The third and final episode of Gunpowder does not give closure, but instead stirs confusion, anger, and disgust. Exactly as it was intended to.
This last episode of BBC’s miniseries is most interesting because we know exactly what we are about to watch. We know how this story ends, and it’s far from happy. But we still can’t help but hope something changes. That some justice is given. But that hope, though misplaced in the events of Gunpowder, is not foolish. We know these historical events, and watching them unfold is horrific, to say the least. What Gunpowder asks us to do is remember, remember truthfully, so that we might avoid repeating our past mistakes. And I say ‘our’ because whether you live in Britain or not, we are all a part of this world. And I think many of you will agree that the persecution of a specific religious group is not unknown to us, even now as we enter a new year.
The episode begins as you might expect. Catesby, Fawkes, and the rest of the men involved in the Plot carry barrels of gunpowder underneath Parliament. There are 6000 pounds in total, more than enough to do what they need. They have the plan sorted. Fawkes will stay underground, he will be the one to execute the plan. Thomas will stand watch nearby, and on the morning of November 5th he will ride to meet the others and inform them whether the plan has succeeded or not. From there, Stanley’s troops will meet them and they will ride into the city together, hundreds of soldiers in their army. With the King, Queen, Prince, and all members of Parliament dead, their taking of the city and placement of Elizabeth on the throne should be easy. But as we know, that isn’t the case.
The Constable of Castille is still in Britain, and will be until the peace treaty between England and Spain is perfected. But that is not the only reason for his visit. In Episode 2, if you’ll recall, Robert traveled to Spain and asked for the Constable’s help. He made clear his intent to kill King James, and the Constable fears this cannot end well. Though Robert means to end the persecution of Catholics, if his plan succeeds, he could prove to be the destruction of the Catholic faith. And Spain will do anything to avoid that. So, the Constable visits Father Henry, begging for information on Robert’s plan. But as it was told under confession, Henry can be of no help even though he desperately wants Robert to give up this quest for revenge. So he sends the Constable to someone who can help, Father John, the man who was taken captive and rescued by Robert at the end of Episode 2. Tricked into thinking Spain wants to help their cause, John reveals the Plot. It is this decision, made innocently and with hope and devotion, that causes the Plot to fail.
The Constable takes this information directly to Robert Cecil. Spain does not want to see the Catholic faith suffer, nor do they want their peace treaty with England to be in jeopardy. But by revealing the Plot to Cecil, they guarantee the continuation of the persecution of Catholics, intentionally or not.
Cecil wastes no time jumping into action. As the King has little trust in him at the moment, he must find another way to inform him. So he forges a letter, supposedly from one of the conspirators, claiming the punishment the wicked shall receive. He has it delivered in secret to Lord Monteagle, who is presently dining with none other than Sir William Wade. Wade presses Monteagle to immediately read the letter, and upon doing so, Monteagle goes directly to Cecil. He acts surprised at the information, concerned even, and brings it to the King’s attention, pointing out one line in particular.
“They shall not see who hurts them.”
Considering James’ father was assassinated (by gunpowder, it’s worth noting), he is also concerned. He gives Cecil one final warning before ordering Wade to conduct his searches. And search they do. Wade and his men go through every house, every shop, searching for any hint of something amiss. And they eventually find what they’re looking for. Wade breaks down the door and finds Fawkes surrounded by barrels of gunpowder. Fawkes lights it before drawing his sword, cutting down Wade’s men one by one. But he’s outnumbered to an impossible degree. And though he puts up one hell of a fight, he’s ultimately pummeled, and is made to watch the flame snuff out before he’s dragged away, knowing the plan failed.
After being taken before the King, Fawkes is severely tortured in every way imaginable. He refuses to give his real name, simply calling himself John Johnson, and that isn’t good enough for King James or Cecil. They torture him until every inch of him is bleeding. Finally having had enough, he reveals that his true name is Guy Fawkes. And as he gasps for breath, he tells them that’s the only name he will ever reveal. And after that much torture, they believe him. After a signed confession, he will be executed.
Meanwhile, Thomas has ridden all night to meet with his cousin and the other men, informing them that the plan has failed. Fawkes was taken, the entire plot discovered. Some of the men want to run, try and make it to Spain. But they know there is a good chance they would be discovered before they made it across the border. Robert gives them all the option to leave, but he’s going to stay and fight. He won’t live the rest of his life having failed. This is their chance, and though death is certain, at least they’ll die fighting.
This is perhaps the most astounding aspect of this episode. We watch these men prepare for battle, knowing they will not survive. In fact, their intention is to die there. And yet they do it anyway, without hesitation. It’s a true testament to how dedicated they are to their cause, how strongly they believe in their faith. Earlier, these men swore that they were willing to die for this cause. Now, they are resounded to die for their cause. And that’s a very different thing. Often in television shows, even historical ones, we see battles where the odds aren’t good. Rarely do we know the exact outcome of a battle. This, despite what you may expect, makes the scene impossible to tear your eyes away from. Every man save Thomas, who is captured, dies in that courtyard. The fear is visible on many of their faces, but not on Catesby’s. On his face there’s only this regret. Regret that he couldn’t have done more for his faith, for the innocents being slaughtered.
Where does that leave us? Robert Catesby is dead. Guy Fawkes and Thomas have both been taken into custody and tortured. And Father Henry, though he has avoided torture, is also in prison. In one of the final scenes of the episode, we watch as each of them are executed. There is no just ending, no glimmer of hope or hint of fairness in the finale of Gunpowder. And as harrowing as it is, it serves as an important lesson to us all. For the world we live in today bears too much of a resemblance to deny, and that is more terrifying than anything else. Gunpowder reminds us to learn from our past mistakes. If we don’t, we’re doomed to repeat them.