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TV Quickshots #22

Turn: Washington’s Spies (AMC; 2014-Present)

A couple of months ago, in considering History Channel’s technically impressive but historically propagandistic Sons of Liberty, I lamented the lack of compelling and challenging mainstream screen texts concerning the American Revolutionary War. Little did I know that on another cable network, the first season of a show that comes closer than almost anything else in American entertainment to moving beyond the myths around the nation’s founding conflict had aired.

Turn: Washington’s Spies commences in 1776 and is centred on Setauket, Long Island. A Loyalist town hosting a garrison of British Army regulars, Setauket nonetheless is a hotbed of political tensions and potential rebels. One such liberty-lover is Turn‘s protagonist, Abraham Woodhull (Jamie Bell). Despite his patriot leanings and long-running friendships with Continental Army officers Ben Tallmadge (Seth Numrich) and Caleb Brewster (Daniel Henshall), Woodhull has toed the line of loyalty to the British Crown drawn by his father, a judge and local magistrate (Kevin R. McNally). Though Abe, educated in New York City, has taken up cabbage farming as a minor token of independence from his powerful father’s influence, he has dutifully married his dead brother’s betrothed (Meegan Warner) and they have an infant son. By all appearances, he also follows his father’s staunch but increasingly conflicted loyalty to Britain, as represented by garrison commander Major Hewlett (reliable weaver of villains Burn Gorman), who is billeted in Judge Woodhull’s home.

But Tallmadge and Brewster, not to mention the fetching local tavern matron Anna Strong (Heather Lind) to whom Abe was formerly betrothed, appeal to Abe’s deeper principles and get him half-reluctantly involved in the war effort on the American side. Abe begins to operate as a spy for the Continental Army, feeding information on British strategy and troop movements to Tallmadge via Brewster and Strong gleaned through his involvement in his father’s affairs with the colonial overseers. His position becomes increasingly difficult, especially with Crown operatives such as Tallmadge’s British intelligence counterpart John André (JJ Feild, Tom Hiddleston’s non-union Coloradan equivalent) and Scottish ranger Robert Rogers (Angus Macfayden) arrayed against him.

Turn is shot mostly in Virginia, and is scrupulously well-made per AMC’s usual technical standards (Rupert Wyatt, director of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, helms the pilot episode). It’s well-written (based on Alexander Rose’s history of the Culper spy ring maintained by the historical Woodhull, Tallmadge, Brewster and Strong) and well-acted as well, with Bell and McNally demonstrating a particular chemistry (McNally, Gibbs from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, has a tremendous knowing twinkle at nearly all times). But it’s perhaps most notable for the small but key steps it makes in distilling a perspective on the historical events of the Revolutionary War that disperses the fog of heroic myth that has obscured one of the most fascinating political and military conflicts in world history.

There is likely no way around casting the British as fundamental villains in an American depiction of the Revolution, and casting the skulking, snake-visaged Gorman as the main British military commander does not diminish that impression one bit. Still, Hewlett is not a mere caricature or petty tyrant; he’s sophisticated and relatively fair, obeying the rule of law and leaning heavily on Judge Woodhull to aid him in gaining the acquiescence of the local population for his garrison’s presence. When he does seek to extract telling obedience from the judge and the townspeople, he operates not with a cudgel but with a velvet glove, manipulating Setauketans into an act that proscribes their liberty and cultural memory in a deep-seated way. Much more conventionally antagonistic is Simcoe (Samuel Roukin), another British officer with a haughty manner, sharp tongue, and cruel tendencies who presents a much more direct obstacle to Woodhull and his spy ring.

More heartening from a historical perspective is Turn‘s canny application of economic issues to its picture of Revolutionary America. The Revolution was, of course, about trade and profit first and foremost, and the complexities of business transactions during a divisive, territorial civil conflict take precedence frequently in the plot. The division of loyalties inherent to the conflict is also well-portrayed. The Civil War is generally considered a more essential historical event in this context, the definitive brother-against-brother war in American history. But the Revolutionary War was no less effective in sundering families along the faultline of political principles, as the much-anticipated clash between the elder and younger Woodhull portends. It’s only that the Loyalists’ story has been erased from the grand, arching narrative of American liberty, seeing as most of them bolted for Canada, Britain, or other colonies after Washington and the Continentals defeated the British Expeditionary Force in 1783.

But their story is also a part of the story of the American Revolution. Turn provides as strong and as complex a telling of that story as can be reasonably expected from an American television treatment, while also suggesting more subtly that contemporary America’s vast secret state of espionage and intelligence has deeper roots in the nation’s birth pangs than has been generally appreciated.

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Categories: History, Reviews, Television
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