Review of the HBO series Gunpowder

Gunpowder
Only HBO can make Guy Fawkes a medieval superhero

Remember, remember!

The fifth of November,

The Gunpowder treason and plot;

I know of no reason

Why the Gunpowder treason

Should ever be forgot!

Guy Fawkes and his companions

Did the scheme contrive,

To blow the King and Parliament

All up alive.

Threescore barrels, laid below,

To prove old England’s overthrow.

But, by God’s providence, him they catch,

With a dark lantern, lighting a match!

A stick and a stake

For King James’s sake!

I have to admit a fondness for Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators. Oppressed, they sought to change the course of history. There is a bit of a rebel in all of us and in some ways Fawkes and his fellow conspirator’s appeals to those feelings on their most base level.  Of course, in reality, the suppressed Catholics became even larger targets of oppressions as a result of the infamous Gunpowder plot’s horrific failure.

I would say that this review of spoiler-free, but I can assure you, it is not. Series based on history cannot be spoiler free.

When I saw HBO was doing a series on this, starring Kit Harrington from Game of Thrones, I was pretty excited.  Americans only know Guy Fawkes from the movie “V for Vendetta” so I thought that this was going to be a great docudrama that was both entertaining and educational.

It is a dark series, both story-wise and visually.  There are a number of characters introduced that we never really get to know and invest ourselves in.  As such, their fates do not mean much to us as viewers – which is a lost opportunity.  That isn’t to say that this is a bad series – in fact is very captivating and stimulating, with a bit of a let-down at the end.

The story of English Catholics during King James reign is played out in dramatic fashion in the opening episode.  The scenes of the crushing death of a Catholic resistor was disturbing and unfortunately historically accurate.

Guy Fawkes emerges in the second episode as a bit of a bad-ass. When push came to shove, the plan is hatched to blow up Parliament and the King. The second episode does a great job of building up for a confrontation and conflagration.

The third episode is a cascade on many levels.  One, the bombing plan unravels.  The explanation of the Spanish as the exposers of the assassination is far-fetched (and likely inaccurate) but adds to the intrigue of the story.  Guy Fawkes, who was such a larger-than-life figure in the second episode is quickly subdued and the explosives diffused.  Harrington’s character Robert Catesby, digs in for a fight to the finish, a battle he does not win.  (Sidebar:  I understand that Harrington is related to Catesby, which is incredibly cool.)

I had to research this period for my book on the cannibal clan of Sawney Bean, which certainly helped my personal enjoyment.  I will say that the end of the series was disappointing.  The characters you embrace are dead (not Game of Thrones style either) and you don’t know what happened after their demise.  Even the contemporary impact of the Gunpowder plot is ignored.  The viewer is left wanting more – even some closure.  I anticipated the poem above to be read, or images of Guy Fawkes Night in modern times.  We don’t get these.

Despite the depressing ending, which mirrored real life, the series has a grittiness and realistic feel about it that is entertaining and chilling.  It is well worth the three hours of your time to watch.

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