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Gunpowder - Episode 3 review

Gunpowder, Episode 3

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 2.5 out of 5

IF THE final episode of BBC’s blood-soaked period drama Gunpowder didn’t lack for action, it did fall short in terms of tension and emotional involvement.

Just as the first episode kicked off with prolonged scenes of persecution and torture, so the final 30 minutes of this three hour series also concentrated on the bloody aftermath of the failed attempt to blow up Parliament by Robert Catesby and Guy Fawkes.

But while grimly compelling, the show overall struggled to grip in the way that, say, Game of Thrones does (to which Gunpowder clearly took a lot of its inspiration).

There was an episodic nature to proceedings, which stripped the actual will they or won’t they element of the blowing up of Parliament of any real tension. Rather, this felt like a countdown to the inevitable.

The best shows and films still manage to convince you that history could be changed – take Tom Cruise’s attempts to assassinate Hitler in Valkyrie or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s last stand in Mexico. No matter how many times you watch them, you find yourself hoping – albeit naively – that the protagonists prevailed. Heck, even Mel Gibson’s Braveheart repeatedly has you rooting for William Wallace, no matter how much you remember the terrible fate (and betrayal) that ultimately befell him.

With Gunpowder, all of the elements were in place to repeat this type of formula. But sadly they failed to materialise.

The plot itself was directed in work-manlike fashion, seemingly skipping over any of the skill or careful planning that must have been involved, barring a handful of scenes in which Catesby and company went to meet potential co-conspirators.

Instead, most of the scheming and manipulating was left to Mark Gatiss’s Robert Cecil, the villain of the piece. But given the slightly pantomime slant that Gatiss put on his portrayal, even those scenes struggled to rise beyond the one dimensional.

It’s to Game of Thrones eternal credit, for instance, that even the show’s villains are compelling in some way, no matter how terrible their deeds. They command the screen, grip attention. With Gunpowder, not enough time was given to build complex characters – which all of the men in question undoubtedly were.

Even Guy Fawkes himself, played in monosyllabic fashion by Tom Cullen, lacked any empathy or complexity. A scene between himself and Kit Harington’s Catesby beneath Parliament was good but all too fleeting. Likewise, the relationship between Catesby and right-hand man Everard Digby was under-developed.

Instead, the build-up to the discovery of the plot and the way in which it was foiled felt rushed, while the aftermath dwelt a little too long on the action and torture than really examining the emotional cost to those involved.

Fawkes, in particular, was seen to endure all manner of painful torture (the rack, fingernail pulling), while severed heads and cut out bleeding hearts were the main order of the day. The show lacked passion and, crucially, heart.

Even the religious element felt under-nourished. Given the complexity of the Catholic vs Protestant conflict of faith underpinning the history, and the notion of terrorism that the act of attempting to blow up Parliament constituted, there was no real examination of the issues, which would have lent the show a great deal more contemporary resonance.

As a history lesson, we know that life was hard, and that the persecution of Christians was particularly brutal and unsparing. But we never really got to know Catesby or Fawkes, or became challenged by their notions of heroism. Similarly, we never got to find out whether there was more to a man like Cecil than being a pantomime villain.

Given the elements at play, Gunpowder‘s failure to make them more involving and probing felt like a huge disappointment. It rendered the series as a whole a missed opportunity.

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