If you have binged on The Crown or tired of it, there's a new BBC/HBO drama about the English monarchy and related matters you might consider consuming. Heck, it even has a superhandsome chap from Game of Thrones in a prominent role.
Gunpowder (starts Monday, HBO Canada, 10 p.m. ET) is a new three-part series about the background to the plot to blow up King James I and the House of Lords in 1605, and Kit Harington (Jon Snow on GoT) plays his actual ancestor, one Robert Catesby, the alleged mastermind behind the plot. Thus, you may gather, it's less a celebration of monarchy than it is about rage against those on the throne.
The gist of the plot of Gunpowder is easily summarized. Catholics were being mercilessly persecuted and they fought back. There's not a lot going on in Gunpowder apart from that. But it is, for all its limited range, a stunning reminder about the barbarity unleashed in the name of pious religiosity.
You may find, as viewers in Britain did recently, that Gunpowder is shockingly violent. Not long into the first episode there are two execution scenes that will take your breath away. Or force you to flee the screen. Yes, the scenes are that emphatically gruesome.
First, there is an extremely tense opening. At a country mansion, a Catholic service is under way. "There are men outside on foot and horse," a nervous servant says. Several people are then hidden in the walls. "This house is rancid with popery," snarls Sir William Wade (Shaun Dooley, who does a nightmare-inducing turn as a vicious King's henchman), and a search ensues. A young priest is found and the lady of the house, Catesby's cousin, Lady Dorothy (Sian Webber), is sentenced to death, along with the priest.
For her, the death sentence involves being stripped naked in public and being crushed to death with weights. For him, it is being hanged and then cut to pieces by an executioner. This is all shown without the cameras flinching or turning away. It is a remarkably violent, nerve-shredding scene and I'll tell you what is going on here – an iron-fisted historical revisionism. Anyone who thought the "Gunpowder Plot" of folkloric history – one celebrated annually in Britain as Guy Fawkes Night – was a jaunty episode in English history is given a sharp lesson in reality. The dramatized rage and fevered persecution was all real.
The execution scene radicalizes Catesby. The viewer is left to grasp that brutal violence in the name of religious purity will do that. There follows an action-packed narrative in which Guy Fawkes himself (Tom Cullen) emerges as a very, very angry former military man. The sort who, today, would take his guns and plan a mass shooting.
Gunpowder is less an entertainment than it is a curious, one-off attack on the entire genre of period-piece drama. Co-created by Harington, the Irish writer Ronan Bennett and actor Daniel West, who also appears in it, the miniseries is never cozy, never about noble heroism and never, for a minute, does it present a world you want to snuggle up with. It is painstakingly devoted to showing the viewer what was done in the name of James I and his extreme anti-Catholic prejudice.
In Britain last month, when it aired on the BBC, it left viewers shocked, as it was meant to do. A small army of historians was corralled by the press to determine its authenticity and the consensus was, yes, this is what it was like. The violence is not deliberately overcooked or an exaggeration.
As it is in three parts only, Gunpowder lacks back story and lengthy character development. You have to piece things together yourself. And you should – it's a gravely different, enraged historical drama. It is as far from The Crown as you can get, and all the better for it.