A late-December Monday night might seem like an odd time to launch a new miniseries starring Game of Thrones star Kit Harington, but in its seeming madness, HBO might have actually chosen the best possible time. It’s late in the year and with the exception of the never-ending onslaught of new shows premiering on Netflix and Amazon (and to a lesser extent, Hulu), it seems as though your only choice for something new (and relatively short) to watch might be one of those cheesy Christmas movies on Hallmark. Thankfully, Jon Snow’s alter ego is here to save you from slipping into the holiday TV doldrums, this time as Gunpowder Plot conspirator Robert Catesby in the three-hour miniseries, appropriately titled, Gunpowder
Imported from British television, where it aired in late October, Gunpowder was destined for HBO’s catalogue, as the likelihood that even the most casual TV watcher might tune in to see one of the network’s biggest and most recognizable faces swing a sword with castles still peppering the landscape. This time, though, rather than an epic battle for the Iron Throne, it’s a small group of Catholics conspiring to assassinate King James (Derek Riddell), in response to the recent measures he’s undertaken to persecute them. And while the miniseries is seeped in history, it benefits from how aspects of the story, and its most famous participant, Guy Fawkes (Tom Cullen), have become fictionalized and misrepresented in the centuries since the plot failed to unfold as intended.
In its retelling of the story, Gunpowder takes a fairly sober approach to the proceedings, though that doesn’t stop it from going heavy on the action and including an entertaining sequence that involves the infiltration and escape from a heavily guarded jail. The miniseries essentially operates with the same grasp of “historical fiction” as Vikings or Knightfall (also starring Cullen) does. Which is to say, entertainment is always paramount.
That approach makes Gunpowder move at an impressive clip. Given the amount of television on most people’s watch lists, especially at the end of the year, it’s a big ask to hope they’ll sign on for one more show that may only appeal to them because of its lead and something to do with the fifth of November. So Gunpowder hedges its bets by being more economical with its time, and not going full Prestige TV by delivering a 10-hour (or longer) epic. Sure, three hours is still a significant amount of time, but spread over the course of three consecutive nights — or watched at your leisure via one of HBO’s streaming options — it seems a reasonable ask at this time of the year.
The trade off for that swift pace and relative brevity, of course, is the sense that something may have been left on the table. It’s possible that’s just a byproduct of so many shows in the Peak TV era demanding 10-13 hours of our time, but it could also be that the cast Gunpowder is impressive enough you would expect an extra hour or two be devoted to Liv Tyler’s Anne Vaux, Edward Holcroft’s Thomas Wintour, and especially Mark Gatiss’s scheming council to the king, Lord Robert Cecil. And considering how the miniseries shifts its focus to Catesby rather than Fawkes — who is by no means marginalized here — one could see how an extra episode or two might be given over to a greater exploration of his character and role in the infamous plot.
Instead, Gunpowder moves like it’s on rails. That is by no means a negative as anyone with even cursory knowledge of history knows Catesby and his group are doomed from the outset. Thankfully, that doesn’t prevent the miniseries from generating necessary intrigue around the hatching of the scheme — though at times it does feel so hastily constructed and relatively free from the sort of logistical impediments one would expect a plan like this would meet that it’s no wonder the plot’s fuse never reaches all those barrels of gunpowder. Again, that has more to do with where and to whom the miniseries ultimately devotes the majority of its attention than anything else, which may alter the mileage you get from this particular telling of the story. So long as you’re game for going along for the ride, however, it’s likely that you’ll get your time’s worth.
There are several fine performances, as the aforementioned Gatiss makes for a cunning schemer, while Cullen’s shadowy Fawkes (seriously, he spends nearly all of his time with his head turned just so or standing in such a way that his face is partially concealed by shadow) cuts an imposing figure. Additionally, Peter Mullan takes a break from recent roles as unscrupulous and heavily accented Americans in Quarry and Ozark to play a Jesuit priest in hiding, wrestling with his conscience over his continued concealment. Ultimately, though, this is Harington’s show, and Gunpowder puts his particular skills to good use. Catesby is just as skilled with a sword and a brooding look as Jon Snow, but rather than be destined for (possible) greatness, failure looms large over the conspirator and Harington puts the audience’s foreknowledge to good use, garnering interest in and possibly even empathy for in a man who took his fight for religious beliefs to the extreme.
The results are an entertaining and well-made effort by director J. Blakeson (The 5th Wave), who, along with cinematographer Philipp Blaubach, crafts scenes with equal attention to style and detail, furthering television’s efforts to deliver a story that’s as visually impressive as its cinematic counterparts. At times it can feel as though Gunpowder is aiming for more style over substance, though if you’re adding this to your list of must-see television before the year’s out, that might be a mark in win column for the miniseries.
Gunpowder continues Tuesday and Wednesday nights @10pm on HBO.