For his first major foray into producing, Kit Harington stayed fairly close to the kind of story “Game of Thrones” fans are used to seeing him in.
Harington, who plays Jon Snow in the HBO drama, both stars and serves as a co-executive producer for “Gunpowder,” a solid and generally capable three-part series about the 17th century plot that almost literally brought down the English government. The actor has a personal connection to the material: Christopher Catesby Harington — better known as Kit — is a descendant of Robert Catesby, one of the architects of the infamous Gunpowder Plot, in which persecuted Catholics attempted to assassinate the Protestant King James I, along with hundreds of others in Parliament.
The contours of Catesby’s story, which form the core of “Gunpowder,” have echoes of Jon Snow’s bumpy saga: Sometimes the Warwickshire gentleman is so blinded by the importance of the quest he is on that he fails to make savvy or self-preserving choices. There’s an idealism and drive in both men, which others respond to, but there’s also a fair bit of misguided naivete in the way they conduct their affairs as well. Still, as Catesby, Harington gives “Gunpowder” a committed, dependable center. The character is not tremendously different from Jon Snow, aside from the fact that the widowed Catesby has a young son he hardly sees, so don’t expect a major departure from Harington’s work in “Game of Thrones.” But as his forebear, Harington is capable in the drama’s smattering of well-choreographed action scenes, and he’s quietly or ferociously determined the rest of the time.
Of all the twists and turns this long year has taken, a sexy depiction of Guy Fawkes may be one of the least expected developments. All things considered, this is not an unwelcome turn of events. The Gunpowder Plot is, of course, remembered every year in England as Guy Fawkes Day, but Catesby and his fellow plotters were much more involved in the plan to blow up the king than the man for whom the day is named. Still, Tom Cullen (who also wields a sword as a Knight Templar in History’s “Knightfall”) makes a strong impression as a feral, taciturn Fawkes. The charismatic Fawkes comes off as something of an action-adventure badass, and Cullen comports himself well in the realm of sword-fighting and tavern-brawling.
Fawkes’ backstory doesn’t get much attention in the trio of hourlong episodes; he is presented as a hard, bitter man eager to take on a very bloody job to some degree because he’s angry at the world. Catesby’s motivations are also made clear in the opening scenes, in which fellow Catholics he knows and loves are hunted, abused and given death sentences by the state. Throughout the miniseries, there are bloody and horrific scenes of the torture and public executions of English Catholics, and though these scenes are not shot in an exploitative way by director J Blakeson, viewers should be forewarned that the violence in “Gunpowder” is not for the faint of heart (or stomach).
One thing the miniseries does not do all that well is present even a brief distillation of the conflict between the Protestants and Catholics in England’s pre-industrial age, or offer up some of reasons that the latter often ended up as hunted pariahs at that time. The fact that the king is Protestant and Scottish and feels threatened by subjects of a different faith is the only real historical context offered.
Those wanting a dose of “Thrones”-adjacent spycraft may enjoy the complex machinations of Robert Cecil, the king’s secretary of state. He and Lord Varys of King’s Landing would have much to discuss, given the similarity of their jobs. Mark Gatiss brings a sharp, watchful intelligence to the role, and “Gunpowder,” while far from ignoring the brutal lengths that Cecil was willing to go to, doesn’t depict the courtier as a one-dimensional villain.
As one would expect from an HBO miniseries — one originally commissioned by the BBC — the production values are outstanding (creating period-perfect hats and authentic reproductions of armor may well be major growth industries for the U.K., based on a casual perusal of the last few years of television output). Though character development is not necessarily the limited series’ strongest selling point, there are excellent supporting performances throughout, especially from Sian Webber and Liv Tyler as steel-spined noblewomen and Peter Mullan as Father Henry Garnet, the leading priest in England.
In the end, one of “Gunpowder’s” chief virtues, aside from its fine cast and handsome look, is its relative brevity (the three installments are presented on three successive nights). In an age in which thin stories are often stretched on the rack to produce 10 or 13 hours, “Gunpowder” lives fast, dies young, and doesn’t overstay its welcome.
Limited series; 3 episodes (3 reviewed); HBO, Mon. Dec. 18, 10 p.m. 60 min.
Executive producers, Ollie Madden, Matthew Read, Ronan Bennett.
Cast, Kit Harington, Peter Mullan, Mark Gatiss, Liv Tyler, Edward Holcroft, Shaun Dooley, Tom Cullen, Robert Emms, Derek Riddell, Sian Webber, David Bamber, Kevin Eldon.