“Remember remember, the fifth of November; gunpowder, treason, and plot.”
Over the last few hundred years, the Guy Fawkes mask has evolved from being the face of a traitor to being a symbol of modern protest. Popularised by the graphic novel David Lloyd’s V for Vendetta and then its movie adaptation, the mask is also the insignia of the hackers’ collective Anonymous and was most recently leveraged by the Emmy award-winning show Mr. Robot as an image of cyberanarchy aimed at overthrowing an evil corporation.
While the image has survived through the centuries, in reality Fawkes was simply a man tasked with pulling the trigger in a more elaborate plan to assassinate King James I of England. The BBC One mini-series Gunpowderi, starring Game of Thrones actor Kit Harington, takes this highly celebrated symbol of subversion and gives it a face and a backstory.
Gunpowder follows the plot to blow up the House of Lords in London 1605 to protest against the persecution of Catholics. As Robert Catesby (Kit Harington) and his cousin Anne Vaux (Liv Tyler) watch their middle-aged cousin Lady Dibdale (Sian Webber) stripped, tortured and crushed to death, Robert vows revenge. He brings together a band of fierce, committed Catholics willing to assassinate King James I (Derek Riddell) and liberate their fellow believers, who refused to conform to the new Church of England.
Robert is joined in the struggle by Guy Fawkes (Tom Cullen). As they plot, escape capture and hide away, they are being chased by the Secretary of State Robert Cecil (Mark Gatiss) and William Wade (Shaun Dooley), who make convincing representatives of state-endorsed coercion, lending even more legitimacy to the cause and actions of the Catholic revolutionaries.
Harington returns to the screen after the Game Of Thrones season finale (he also happens to be a direct descendant of Robert Catesby). The role and the series are very different from Harington’s Jon Snow character and Game of Thrones. Gunpowder has only three one-hour episodes, which are drawn from history – with verifiable dates, places and names – rather than high fantasy containing white walkers and dragons.
Besides, unlike Jon Snow, Robert Catesby knows what he’s doing. Though he retains his brooding demeanor, he is more willing to take the lead. He is a man with a plan and the drive to see it through. He also has friends and Catholic sympathisers who are willing to fight, kill and die for the faith. And so they do, in shock-inducing depictions of brutality.
The series has received a fair share of flak for the unfiltered portrayal of 17th-century savagery. BBC has defended the bloodshed and argued that the moments of torture are drawn from historical research.
While Gunpowder does appear to be a true and unfortunate depiction of religious oppression of the time, the series also uses brutality as a tool to drive the plot forward. For centuries, effigies of Guy Fawkes have been burnt on November 5 to mark loyalty to the king. Gunpowder attempts to provide a rationale for Catesby and his crew. It humanises the face and the story. Catesby is stripped of his property and rights, loses his wife in childbirth and is unable to connect to his only son, who he believes is the cause of her death. He has faith, but no freedom to practise it. Fawkes is a seemingly cold-hearted soldier, a man in the shadows, but he still pines for his wife Maria.
Despite not being the easiest show to watch, Gunpowder is a captivating and nail-biting drama about the human side of popular history. The three -part miniseries was premiered on BBC in the United Kingdom in October, and will be telecast by HBO in the United States of America in December.