A popular and comforting misconception of the American Revolution is that aggrieved American patriots united to take up arms against British redcoats, and that a new nation rejoiced as one after finally throwing off the yoke of tyranny in 1783. In fact, our war for independence was a civil war that divided families and neighbors – Ben Franklin’s son was a devoted loyalist, for example, and thousands would flee the colonies after America’s victory. Another substantial segment of the population tried to straddle the fence – switching sides depending on whose troops were closest that day.
That’s the background for AMC’s new Revolutionary War spy drama, Turn, which set the tone by declaring, “Insurgents have declared war against the Crown.” In other words, we are the traitors. It’s autumn 1776, and revolutionary fervor has subsided in Setauket, Long Island, a few months after the Declaration of Independence. George Washington’s troops were just spanked by the British in New York and chased into New Jersey with their tails between their legs. A quarter of Manhattan burned during the American’s panicked withdrawal, with some accusing Washington of sparking it intentionally. Maybe all this “give me liberty or give me death” talk was a little premature, huh, Founding Fathers?
A better title for the show might be Torn, because when we met Jamie Bell’s struggling cabbage farmer in last night’s premiere, that’s where he is, body, mind, and soul. Abraham Woodhull is married to a sensible girl who just wants to raise their son in peace, while he still harbors passionate feelings for the comely patriot-leaning wife of the saloon-keeper. His childhood friends have taken up the rebel cause, while his father is a respected local magistrate with strong political ties with the leader of the British garrison in town (Torchwood’s reptilian Burn Gorman). Meanwhile, like many other Americans at the time, Abe and his wife are forced to quarter British soldiers in their home. So you can understand the forces pushing him towards the patriot cause, especially when he’s presented with an opportunity to join Washington’s Culper spy ring.
But Abe ultimately joins the insurgents for mostly personal reasons: in order to protect his first love, Anna Strong, from the lurid advances of the menacing British officer, Captain Simcoe. (By the way, Abe, what sort of guy borrows money from his ex-fiancee’s husband? That has to be the saddest and most counterproductive way to keep an old flame in your life.) Abe gets involved in a politically-fueled fisticuffs at Anna’s pub, and when the British captain who pummels Abe and Anna’s husband turns up the next day in a ditch with his throat slit, cabbage-boy is the prime murder suspect.
Abe denies the charge when he’s caught by the redcoats, and I believe him when he claims he’s never killed anyone. (Though he seems ready to kill Simcoe for Anna…) So who did kill the disgraced captain? My first guess was Anna. After all, she is a patriot, her husband was just shipped to prison over the bar brawl, and it’s easy to imagine her luring a tipsy soldier in to the shadows after closing time. But when she and Abe meet in the barn later, and he tries to give her the money from his smuggling venture to settle his debt, she adamantly refuses, assuming the silver is blood money taken from the dead captain. Assuming he’s complicit is not exactly the reaction of a guilty woman.
Captain Simcoe is another obvious suspect. He’s quite proud of his penchant for brutality, and he certainly benefited from the murder, assuming the dead officer’s rank and privilege. But he also seethed at the prospect of Abe getting away with the crime, poking holes in Abe’s flawed alibi, which technically didn’t exactly explain his whereabouts at the time of the crime.
But perhaps Robeson – the drunk who instigated the bar dispute in the first place by celebrating Washington’s ignoble retreat – is more than he seems. In a show about spies, it’s worth considering that the best place to ingratiate oneself is the enemy’s most popular bar. Maybe Robeson is just a drunken Tory. Or maybe he’s crazy like a fox and working for the rebels.
I’ve already spent too much time on a murder that is clearly just a MacGuffin. At the end of the day, who cares who killed the British captain? There are much more fascinating characters to discuss, like Robert Rogers (Braveheart’s Angus Macfadyen), the grizzled mercenary working for the Crown. Rogers, like many of Turn’s characters, was a real person in history who fought in the French and Indian War. (Did you notice that scalp wound on his forehead?) He’d spent time between the wars in England – and in debtor’s prison – and Washington and he didn’t see eye to eye: Congress had offered him a commission to lead Continental troops, but Washington instead had him arrested, pushing him into the deeper pockets of the Crown. Perhaps that’s why John André, the British spymaster, tried to tempt him with the possibility of nailing Washington, or those close to him, at that Connecticut safe-house.
Ben Talmadge might be the brains behind the spy ring, but I’m more intrigued by Caleb, the former whaler who helps recruit Abe to the patriot cause. (Did Australian actor Daniel Henshall remind anyone else of a roughneck Shia LaBeouf?) Whereas Ben is a Yale-educated soldier with important political ties, Caleb is swathed in mystery. Why did he really leave home to go whaling in Greenland? And why can’t he return home? He handles himself quite well in the skirmish with the ambushed redcoats, and I can only hope he and Rogers trade steel sometime soon.
Maybe it’s the echo of 12 Years a Slave, but the premiere’s depiction of African-Americans seemed rather off-key, or at least incomplete. First off, those were likely slaves working the fields for the colonists – New York didn’t prohibit slavery until the 19th century. In fact, once New York City fell into British hands in 1776 – and became its North American base of naval operations for the rest of the war – thousands of slaves from New York and New Jersey fled to their lines to escape their American masters. In the premiere, the slave characters were mostly just extras in the background, so it will be interesting to see how the show depicts the plight of black characters who might be more impressed by the promise of immediate emancipation in British-controlled New York than Thomas Jefferson’s idealistic prose. Will the show have the courage and complexity to feature some African-American characters who are actively against the Revolution? Or will 21st-century political correctness trump the facts?
Did you watch Turn last night? If so, are you a Billy Elliot fan or a history nerd? Did the premiere send you to Google – or your copy of Alexander Rose’s book – to refresh your memory about American history and learn more about the Culper spy ring? Where does the premiere rank in the broad spectrum of AMC’s hit-or-miss dramas?