By Chris Byrd | Catholic News Service
NEW YORK – In theory, HBO's miniseries "Gunpowder" seems like a natural fit for a mature Catholic audience.
Debuting Monday, Dec. 18, 10-11 p.m. EST, with subsequent episodes the following two nights in the same time slot, the period drama tells the story of the 1605 plot by persecuted English Catholics to assassinate King James I (Derek Riddell) and overthrow their nation's Anglican establishment.
As it turns out, however, with its moments of lurid violence, the nonchalantly paced "Gunpowder" likely won't match viewers' expectations. While arguably problematic, the bloodletting that pervades the series makes sense, for the most part, within the story's context. Scenes revolving around some executions, however, are more troubling.
In one gratuitous instance, a condemned woman is seen completely naked, and prisoners are also tortured. But worse, during two particularly grisly deaths by drawing and quartering, executioners remove one man's entrails and another's heart, which are graphically and unnecessarily displayed.
Though they represent, perhaps, no more than 10 minutes out of a three-hour series, these scenes nonetheless transgress the bounds of decency and good taste. As such, they place "Gunpowder" beyond the pale, even for adults.
Because Kit Harrington – Jon Snow of "Game of Thrones" – stars in "Gunpowder," its more sensationalistic moments may be included in a bid to attract viewers of that extravagantly popular, long-running, and ultraviolent program.
Also a series creator, Harrington plays Robert Catesby, a Catholic nobleman from whom Harrington is directly descended and who served as the driving force behind the "Gunpowder Plot" against the first Stuart king.
With priests forbidden to say Mass or administer the sacraments in England, Catesby's aunt, Lady Dorothy Dibdale (Sian Webber), is savagely executed for harboring Jesuit Father Daniel Smith (Thom Ashley) in her Warwickshire estate. In response, Catesby vows revenge on behalf of his oppressed co-religionists.
His fellow conspirators include the sullen, mercurial, and more notorious Guy Fawkes (Tom Cullen). Fawkes secured 6,000 pounds of dynamite for an attack on the houses of Parliament during the annual "state opening" of that body. Even today, on Nov. 5, Guy Fawkes Day, some Britons continue to commemorate Fawkes' discovery and capture by hanging him in effigy.
With a shoulder listing to one side, the king's physically deformed spymaster, Lord Robert Cecil (Mark Gatiss), zealously works to thwart the Catholic plot. "Every papist," Cecil says, should be "watched, harried, and made to pay for their crimes."
Cecil is more ardent than his sovereign in his desire to suppress Catholicism. James, for his part, wants to keep the adherents of the pope in line without alienating Catholic Spain.
After an anonymous letter tips the king off, Cecil dispatches Sir William Wade (Shaun Dooley) and his men to deal with the situation. They arrest Fawkes, who, as the show depicts it, only had time to light one ineffectual firecracker before he was taken.
The Wade character seems to be a fictional stand-in for the real-life Sir Thomas Knyvet. In reality, moreover, Fawkes was captured with all the gunpowder still in its cases in the cellars of Parliament. But these minor historical inaccuracies don't mar the production.
More pertinent issues do undermine "Gunpowder." Director J Blakeson, for instance, fails to infuse any sense of urgency into the proceedings. This attenuates viewers' suspense, and the looked-for payoff is more whisper than bang.
Also, although cinematographer Philipp Blaubach evocatively suggests the dankness and labyrinthine nature of the cellars, where the ultimate action occurs, the cinematography's murkiness hinders the audience from discerning who is chasing whom.
Despite its considerable flaws and dubious suitability, "Gunpowder" isn't entirely beyond redemption. Recounting an important, if painful, chapter in Catholic history – one that shouldn't be lost – the series raises salient, fundamental questions about how far believers should go to defend their faith.
Catesby represents one point of view: Sometimes tumult is necessary to end persecution. But, in a wonderfully nuanced turn, Peter Mullan as Jesuit superior Father Henry Garnet objects, "I want no part of what you contrived."
Viewers, in the end, may feel the same way about "Gunpowder" itself. Perhaps someday BBC, PBS or Acorn will mount a more restrained and revealing production about this intriguing incident.
Byrd is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.