Terrorism, Torture and Kit Harington
'Gunpowder' is set in 1605, but says a lot about today
BBC’s new mini-series Gunpowder has a terrorist for a hero—and does its best to sweep you up in his emotional journey. This grim tale of Renaissance-era terror and counterterror operations is a lot more relevant to the modern world than you’d think from all the ruffled collars in evidence.
Kit Harrington of Game of Thrones fame plays his real-life ancestor Robert Catesby in 1605 as he plots to blow up the King of England, the House of Lords and several nearby London city blocks using 6,000 pounds of gunpowder.
If you’re unfamiliar with why the English celebrate Guy Fawkes Day every Nov. 5 with a ritual effigy-burning, you might as well watch the show history-spoiler free—as long as you have a strong stomach.
That’s because Gunpowder is unsparing in depicting the extreme torture and executions that were then routine. In the early 1600s, Protestants ruled England and ruthlessly set about hunting down Catholic priests and those who harbored them, fearing they were fifth columnists for Spain—then at war with England and the dominant European power.
The series briskly moves from the Gestapo-like business of hunting down religious minorities to carnivalesque extravagance of public executions. In the first episode, a elderly noblewoman is stripped naked and slowly crushed under a metal plaque. A captured priest is hung, disemboweled and dismembered while still alive. Late, another man receives the same treatment before having his heart cut out and displayed to a jeering crowd.
It seems grotesquely over-the-top, but unfortunately is not at all exaggerated. Indeed, historical records mentioned additional mutilations. The series drives home that this Islamic State-style savagery was embedded in the fabric of European everyday life, part and parcel of law enforcement and the wars of religion then tearing Europe apart, just as the Sunni-Shia split inspires violence throughout the Middle East and South Asia today.
Director J. Blakeson doesn’t depict the carnage with the exploitation-style glee of Game of Thrones, but focuses on how the state-sanctioned killing affects the thinking of the persecuted. The result is still very difficult to watch—and helps put you into Catesby’s frame of mind such that murdering the better part of the British ruling class begins to seem like a reasonable solution to his problems.
Harington’s take on Catesby essentially reprises Jon Snow from Game of Thrones, a sensitive young man a little too ready to take unnecessary risks to do the right thing.
When newly anointed King James VI fails to ease the persecution of Catholics as promised, Catesby decides he might as well blow the monarch up—and after some initial setbacks, finds a like-minded ally in the mercenary Guy Fawkes, better known to Americans as the symbol of resistance from the comic book and film V from Vendetta.
Actor Tom Cullen imbues Fawkes with a smoldering, rage-filled energy, that culminates in a legendary face-to-face confrontation with King James.
Gunpowder shows respect to its protagonist’s Catholic faith without proselytizing—however, it also doesn’t attempt even briefly to explain why the Christian sects were ready to kill each other over their beliefs. The second episode does make the necessary point that Catholic states like Spain were just as prone to murdering and torturing religious minorities.
Taken strictly as entertainment Gunpowder has its up and downs. It has thrilling scenes of exquisite cat-and-mouse tension, a few cool sequences of swashbuckling derring-do, and great hats. While doublets may never come back into fashion, you might find yourself hankering for those cool leather jackets.
On the other hand, many of the plotters are character perfunctorily—there’s Father Garnet, Principled Priest; Anne of Veaux, Compassionate Maiden; Wintour the Loyal Friend; and even a Neglected Son. Unfortunately, the series spends a little too much time trying to milk pathos out of characters it fails to flesh out as three-dimensional people.
The antagonists prove rather more entertaining. Shaun Dooley drips with menace and indifferent cruelty as warden of the Tower of London. Derek Riddell subverts expectation as a gay Scottish King James VI who, despite his indolence, isn’t very keen on persecuting Catholics and worries anti-terrorism laws will sabotage his imminent plans for peace with Spain.
The anti-Catholic measures are pushed upon him by his sneering, hunchback Secretary of State Robert Cecil (Mark Gatiss). Despite these outward signifiers of villainy, Cecil is right about the Catholics plotting an attack—although it’s in part due to the cruelty of his own policies. Adams is shown to be a shrewd and adaptable operator, conscientious if not compassionate in his duty.
Catesby and Adams’s cloak-and-dagger machinations range across international borders in ways that feels unexpectedly modern. Adams attempts to infiltrate the Catholic terrorists’ ranks and plies their foreign allies with diplomatic concession in exchange for critical intel. He tortures prisoners in the hopes he’ll gain time-sensitive information—it doesn’t work—and dispatches thuggish agents to perform snatch-and-grabs and house-to-house searches.
Catesby also seeks foreign support from Spain. But while Madrid is at war with London and holds the religious freedom of English Catholics as a key negotiating point, its rulers are deeply opposed to assassinating kings and are tempted by Adams’ offer of naval basing rights. Instead of defaulting facilely to a cynical Realpolitik analysis, the series show that human rights and political ideology were factors balanced against other motivations in international diplomacy, even in this blood-soaked chapter of history.
The final episode also depicts the primitive nature of early matchlock guns which, as their name suggests, had to be lit by a match in combat. The ballsy final showdown at Holbeche House between Catesby and his hunters, and the fittingly explosive mishap which occurs during it, are both things that really happened despite their Hollywood-like flare.
Indeed, Gunpowder deserves praise for mostly sticking to real events, even if they do not always occur in the same context or order. The most significant discrepancy is the suggestion that the Spanish betrayed the plot to save their peace treaty with England, which is not supported by historical record.
On matters that remain a mystery to this day—particularly, the identity of the author of the Monteagle letter which tipped Protestant authorities to the plot—the script remains studiously neutral, even at the expense of drama. Was it a humanitarian impulse by Anne of Veaux that doomed the plot, or treachery from plotter Francis Tresham?
Other historical details are omitted. For example, Catesby would likely have succeeded had the opening of Parliament in not been delayed by an outbreak of the plague. On the other hand, by the time the plotters were ready to make their blow, the gunpowder had probably decayed to the point it could no longer do the job. But if all three tons of powder had gone off, collateral damage would been immense.
The series does a good job of showing how many Catholics thought Catesby’s plot was a terrible idea. We already know that the part of his plan which involved a kidnapping and a coup would not have worked, because Catesby attempted them anyway and Catholics failed to rally to his banner.
But if Catesby really had successfully blowing up the King and the House of Lords then he would likely have seen his dreams melt into a nightmare of genocidal reprisals against English Catholics.
Harington obviously desired to honor his ancestors when he helped finance this series. But as the ending makes clear, Catesby and Fawkes failed. Rather than striking a blow for freedom, they helped justify the repression of their persecutors.
While Gunpowder depicts both the timeless horror of persecution, it also counterintuitively underscores the unromantic reality that fighting violence with violence can be fatally counterproductive.
Most of all, the series deserves credit for painfully illustrating the cyclical, even symbiotic, nature of state repression and terrorist violence. Each depends upon the other to justify itself.