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Series / Gunpowder

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Gunpowder is a three-part BBC series dramatizing the Gunpowder Plot. Kit Harington plays Robert Catesby, the leader of a conspiracy to blow up the Houses of Parliament. Joining him are Edward Holcroft as Thomas Wintour, his primary accomplice, Tom Cullen as his most famous accomplice Guy Fawkes, Liv Tyler as his sympathetic sister Anne Vaux, and David Bamber as his primary antagonist Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury.

The series was noted for its graphic sequences of violence and torture, particularly in the first episode, but also lauded for its drama and suspense.


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Tropes Include:

  • The Ace: Harington's character is the typical swashbuckling Elizabethan hero, skilled with Sword and Gun.
  • Ambiguously Gay: As in real life, it's uncertain whether King James is in a homosexual relationship with Sir Philip Stewart or if they're just extremely close friends. The most overt moment is in the very end, when Philip offers to take James to bed, but Philip is an official Gentleman of the Bedchamber, so it's still not entirely certain.
  • Artistic License – History:
    • Tom Cullen doesn't look much like the real Guy Fawkes, particularly because Fawkes had long ginger hair rather than the cropped hair and black beard he sports here. This was a deliberate decision on the part of Cullen and the show's creators to make Fawkes stand out from the rest of the cast.
    • The Plotters' last stand is condensed. In the series, their wet gunpowder is ignited by a fallen candle during the firefight with the king's men, but in reality this was caused by a random spark from the hearth before the king's men even arrived. Also, in real life, there were 200 soldiers, while in the series there are only about 20.
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    • Catesby didn't rescue John Gerard from prison. His escape was masterminded by Nicolas Owen, a Jesuit priest who is not featured in the series. After his escape, however, Gerard did seek out Catesby.
    • Philip Stewart is implied to fall out of favor with King James as a result of trivializing the Gunpowder Plot, but Philip enjoyed royal favor throughout the rest of James' life, and even into the reign of Charles I.
    • The series implies that Robert Cecil wrote the anonymous letter to Monteagle revealing the Gunpowder Plot in order to warn the King and hide his own deal with the Spanish behind the King's back. This is an artistic invention. In reality, while there is no concrete proof of the letter's authorship, historians generally agree that it was almost certainly written by Sir Thomas Tresham, cousin and father to various conspirators.
    • Catesby is portrayed as if he's a wanted outlaw and vagabond, but mere days before the assassination attempt, he was still in good enough graces with the court that he was scheduled to go hunting with the king.
  • Bad Ass Cape: Guy Fawkes wears one in his first appearance, together with an Eye-Obscuring Hat.
  • Bad Ass Pacifist: Henry Garnet and the Jesuits oppose the conspiracy because they believe the Good Old Ways can be restored through nonviolent resistance.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: Wade kills or captures the remaining conspirators, and Cecil becomes the King's new favourite.
  • Big Bad: Evil Chancellor Lord Robert Cecil, a Puritan Knight Templar who wants to purge England of Catholics.
  • Beard of Evil: Cecil has thinning, greasy hair and a sinister looking Beard of Evil.
  • Better to Die than Be Killed: Fawkes jumps from the scaffolding as his execution begins, thus ending his life quickly and before the rest of his planned torture. This is Truth in Television
  • Big Damn Heroes: When John Gerrard is captured and Locked in the Dungeon, Catesby arranges a Great Escape.
  • The Hero Dies: Catesby is shot dead by the King's men.
  • Casting Gag: Kit Harington, born Christopher Catesby Harington, portrays one of his ancestors (several of his other relatives do include a baron in the House and James I...)
  • Christianity Is Catholic: Catesby believes the Protestants are heretics who follow a false religion.
  • Cool Guns: The flintlock pistols and muskets used by the plotters in their last stand against the King's men.
  • Combat Pragmatist: Wade is Genre Savvy enough to avoid dueling the expert fencer Catesby, and shoots him with a musket in the final skirmish.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: Catesby's aunt Lady Dorothy is stripped naked and slowly crushed by weights in public. The episode's reaction on sociel media made it clear that many were not expecting such a graphic scene just after the Watershed, while the producers justified it as a necessary explanation of why Catesby would plan to destroy parliament.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: A lot, considering the subject matter.
    • Catholics and Protestants believe themselves to be members of diametrically opposed religions rather than just different denominations of Christianity.
    • Being a Catholic priest is punishable by death in England, while Protestants and Jews are executed in Spain.
    • Catesby and Wintour are fined for not attending church.
    • Catesby and Wintour wear swords while standing trial, which no one seems at all concerned about.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Dorothy's Cruel and Unusual Death is for refusing to betray Henry Garnet.
  • The Dragon: Sir William Wade is Cecil's chief enforcer. He's a large, formidable swordsman and no fool when it comes to rooting out traitors.
  • Ethnic Menial Labor: Lord Mounteagle's servant is a black African, presumably purchased from Portuguese or Arab slave traders as the English had not yet established plantations in the New World.
  • Everyone Has Standards: A clearly distraught Wade begs Dorothy to make a plea and end her suffering while she's being tortured.
  • Evil Wears Black: Robert Cecil wears a black velvet doublet trimmed with red. William Wade goes Hell-Bent for Leather in a heavyweight jerkin.
  • Genius Cripple: As was Truth in Television, Robert Cecil is a hunchback who is nonetheless indispensable in political intrigue.
  • Good Colors, Evil Colors: In a variant of Red and Black and Evil All Over, the Puritan advisers are dressed in black. Catesby, Fawkes and Winter wear various shades of brown. The King wears white as a sign of his innocence, and The Jester wears flamboyant bright colors.
  • Good Hair, Evil Hair: Guy Fawkes has a Badass Beard and buzzcut, and Catesby is a Long-Haired Pretty Boy with Perma-Stubble. The Jailer who runs Wade's dungeon and executed the priests has the Bald of Evil.
  • Grey and Grey Morality: The Catholic plotters represent A Lighter Shade of Grey because they are family men who want to overthrow a tyrant, but are prepared to kill his children in the explosion. The Puritans are fanatics who torture prisoners, but also want to prevent England reverting to the anarchy and civil war that preceded the Tudors.
  • Hanging Judge: One pronounces sentence against the captured priests, and seizes Catesby's property.
  • Heroes Prefer Swords: This being 1605, virtually all of the gentlemen wear swords at their hips, including Catesby.
  • Historical Beauty Update:
    • Contemporary images of the Catholic conspirators portray then with long, pointed beards, handlebar mustaches and tall, conical hats. The actors are given modern looks, with shorter beards and hats. Guy Fawkes is given his own style, eschewing a hat in most scenes and sporting a modern, buzzed haircut.
    • While Robert Cecil's scoliosis is portrayed in the film, he's played by the tall Mark Gatiss. In reality, Cecil stood barely over 5 feet due to his condition and was frequently mocked in court for his size. Even the monarchs he served called him "little man," "my pygmy" and "my little beagle."
  • I Have Many Names: Guy Fawkes states this in the second episode, claiming to have gone by many names throughout his life, including John Johnson. This is true, as Fawkes also went by Guido Fawkes while in Spain (and signed his confession with this name) and also gave his name as John Johnson during his trial.
  • Irish Priest: Although the historical Henry Garnet was English, in the TV adaptation he has an Irish accent.
  • Improbable Aiming Skills: Catesby and Winter are killed with a single bullet, which is actually Truth in Television (though not performed by Wade as in the series)
  • The Lancer: Thomas Winter is best friend to The Hero Robert Catesby.
  • Mad Bomber: Guy Fawkes is chosen for his expertise with explosives.
  • Man on Fire: John Grant, after he is hit by a government bullet and knocks over a candle that falls onto some gunpowder.
  • The Man Behind the Man: Robert Cecil was the power behind the throne under Queen Elizabeth I, like his father Lord Burghley. He wants to control The Good King James for his own ends.
  • The Missionary: Badass Preacher Henry Garnet travels England to lead prayers despite the risk of execution.
  • My Name Is: The first episode ends with Guy Fawkes dramatically identifying himself by name.
  • Not So Different: After a whole episode of Catholics being brutally executed, the second episode shows that Catholic Spain just as brutally executes heretics.
  • Off with His Head!: Daniel Smith is sentenced to the Cruel and Unusual Death of being hanged, drawn and quartered because the English believe every priest is an Evil Jesuit.
  • Politically Correct History: No one treats the two black servants we see any differently from any other servant, and no one even seems to register that they're unusual.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: Cecil is openly bigoted against Catholics, and believes every Jesuit is either a Depraved Homosexual, a Dirty Old Monk preying upon young women, or an agent of the Spanish sent to instigate rebellion.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: The King needs to thread a middle ground between stamping out Catholic threats to his crown and looking out for the interests of his loyal Catholic subjects. He chooses to continue executing Catholic priests, but tolerating Catholic subjects so long as they do not harbor priests.
  • Sinister Minister: The Vicar who tries to persuade Lady Dorothy to join the Church of England.
  • Torture Technician: Wade subjects John Gerard to Water Torture, then stretches him on the rack.
  • Token Minority: Cecil's scribe is a Moor. How he came to England and attained such an important position remains unexplained.
  • Wardens Are Evil: Wade runs his own jail, and Loves the Sound of Screaming.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Catesby the Well-Intentioned Extremist knows the explosives beneath the Houses of Parliament would blow up Queen Anne and the King's son Prince Henry, but believes Utopia Justifies the Means.
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