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TV Review: Slow Going for HBO’s “Gunpowder”

Martha Trydahl Martha Trydahl TV Review: Slow Going for HBO’s “Gunpowder”Photo via IMDb.
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Kit Harington’s new show, Gunpowder, which was created and produced by Harington, just wrapped up a few weeks ago. The show reeks of a self-indulgent pet project for Harington, who just so happens to be a distant relative of Robert Catesby, his character in the show.

Gunpowder takes place in early 1600s England, when a new Protestant King forbade the practice of Catholicism. As a result, practicing Catholics were often tortured and killed for their beliefs. Catesby gathers a meager tableful of men to help him kill King James I.

Shockingly, this plot hovers somewhere around “mildly interesting,” and the show itself feels more like an overly-dramatic reenactment than an HBO series.

The initial issue for Gunpowder is the pace. It’s ridiculously slow. The opening scene alone drags on for 20 minutes. Robert Catesby’s family is participating in a secret Catholic mass at home when Sir William Wade (Shaun Dooley) and his cronies barge in, ready to make arrests in the name of the King. We then proceed to watch as the men inspect every room, turn over every knick knack, even measure the house with yardsticks in their tireless pursuit of the Catholic religion. It’s exhausting just writing about it.

If Gunpowder isn’t boring us with the minutiae of 1600s criminal investigations, they’re pulling back the curtain on Jacobean torture methods. The torture scenes reach a whole new level of gore and don’t fit in with the rest of the show, which is mostly whispered plotting in dark rooms.

The greatest fault is in the writing: none of the characters are endearing or are given much of a background. In the show, we learn that Robert Catesby’s wife died in childbirth and he has one son. But what they regretfully leave out is that Catesby’s wife was in fact Protestant and his son was even baptized Protestant. Now…what would make a guy that’s ok with Protestantism turn into a religious zealot, plotting to kill the King? To me, that’s where the real story lies. It’s a gaping hole in the plot of Gunpowder.

Liv Tyler plays Catesby’s cousin Anne Voux, but we learn so little about her, that she fades into the background, barely speaking above a whisper, despite the desperate situation.

Also, Guy Fawkes (Tom Cullen), who is notoriously known for the Gunpowder Plot, is sadly underrepresented in this series. Guy Fawkes was solely responsible for lighting the fuse to the barrels of gunpowder under Parliament. There’s even a Guy Fawkes day in England. But in Gunpowder, Harington seemed unwilling to make room for any other stars. Fawkes enters late in the series, muzzled by his measly five lines of dialogue.

The camera work isn’t much better. There were no creative angles back in the 1600s apparently, and cutaway shots are more like slow blinks.

Unfortunately, Catesby’s motivation is never really clear, and it’s obvious that King James I is actually trying to make peace in his country, in efforts to win a treaty with Catholic Spain. So, it all seems irrelevant, pointless even. And when the plan is so easily thwarted, and Catesby’s men are all captured or killed, you can’t help but wonder why you just sat through the last three hours of this, and you’re not even in a European history class.

Grade: D

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