This Turn: Washington’s Spies review contains some spoilers.
Turn Season 3 Episode 1
AMC’s Turn Season 3 begins in 1778 with the American army hanging two men who spied for the British, a reminder of the danger that most of the show’s characters face in the War for American Independence. One of those men is Sgt. Thomas Hickey. The Continentals really did hang a man of that name, but that happened in the fall of 1776. That’s a reminder to us viewers about how this show uses the history of the Revolution.
From the start, Turn deviated from the real history of the Culper Ring and its royal adversaries. The first season begins in 1776 while the spy ring didn’t get going until late 1778. The real Abraham Woodhull did send secret dispatches to Gen. George Washington from Long Island, but his father wasn’t a Loyalist, he wasn’t yet married with a child, and there’s no evidence he ever had a love affair with his distant relative Anna Strong.
Likewise, the British forces did include officers named Hewlett, Rogers, André, and Simcoe, as in Turn. However, Hewlett was a native of Long Island nearly fifty years old, not a young British aristocrat. (In its second season the show confirmed this distinction by saying its Hewlett is named Edmund rather than Richard.) Rogers was from New England, not Scotland. Some scholars suspect André was not a ladies’ man but gay. And Simcoe, whom the show presents as a “sociopath,” was a respected battlefield commander who went on to be first lieutenant governor of Upper Canada (Ontario).
Some historians have ended up hate-watching Turn, or just turning it off, because of those deviations. I recommend considering the series as taking place in an “alternate continuity,” much as the Marvel movies are separate from the Marvel comic books and the enjoyable DC Comics-based TV shows are a universe away from the movies following Man of Steel. Characters with the same names and basic traits appear both in Turn and in the historical record. Occasionally we glimpse “Easter eggs” of allusions to real history, such as the name Thomas Hickey. But we mustn’t expect the series to stick to what actually happened. Likewise, the language, manners, coiffures, and other details of life in the show hover between late-eighteenth-century America and today.
Those deviations can produce more melodrama. There’s no indication the real Anna Strong had any suitors after her marriage. But the fictional Anna Strong (Heather Lind) can be torn between her absent husband, her old flame Abe Woodhull (Jamie Bell), and Maj. Edmund Hewlett (Burn Gorman), who is hanging around her like an eager Labrador. We know how the historical Benedict Arnold switched sides in 1780, but that doesn’t mean Turn’s Arnold (Owain Yeoman) will defect on the same schedule. Historically, one of the analogues to Turn’s regular characters ended up being hanged, like those two spies at the start of this episode; in the show, more characters might meet that fate. We can’t know for sure.
There’s another way Turn is paralleling the superhero TV shows: secrets aren’t so secret. A secret identity was once core to superhero sagas, with the hero keeping his (or far less often her) crime-fighting activity hidden even from his closest friends. That wasn’t necessarily believable—how many times could Clark Kent leave to fetch office supplies just before Superman appeared without raising Lois Lane’s suspicions?—but it added a layer of tension. Nowadays, heroes are surrounded by colleagues who know all about them. By the end of the first season of The Flash, every regular but one knows who the Flash is. The same pattern recurs on Supergirl. The concept of a secret identity may no longer resonate with our society.
Likewise, on Turn the original plot engine was whether Abe could hide his intelligence-gathering from everyone outside his circle of old friends: Anna, Caleb Brewster (Daniel Henshall), and Benjamin Tallmadge (Seth Numrich). By the end of the first season, Abe’s whole family knows. In the second season Abe acts suspiciously enough to be locked up in New York City. And by the end of the season 3 premiere, one of his loved ones divulges the secret to a principal adversary.
Yet that disclosure doesn’t bring on the immediate prospect of being hanged. Turn is now about the warfare within the two armies more than the warfare between them. Season 2 ends with the Battle on Monmouth, an indecisive fight in June 1778 that proved to be the last big battle in the northern theater of the war. For the next five years the armies around New York were in a stalemate while fighting raged and cities changed hands in the south. Thus, unless they want to swerve off the historical road entirely, the makers of Turn don’t have a major turning-point around New York for these characters to work toward.
Instead, they’re making characters from opposite sides of the war work together for their own interests. Robert Rogers (Angus Macfadyen), alienated from the Crown, has attached himself to Abe. Hewlett and Capt. John Graves Simcoe (Samuel Roukin) are rivals within the British army, each willing to kill. Maj. John Andre (JJ Feild) is in a struggle with his own feelings as he watches his love Peggy Shippen (Ksenia Solo) seduce Arnold for the larger cause. Andre’s servant Abigail (Idara Victor) wants only to keep herself and her young son Cicero (Darren Alford) from being enslaved again. And Abe is now openly feuding with his father (Kevin McNally), with his wife Mary (Meegan Warner) and toddler son caught in between.
Those shifting alliances are complex, but characters keep explaining things to each other for our benefit. For example, Abe’s scheme for maintaining his cover in this episode requires forging a letter and planting it on the body of a man he’s killed. And he lays that all out to Rogers at length. Arnold explains Philadelphia politics to us by explaining it to Shippen, who has lived in the city all her life. As in other episodes scripted by show producer Craig Silverstein, characters tend to speak in declarations of their desires and threats. (Quotations from Shakespeare provide what little poetry there is.)
This premiere episode does its job of launching this ship away from the dock and back into the channel, where things might travel faster. There are some attractive visuals, with Colonial Williamsburg standing in for Philadelphia, and some unattractive ones as Abe digs up that body. It’s not a fun episode, but it does its job for the sake of the larger cause.
J L Bell is the author of The Road to Concord: How Four Stolen Cannon Ignited the Revolutionary War (Westholme, 2016). In 2012 he completed a study of Gen. George Washington’s first campaign of the Revolutionary War, which included new findings about the commander-in-chief’s first successes and failures in espionage. Bell maintains the Boston 1775 blog, which offers daily doses of history, analysis, and unabashed gossip about the start of the American Revolution in New England. He is also an associate editor of the Journal of the American Revolution and an assistant editor of the Colonial Comics anthologies (Fulcrum).