseries Gunpowder is less concerned with Fawkes than it is with Robert Catesby (Kit Harington), the recusant Catholic who architected the plot, using his low profile as a way to ground a story that’s otherwise become attached to Fawkes’s mythical legacy.
Responding to the brutal treatment of Catholics by King James I, Catesby and his coconspirators aimed to murder not only the king, but also other targets, including members of both houses of Parliament—an act that, depending on one’s perspective, was either a righteous gambit or an act of treason. But Gunpowder doesn’t investigate the moral complexity of Catesby’s idea, instead framing the attempt solely as an act of political vengeance.
Gunpowder defines Catesby beyond his Catholicism, from his loving relationship with his cousin, Anne Vaux (Liv Tyler), to his complicated one with his son, Robert (Tom Sweet). Catesby is a widower who still struggles with the loss of his late wife and a protector tasked with hiding Father Henry Garnet (Peter Mullen) from the government. Above all, though, the series is interested in Catesby the victim, painstakingly outlining his suffering.
The series begins with the imposing Sherriff Wade (Shaun Dooley) raiding a mansion where Catesby is attending mass. He’s looking for priests, who, if found, will be mutilated and executed in public. The tense sequence strongly resembles the opening of Inglourious Basterds, which featured a similar raid led by Christoph Waltz’s Hans Landa, a menacing Nazi colonel known as “The Jew Hunter.” Like Landa, Wade quietly and calmly delivers threats with an air of inevitability, harassing Anne while Robert looks on. The similarity between Wade and Landa is likely incidental, a consequence of the tendency of Gunpowder to frame ideology as a secondary motivation of oppressors. Both men may be zealots, but the series seems to argue that while victims change with the times, tyrants are universally motivated by power.
The raid is the first of many indignities heaped upon Catesby, who, if not plotting, is either being harassed by the king’s men or watching while fellow Catholics are gruesomely executed. Scenes at the gallows are particularly graphic, with prisoners disemboweled and beheaded in unflinching detail. The sheer brutality of the executions, coupled with the persistent persecution of Catesby, position all that follows as an act of heroic vengeance; the series uses his trauma to uncomplicate the legacy of the Gunpowder Plot, by framing a nominal act of terror through its perpetrators’ eyes.
When focusing on the oppressors, Gunpowder combines palace intrigue and diplomatic drama, and strikes a prescient chord. King James (Derek Ridell) originally tolerates Catholics to appease Spain, a Catholic power, and the series meticulously explains the knotty dynamic between nations. That dense history is coupled with a comment on the tenuous nature of politically expedient tolerance, when focus shifts from diplomacy to the fear-mongering advisers who reshuffle the king’s priorities. They manipulate King James toward a staunch anti-Catholic position, and his lack of true convictions, more than the vagaries of diplomacy, make Gunpowder particularly resonant today.
Gunpowder never redeems the English government, prompting audiences to believe Catesby when he proposes the Gunpowder Plot to his allies as the only measure left to counter King James’s extremism. Despite objections from Father Garnet and Anne, who prefer the status quo to an unknowable future, Catesby never doubts himself or grapples with the notion that the plot will inadvertently fulfill the king’s demagoguery. Catesby is, by all accounts, a moral man radicalized by the grotesque events we witness in Gunpowder’s earliest moments. And this heroic portrayal is unsurprising: Harington, who co-wrote and co-executive produced the miniseries, counts the man as an ancestor (the actor’s middle name is Catesby).
Harington’s mix of incredulity and aggrieved, underdog rage recalls his role as Jon Snow on Game of Thrones. His humanistic portrait starkly contrasts with the presentation of Guy Fawkes (Tom Cullen), who lingers mysteriously in the margins. Thick-necked, quiet, and prone to violence, he’s half-lit in most scenes, looming in the shadows just as his celebrity looms over what amounts to a rousing hagiography of Catesby. By focusing on the internal machinations of Catesby and his Protestant antagonists, Gunpowder locates a human drama at the heart of an event codified in history books as a conflict between monoliths. It turns a curiosity of British lore into a resonant portrait of courage, and a testament to the value of resistance.