Turn: Pilot review

The first episode of AMC's Revolutionary War drama Turn has arrived, and we've got some historical perspective on the show for you.

Den of Geek welcomes J.L. Bell, proprietor of the Boston 1775 blog, and Revolutionary War expert to review AMC’s Turn. This review contains some spoilers.

Turn (or, as AMC writes it, TURN) is a spy thriller set during the Revolutionary War. More specifically, it starts in autumn 1776* after the Continental Congress has declared independence and the British military has returned to the thirteen colonies in overwhelming force, driving the American army off Long Island, off Manhattan, and (at the low point) into New Jersey. What the Americans need, a captain named Benjamin Tallmadge (Seth Numrich) tells Gen. George Washington, is intelligence from inside the British lines.

But the story begins on a much smaller scale: with a Long Island cabbage farmer named Abraham Woodhull, played by Jamie Bell. Fourteen years on from being the cute young star of Billy Elliot, Bell looks even more worn down than the father of a one-year-old should. There’s a British soldier billeted in Abe’s home, but that’s not what’s weighing on him—he insists that he’s not concerned with politics.

Rather, it becomes clear, Abe is pining for his old girlfriend, Anna (Heather Lind). As is most clear from the Turn: Origins comic, Abe’s father, Judge Richard Woodhull (Kevin McNally), who remains loyal to the Crown, broke up their engagement over—what else?—politics. Anna is now married to tavern-keeper Selah Strong (Robert Beitzel), active in the rebel provincial congress (though for some reason British army officers still come to his house for food and drink). Not only is Selah annoyingly taller, handsomer, and nobler than Abe, but he’s loaned Abe money.

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Because Abe still carries a torch for Anna, he feels obliged to repay that debt and even to help Selah when a British officer named Capt. Joyce comes after him in the tavern. Soon both locals are under arrest. Abe’s father secures his release while the redcoats lock Selah in the pillory before sending him off to a prison ship. A less scrupulous old boyfriend than Abe might see Selah’s removal as an opportunity, but Abe keeps trying to help him and Sarah.

Abe sets out by boat to sell his cabbages for better money on the black market* and runs into a childhood friend, the bearded mariner Caleb Brewster (Daniel Henshall). Then he’s captured by the Americans, jailed, and waterboarded before another childhood friend—none other than Capt. Tallmadge from paragraph one—recruits him to spy on the British forces. Finally, as Abe returns home, those very same royal authorities threaten him with hanging since Capt. Joyce has turned up dead. By this point, Abe is no doubt thinking he should have just sold his cabbages locally.

Those scenes set up Abe Woodhull’s dilemma. Pressed from both sides, with personal ties to both factions, what will he do? It’s a common hero’s journey: a reluctant observer forced to take action. During that tavern fight, Abe’s hand hovered over a knife and a napkin, and he grabbed the napkin. By the end of the premiere, we see him reach for the knife. Of course his decision has come down to Anna: a British officer, Capt. James Simcoe (Samuel Roukin), is coming on to her, and Abe wants to eliminate him.

There are a few glimpses of Revolutionary espionage techniques. Abe literally stumbles into figuring out a mask letter. The show introduces both female leads while they’re doing laundry, and laundry turns out to be very significant. As for more direct warfare, there’s some bayoneting on both sides, but we don’t see full battles.

Turn was filmed in the Virginia Tidewater, and its makers use that landscape well to recreate the environment of the Long Island Sound before development. Of course, Virginia is more lush and verdant than New York in autumn. Director Rupert Wyatt seems fond of overhead tracking shots, which are striking.

The acting is as strong as the script allows, with a few odd details, such as a wide variety of accents. Bell speaks with the vowels of northern England, but McNally as his father, though also English, sounds Midwestern.

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However, that script is the show’s weakest ingredient so far. Most of the characters around Abe have been able to sound just one note, and a familiar note at that. This is particularly so for the British antagonists. Maj. Richard Hewlett (Burn Gorman) is an aristocratic caricature, sniffing about the American “anarchy” and easily gulled. Capt. Simcoe is creepy. Maj. Robert Rogers (Angus Macfayden) is dangerous. On the Continental side, Capt. Tallmadge appears to have flawlessly anticipated everything.

Only at the end of the first episode do any supporting characters show wrinkles of complexity. Judge Woodhull detects that Abe’s been lying to the British, yet doesn’t turn him in. Tallmadge turns away from a step he’s promised. Hopefully, all the characters will reveal hidden depths and loyalties as the series unfolds.

There are plenty of threads to follow and mysteries to resolve. Who’s sending the British commanders information on the Continental plans? Who killed Capt. Joyce? What will happen to Selah Strong on the Jersey prison ship?

And what are the region’s enslaved people thinking about these events? The first person we see in the series is a black man working in Abe’s cabbage field. Later, other African-Americans find the body of Capt. Joyce, help Anna Strong with laundry, and make dinner for Judge Woodhull. Only once, however, does any black character speak. It would be ridiculous to leave the lives of slaves out of a fight over liberty, and the comic offers hints that three African-Americans will play larger roles. After all, who would be a better spy than someone most of these characters have been brought up to overlook?

Turn was inspired by Alexander Rose’s history Washington’s Spies, which tells the true story of the espionage effort known as the “Culper Ring.” The drama’s creators moved away from the historical record in ways big and small, starting with the first words we see: “Autumn 1776.” Benjamin Tallmadge didn’t organize the Culper Ring until 1778. Likewise, Abraham Woodhull wasn’t from a Loyalist family, was still a bachelor, and had been only ten years old when Selah and Anna Strong got married. As the series proceeds, I’ll share articles about the history that inspired Turn or got left out. Watch the show as entertainment and read Alexander Rose’s book or other Revolutionary histories to learn what really happened. Who knows? They might have different endings.

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3.5 out of 5