I’ve always enjoyed a good spy drama, and television certainly has supplied a plethora of them throughout the years. Among my favorites are “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” and “I Spy,” which go back 50 years, and the more contemporary “Alias,” “Covert Affairs,” “Homeland,” and “The Americans.” With the success the countless other spy shows have enjoyed, it’s not surprising that still another one made its debut recently.
The newest entry into the genre is AMC’s “Turn” based upon Alexander Rose’s book “Washington Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring,” and it has great potential. The 10-episode series is set against backdrop of the Revolutionary War and chronicles the activities of the Culper Ring, a small group of spies created by the orders of Gen. George Washington and organized by Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge. Washington charged the Ring with keeping him apprised of what the British forces were doing in New York from 1778 until 1781, and the group was so named after Abraham Woodhull and Robert Townsend, two members who went by Samuel Culper Sr., and Samuel Culper Jr. respectively.
The first episode establishes the setting in Setauket, Long Island, where Abraham (Abe) Woodhull (Jamie Bell) lives with his wife, Mary (Meegan Warner), and their young son on a cabbage farm. It is 1776, and the British have taken over New York.
Before he married Mary, Abe was engaged to Anna Strong (Heather Lind), the two of them never tied the knot because Abe’s father, Judge Richard Woodhull (Kevin McNally), is a good friend of the British, whom Anna loathes. Abe doesn’t want to disappoint his father, and so he at least pretends to support the redcoats. Anna just could not abide this and ended up marrying Selah Strong (Robert Beitzel). Ironically, many of the patrons at the inn are British, and one evening a fight erupts. Unfortunately Selah jumps into the fray and ends up being arrested and sent to prison.
Now while all of this is developing, Abe must deal with losing most of his cabbage crop to an infestation of maggots. In an effort to salvage what he can, he loads what is left of the cabbage into a boat and goes to Connecticut, where he hopes to exchange the vegetables for silk without being taxed by the British. But things just aren’t going Abe’s way, and he’s caught, tortured, and charged with smuggling.
Things are looking really bleak for Abe until a bluecoat named Maj. Ben Talmadge (Seth Numrich) comes to his rescue. Ben and Abe grew up together, and when Ben discovers his friend’s plight he offers him a deal – become a spy and go free.
“We’re of the mind where if you can smuggle cabbage, you can smuggle something more valuable: information,” Ben tells Abe.
At first Abe wants no part of this plan, but when he tells Anna about the proposal, she says, “What are you waiting for? What more do they need to take from us?”
And a spy is born.
“Turn” takes awhile to get rolling, but don’t give up on it early in the first episode. A lot of things must be set up, but this is going to be an outstanding series because the acting is outstanding, the costumes are superb, and the sets are magnificent. The series captures the aura of the Revolutionary War era beautifully, and it looks as if AMC remains at the forefront in bringing quality series to television.
Bell, who you may remember played Billy Elliott in the film of the same name, has been perfectly cast as Abe. His character is terribly conflicted because several people are drawing him in different directions. His father wants him to support the British cause, but his wife wants him to steer clear of any conflict. Then Ben and Anna are urging him to join the rebels as a spy, Bell conveys his character’s befuddlement perfectly. In a recent interview for Vanity Fair magazine Bell explained what drew him to the series.
“I think the line has been blurring between movies and television in the last 10 or 15 years. I’ve been so unaware of it because I never pay attention to anything. Shows like ‘The Sopranos’ have really changed everything. The opportunity to play a reluctant hero, I’ve always liked that. A repressed heroic character who has huge flaws and huge conflict…. When you dive into Revolutionary War period history, I think you often lead people in slowly because there’s a lot going on with the wigs and the muskets and the accents and the horses. We’ve tried to allow people in slowly and let the show speak for itself, let you figure it out, and then we’ll take you on a journey.”
Bell also explained how he researched Woodhull and revealed what he discovered about the character he plays.
“I emailed back and forth a lot with Alexander Rose and he emailed me a link to some of the letters that Abe Woodhull sent to Washington and Ben Tallmadge. His handwriting was incredibly difficult to read, and I think I know why. In filming the show, I often have to jot down a lot of information, and I realized why you can’t read any of Abe’s writing –- it’s because he had to write incredibly quickly because he was always worried someone was going to catch him. One thing that stood out was just how paranoid he was about his own life. If you were caught, you’d be hung the next day. There’s not a lot known about Abe Woodhull. There’s much more written about the other characters, like Ben Tallmadge, who’s incredibly well documented. If you know about a spy, that’s often because they weren’t very good. The fact that we know next to nothing about Abe says it all.”
After Anna’s husband goes to prison, she must contend with the unwanted advances of Capt. John Simcoe (Samuel Roukin), an insufferably arrogant redcoat who is living at the inn. Roukin succeeds brilliantly in making him truly despicable. The tension between Anna and Simcoe is electric, which is a testament to the acting prowess of both Lind and Roukin.
I highly recommend “Turn” because I think it will intensify dramatically in the upcoming episodes and because the subject matter is completely fascinating. Before the series is over, I am certain “Turn” will turn into a worthy contribution to the canon of spy dramas. Give it the final score of a patriotic eight.