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The True Story of an Act of Religious Rebellion: HBO’s ‘Gunpowder’
December 18, 2017  | By David Hinckley  | 2 comments

If you want to be depressed in a million ways, to flip the sentiment of a popular holiday song, watch Gunpowder, HBO’s new miniseries on one of history’s biggest foiled insurrection plots.

Gunpowder, which airs Monday-Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET, recounts more or less faithfully the 1605 plot by frustrated Catholics to blow up Parliament and spark a national rebellion that would dethrone Protestant King James I (Derek Riddell, right) and replace him with a Catholic heir, then-Princess Elizabeth.

The miniseries lays out the impetus for this plot, the growing suppression of Catholics following the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603. It was now illegal, for instance, for a priest to conduct a Mass.

Now the battles between Catholics and various Protestant denominations have been well-documented in a thousand dramas, predating Shakespeare. Watching this latest resurrection, knowing that centuries later there are still men and women who want to kill those who worship in another faith, it’s hard not to simply find it depressing.

In too many ways, we have learned nothing.

While Gunpowder makes the persecution problem clear, it tries to spend as much time as possible on the action drama. That would be the plot to blow up Parliament, which was largely spearheaded by Robert Catesby (Kit Harington, top, his direct descendant) even though history has associated it more with Guy Fawkes (Tom Cullen, left, with Harington).

Fawkes, who had military experience, handled the gunpowder itself. The plotters had smuggled 36 barrels through underground tunnels and positioned them under Parliament – where, had they gone off, they would indeed have almost certainly killed everyone in the building and a whole lot of people outside.

Since even the casual fan of British history knows that didn’t happen, there’s not much suspense in Gunpowder. We know at some point the plot will be discovered, the plotters thwarted and repression will if anything intensify. For the historical record, though there’s no coda here, it would be about 200 years before Catholics would be given full freedom to practice.

So Gunpowder focuses much of its three hours on the chess match between the plotters and the government, whose main driver is the zealously anti-Catholic Robert Cecil, Fourth Earl of Salisbury (Mark Gatiss).

Cecil and some of his top henchmen come across as arrogant bullies, driven by ambition and confident they can win the support of the masses by delivering incredibly gruesome public executions.

The discussions among the plotters illustrate how their ranks include both fiery militants like Catesby and more reluctant men of the cloth, including Father Garnet (Peter Mullan). Catesby’s cousin Anne Vaux (Liv Tyler, left) also weighs in on whether the proposed bombing will galvanize or alienate the people it theoretically will inspire to rise up. 

One historical irony, often emphasized in Gunpowder, is that while James I was a devoted Protestant, he did not play the Catholic card heavily by the standards of his time. He sought a peace treaty with Spain, a Catholic country, and felt with some justification that if he seemed to be persecuting Catholics too aggressively, Spain would shy away from such an accord.

In that sense, Gunpowder reminds us that our perception of persecution has always been relative. Having your priest executed for treason may be a lighter sanction than having the whole congregation executed, but it’s still a problem you might feel needs to be addressed.  

Gunpowder does a reasonable job of tracking a subversive plot – yes, you could call it terrorism – from inception to failure. It also explains why persons on both sides felt as strongly as they did.

It’s more graphic than many dramatizations from that period in showing us the raw brutality of 17th-centuryjustice, and if part of the point there is to make us reflect on why someone should die just for having different religious beliefs, it’s fair to say it succeeds.

But that kind of dramatic success comes at a price. Whatever one’s takeaway, it’s not the most uplifting way to spend three hours of a holiday week.

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Sean Dougherty
Actually, the Catholics and the Protestants have learned a lot - not even the Irish ones kill each other any more. It seems like whereever there is violent religious violence in the modern world one of the two combatants is Muslim. Muslims have a lot to learn but it isn't fair to blame the rest of the world's religions for that.
Dec 20, 2017   |  Reply
Let's not forget the Nov 5 annual celebration of the Failure of the plot, where UK has bonfires, and masks (much like Halloween!) representing burning Guy Fawkes, (who wasn't burned). So the celebration is Pro-King, while folklore vaguely celebrates the plotters!
Common now is the Guy Fawkes mask, showing up at Occupy, Anonymous, and various rebellions. History keeps funny records.
Dec 18, 2017   |  Reply
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