It’s hard to imagine Kit Harington returning to a modern setting. After all his attempted movie work, his first successful step away from the protective Game of Thrones cocoon that introduced him to the world is another period piece: Gunpowder.
The three-part miniseries involves the undertaking of the Gunpowder Plot against England’s King James I (played here by Derek Riddell) in 1605—which, if you’re from England, you presumably already know about, and if you’re from anywhere else your only point of reference is likely V For Vendetta. If you fall into the latter category, you’d probably only know the date, the name Guy Fawkes, and a general sense of “blowing up Parliament.” This blind spot has a quick adjustment with some expository titles (Catholics vs. Protestants! King vs. His People! Sunday, Sunday, Sunday!) and allows us to quickly get into the good stuff—the plot and its leader, Catholic diehard Robert Catesby (Harington).
This is a complex struggle between factions of different power levels that begins with a hunt. The decently tense search for a hidden priest blends Game of Thrones’ knack for quippy repartee and the rigorous earnestness of Silence, Martin Scorsese’s Catholic tale of faith and suffering. Even if everyone is sexy, this is an ultimately tragic tale of historical persecution.
The rigors of torture and faith are everywhere, fueling the action and the heated conversation with the same thematic fire. Everyone is loyal, which means boring backstabbing is replaced by the even more relatable butting of ideological heads to no avail.
If we’re going to talk about heads, we’re also going to talk about hats, and Harington’s wearing a hat and a half throughout this. Imagine if all the hats in Pirates of the Caribbean joined into one Voltron-like mega hat. Plus, there are capes and… well, what I mean to say is, everyone looks awesome. It’s very much the leather, grime, and layers crowd seen in HBO’s other Harington series. Aside from the styling, there’s also an honorable (if violent and excruciating) execution in the opening few minutes that sets a family’s righteous quest against a power-abusing monarchy. Some things work just as well in historical fiction as fantasy.
There’s also plenty of grappling with fatherhood and faith, with the main men suffering from the pride and headstrong assuredness of these patriarchal institutions. At the head of one of these is Jesuit Father Garnet (Peter Mullan), whose protection much of the miniseries hinges upon and whose peaceful beliefs are a point of contention. Arguing on his side, against Catesby, is his cousin, Anne Vaux (Liv Tyler, laying down some levelheaded ice when needed).
However, it can’t cool the flames of the men who’ve been robbed, shoved into hiding, and embarrassed in front of their sons. These faithful hotshots are slow to recognize their own toxicity, as these Christians are ready to kill anyone that looks at them or Jesus sideways. The member of the crew who most embodies this is also the only one most viewers will know by name, Guy Fawkes (Tom Cullen), who is so rugged that it’d be a sin not to refer to him as Guy Fucks. Cullen gives a fun performance full of brutality that plays like a ragged feral growl in a sea of court etiquette.
Regardless of ferality, Fucks and the crew are pursued by the king’s men, led by Robert Cecil (Mark Gatiss, creepy and sharp). Cecil’s role is well-fleshed-out—a spymaster that we actually see doing spycraft rather than appearing with all the secrets necessary to the plot—and Gatiss’ physical carriage is just as slimy as his delivery. We often see him resting his cheek on his own shoulder, giving himself a small, leisurely pillow of skin and fat from which he can levy his accusations and interrogations. It’s awful, by which I mean it works spectacularly. We really believe he’s someone that would direct people to torture, disenfranchise, and kill people for their faith.
Shaun Dooley is one of those being directed; as Lieutenant of the Tower of London (which basically means he’s the King’s enforcer), he is intimidating and gross, but not without pity. He also provides a great cat for many of the cat-and-mouse sequences—fun to watch flustered but charming enough that a small sliver of us still wants to see what he’ll do if he catches his prey. Some of these small pleasures are present in almost all the characters. The hints of homosexuality in King James are as sly and unremarkable as contemporary accounts of his sexuality—serving no purpose other than to demarcate barriers between those persecuted for their personal truths and those whose differences are protected from persecution by prestige, rank, or simple circumstance.
The beauty of these complexities is that they breeze on by—not missed, but absorbed lightly in passing. The series is fast to get through, pretty (both in its casting of historical hunks and its well-staged cinematography, thanks to Philipp Blaubach), and absorbing. You’ll get sucked in without fully realizing what you’re rooting for. The one downside of the series is mitigated by its own cause. There might not be enough time to really get a handle on the issues at stake, but everything’s done so well that it’s easy to hop onboard anyways.
The consistency of the three hours come from the steady hand of writer Ronan Bennet and director J Blakeson, who films sword fights and court manners intensely but without bloodlust. The end result is a tight, engaging move forward for Harington, who also co-executive produced and serves as co-creator on the series. Not only is Gunpowder better than Game of Thrones’ entire latest season, it’s the kind of creative project that proves Harington deserves to be watched in the future for more than his puppy eyes or bastard bona fides.
Gunpowder premieres Sunday, Dec. 18 at 10 p.m. on HBO.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.