Torture. Disemboweling. Beheading. No, we’re not describing the latest season of HBO’s violent series Game of Thrones. This all happens in a single scene in the first episode of the new BBC miniseries Gunpowder, about the failed 1605 Gunpowder Plot to blow up British parliament.
Thrones‘ Kit Harington stars as the Gunpowder Plot’s mastermind Robert Catesby. Harington, who happens to be a direct descendant of Catesby, is producing the series in addition to starring in it. He told the BBC that the show needed to be so violent to accurately reflect the reality of the time period and to show the motivation behind his character’s coup attempt.
“What we’re trying to do is to tell the story from the plotters’ perspective as well, to try to understand what pushes people to do horribly violent things,” Harington said. “That’s why we have this very, very violent scene at the start.”
At the time, extreme torture and execution was a regular tool of King James I’s Protestant England, which persecuted Catholics, arrested heretics, and convicted priests who still practiced the religion of high treason and dismembered them.
All of that is shown in explicit detail in the opening moments of Gunpowder. A young priest is hung from his neck, his internal organs ripped out, his hands and feet chopped off, and, finally, his head removed and dipped in tar. A woman is also stripped naked and crushed to death by a large metal slab.
The series, which aired at 9:30pm in the United Kingdom with a warning from the BBC about the upcoming violence, nevertheless upset some viewers with the degree of its shocking violence—however historically accurate. A few viewers tweeted that they had thrown up.
While violence of such a nature wouldn’t seem out of place in an R-rated action film or on a late-night HBO series, it may have surprised BBC viewers expecting more of a historical drama. Anyone who’s watched Harington in Game of Thrones should be well used to dismemberings of various kinds, but even Thrones has at times left its worst violence off-screen. Doing so in Gunpowder, Harington argued, would be a disservice to the stark reality English Catholics lived in the 15th and 16th centuries.
In a statement, the BBC defended the series, pointing out that it had run a disclaimer ahead of the episode. “The methods depicted are grounded in historical fact and reflect what took place during the time of the gunpowder plot,” the network said.
Episode two of the three-part Gunpowder airs on BBC One on Saturday (Oct. 28).