tv review

Gunpowder Is Not at All Explosive

Photo: HBO

Fans of Game of Thrones who tune in to Gunpowder, the three-part HBO mini-series that begins tonight and continues Tuesday and Wednesday, will certainly find some reminders of the Westeros epic in the story of England’s famous Gunpowder Plot.

Gunpowder has stubborn, ruthless leaders and intense discussions about how to strategically push back against their inhumane policies. It delivers moments of brutal violence and torture, including stabbings and beheadings, both Game of Thrones staples. It allows us to feast our eyes on Kit Harington, a co-creator and producer of this mini-series who also stars as Robert Catesby, the leader of the plan to take out the discriminatory King James I.

But there’s also something less Thrones-ish that viewers will encounter while watching Gunpowder: boredom. So, so much boredom.

Gunpowder, which already aired in the U.K. on BBC One, takes a notable moment in British history — the failed 1605 attempt to blow up the House of Lords and assassinate King James, which has been commemorated for decades in the form of Guy Fawkes Day — and gets nitty-gritty about the circumstances that lead up to that treasonous plot. The first hour-long installment begins with representatives of the king searching the residence of Anne Vaux (Liv Tyler) for Catholic priests hiding to avoid persecution under James’s anti-Catholic rule, a scene that plays out over 20 lengthy minutes and ultimately results in two perceived rule-breakers being killed in the public square. The sequence is emblematic of the series as a whole, which takes its precious time with weighty moments yet still skims the surface of things in a way that never fully engages nor illuminates its key characters.

In this take on the days preceding the notorious Fifth of November, written by Ronan Bennett and directed by J Blakeson (The Fifth Wave), Catesby is the most crucial of those characters. Though played by Harington, he is no Jon Snow — Catesby is more assured and singularly focused than the King in the North — but he’s also not not Jon Snow, in that he’s sometimes conflicted, takes his responsibilities seriously, and looks handsome while doing both things. It’s obvious why Harington was attracted to the role: It’s in his wheelhouse while still being enough of a departure from what he does on Thrones to qualify as a challenge. He mostly rises to it, delivering a controlled and solid performance, but one that isn’t terribly memorable.

While played by fine actors, the other characters nevertheless fade too easily into the background. Guy Fawkes, the man most associated with the event on which Gunpowder focuses, is supposed to be something of a cipher. But as written by Bennett and played by Tom Cullen (barely recognizable here as the same actor who played Tony Gillingham on Downton Abbey), he’s intriguing enough to make you want to know more about him, which makes it all the more frustrating that the series doesn’t seem interested in probing more deeply into his motivations. The most moving work in the cast comes from Tyler, the single female lead, who beautifully conveys Anne’s deep grief and sorrow within the confines of a role that makes her a passive observer.

The biggest issue with Gunpowder, though, is that it’s dominated by excessively talky scenes that often unfold in hushed tones and undercut the urgency of what’s happening. While the mini-series clearly empathizes with Catesby and his allies, who are wrongly abused solely because of their religious affiliation, the fact is that they are planning an act of terrorism. A narrative leading up to such a climactic, controversial event should be infused with tension from beginning to end. Instead, this mini-series has too much in common with the Gunpowder Plot itself. It’s like a bomb that never gets lit and doesn’t come close to exploding.

Gunpowder Is Not at All Explosive