I never knew much of the Gunpowder Plot. We were taught the basics, of course. We learned about Guy Fawkes and, yes, we watched V For Vendetta. But that was about the extent of my education. I never received any context for why the Plot happened in the first place. Which is why I find myself so deeply in awe of BBC’s Gunpowder.
The first episode of the new miniseries aired on HBO on Monday night, and it is already so thrilling that you can’t help but wonder how this story hasn’t been told more. The series follows Robert Catesby, the English Catholic who leads the Gunpowder Plot. Catesby is played by none other than HBO’s own Kit Harington, which is decidedly fitting as Harington is actually related to Catesby. We briefly meet Guy Fawkes in this episode, along with many other key players, but Episode 1 doesn’t dive right into the heart of the Plot. It starts with the horrific events that spark the revolution. And this is what makes the show so impactful. In school, I was led to believe that the Plot was about anarchy. Gunpowder tells a very different story.
The premiere begins with Catesby reciting a prayer at mass. Held at the house of Lady Dorothy Dibdale, the mass is incredibly small. Unsurprising, as it is forbidden under King James’ rule. Also attending is Anne Vaux (Liv Tyler), Catesby’s cousin. Father Henry Garnet ends the service by congratulating Father Daniel Smith, who he will be sending to further his knowledge, and to better serve the Catholic Church. He gives him a letter bearing his signature that will grant him safety on his travels. Anyone loyal to the Church shall give him aid.
As they all bow their heads to say a prayer, one of the servants comes bursting through the doors, bearing the news that armed men surround the house. One of these men is William Wade, known for his brutality when punishing Catholics. He works for Lord Robert Cecil (Mark Gatiss), King James’ Secretary of State (among other titles). It is, as we discover, Cecil who is behind the intense persecution of Catholics. King James wishes for a peace treaty with Spain, a country which is under Catholic rule. And as he tells Cecil, he has found Catholics to be very loyal so long as they are left alone. He doesn’t want to do anything to jeopardize the negotiations with the Spanish, but Cecil doesn’t have that worry. He wants Catholicism out of the country, as he believes it is Catholics who are planning an attempt on the King’s life. Which is why Wade, a man who happens to hate Catholics, is the perfect man for the job.
Catesby draws his sword, but Dorothy stops him. They’ve prepared for a moment like this. Within seconds, they each start wrapping the crosses and artifacts in table clothes, stashing them away in cupboards and chests. They order the servants to turn down all the beds as they hide Father Daniel in one of the chests. One of the servants proceeds to reveal a hidden cupboard behind one of the walls, big enough to fit two people. The Jesuit Priests hide silently within as Anne helps the servants in covering the tables in a simple black cloth, laying bowls of fruit and such atop them. Dorothy begs Robert not to provoke the men, but he keeps his sword on him anyway, opening the door to Wade and his men.
Wade’s men come pouring in, weapons drawn, and quickly take Robert’s sword away from him. They begin searching the house from top to bottom, but Dorothy insists they aren’t hiding anything or anyone. Certainly not any Jesuit Priests, as he’s accusing her of. And after searching, the men can’t find anything out of the ordinary. But the smell of potpourri still lingers in the air, and makes Wade order the house be measured. It’s then that he starts knocking on the walls, searching for any hollow spots. From the small crack in the chest, Daniel watches as Wade gets closer and closer to the panel where Father Henry hides behind. To save him from being discovered, he purposefully drops one of the chalices, making enough clamor to reveal himself.
Wade drags him out of the chest and discovers the note that Father Henry gave him. But when he asks where he got it from, Daniel won’t reveal a word. As someone of the Catholic Faith, he is taken away, but that doesn’t save the others from punishment. Harboring a priest is an equal offence, but in order to spare both Robert and Anne, Dorothy takes all the blame, claiming she was the only one who knew Daniel was there. And though it once was uncommon, even unheard of to take women, times have changed, according to Wade.
This leads to an incredibly gruesome scene, made only the more horrific with the knowledge that it isn’t fiction. That torture and brutal execution were once considered lawful is truly appalling. So when Dorothy steps out into a courtyard wearing nothing but a dirty robe, we know what’s coming.
Both Anne and Robert are there to say there goodbyes. The guards try to push them along, telling Anne there’s no time for conversation.
“It seems there is ample time to torture and maim but yet not one minute to speak words of love and pity. What world is this?”
Anne’s words allow for a minute of final goodbyes, and Dorothy assures both Robert and Anne that she isn’t afraid. And when she steps up to the platform and is asked if she will pray or repent, she refuses. She will not pray to their God, nor will she confess. All she can do is pray that the King turns to the Catholic faith. This sparks outrage in the crowd. Wade orders Dorothy stripped completely naked and asks again if she would like to plead. But Dorothy has already made up her mind.
They tie her to the floor, arms spread out, and lay a large, flat piece of iron on her body. And one by one they slam metal stones onto the iron, slowly crushing her body. It isn’t a quick death, but Dorothy does not waver. She continues to pray to Jesus Christ until her last breath. In the crowd, Anne is crying, unable to look any longer. But it’s only about to get more gruesome.
They bring out Father Daniel next, who, I should mention, is incredibly young. They hang him for only a few moments before cutting him down and gutting him, spilling his intestines in front of him, directly in his face. They proceed to cut his limbs off one at a time, and yes, he’s still alive through all of this. So much for the minimum punishment the King wanted. These acts, these brutal executions, were considered a just punishment simply for being Catholic. Not only is it a ridiculous notion, it is also a disgusting one. And it seems all too familiar, with what’s going on in our world today.
Later, in the middle of the night, Catesby returns to the courtyard to retrieve Daniel’s body (or what’s left of it). It’s a bloody business, but he’s more than willing to do it. He deserves a proper burial and farewell. When the service is done, Robert vows revenge for the deaths of their friends. But Father Henry tells Robert it isn’t the time to draw his sword, that it plays no part in their Faith. But another Father agrees with Robert. If they continue to do nothing, how many Catholics will die? When will they say enough is enough? These were not the first to be butchered, slaughtered just for following Jesus Christ. But they should be the last.
The next day, at Robert’s house, we get a glimpse into his every day life. It seems he and his son have a strained relationship, and we find out that as much as he loves his son, he also holds some resentment towards him. Robert’s wife died during childbirth, and there’s a small part of him that blames him for her death. Robert feels torn and alone, and it seems that it’s only getting worse each day.
They sell many of their heirlooms and possessions just to keep their heads above water. Robert’s name is getting smeared more and more, and his outbursts do little to help him. We witness a hearing where he is fined for not attending Church for 40 Sundays, not to mention that he has outstanding fines. But Robert isn’t the type to submit. He calls the fines unjust and unreasonable, and though it is the King himself who gives these men the authority to give fines as they see fit, the King is just a man. Robert answers to God, not to any man who thinks himself above all others. This is enough to get him and his cousin thrown in jail until the debts are paid. Luckily, Anne pays the sum as soon as she hears of it, but this does nothing to help his cause. Because although he is right, he lives among those who consider him wrong.
Near the end of the episode, Robert confides in Henry, saying that he has no room for love in his life, only anger and hatred. He is a desperate man, and these are desperate times, whether Henry wants to see it or not. And if they don’t do something, things will only continue to get worse. He is not the only one who feels this way, either. There are others who will stand with him, others who encourage him to act. And at this point, what else is he to do? And so the Plot begins.
Meanwhile, Lord Cecil devises a plan to infiltrate the Catholics and destroy them from within. He meets with a prisoner, Captain William Turner, whose entire family is Catholic. But he, however, is not. Turner is still loyal to the Crown and will do whatever he can for his King and Country, so Cecil orders him to go to Flanders where he will find a man called William Stanley. Stanley, Cecil believes, is the man behind the plots to kill the King. He gives Turner the letter that Father Henry gave to Daniel at the beginning of the episode, certain that Henry’s signature will earn Stanley’s trust. But, unfortunately for Cecil and Turner, these Catholics are not so easily fooled.
The Catholics that Turner meets clearly do not trust him. They deny knowledge of any man named Stanley, or Henry, for that matter. He reports this back to Cecil before one of the men appears to give him a chance, offering to take him to Stanley. He meets with a man, seemingly a guard of some sort, in a darkened alley. This man, tough in both face and build, begins to question him, looking for any hint of a lie. And he finds it. The fear becomes obvious on Turner’s face as he asks the man’s name. And as he stabs Turner through the gut, he reveals that he is, in fact, Guy Fawkes.
The premiere may not have had as much action as some people expected, but it provided a necessary background, showing us exactly what kind of world Robert Catesby is living in. A world where the entire concept of justice is skewed. Where innocent people are being slaughtered and it is considered righteous. And from the looks of it, Catesby’s anger is only just igniting.
Stay tuned for a recap of Episode 2.