Turn: Washington’s Spies returned itself for a final go-around with two new episodes. Airing on June 17, they coincide with the anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill. Not that that battle in 1775 has anything to do with this story, which started in 1776 and appears to have arrived in early 1781.
In the first season, Turn established four leading characters in the British military: Majors John André, Robert Rogers, and Edmund Hewlett, and Capt. John Graves Simcoe. In addition, the Loyalist magistrate Richard Woodhull was watching over Setauket, Long Island, for the crown. That made the little Culper Ring of the magistrate’s son Abe and his childhood friends into serious underdogs.
At the end of the last season, however, André was hanged as a spy. Rogers disappeared into the woods, feeling betrayed by his government, and Hewlett carried a broken heart back to Britain. Furthermore, Judge Woodhull has decided he’s “no longer a king’s man” and became another Patriot agent. Of the series’ original antagonists, that leaves only Simcoe (Samuel Roukin), now a colonel, fighting for the crown. As formidable and craaaaazy as he is, can Simcoe balance the entire Continental Army?
Fortunately for the writers, the third season also showed Benedict and Peggy Arnold trying to turn West Point over to the king’s forces. He escaped by the skin of his teeth, and she by the assumption that a young woman couldn’t possibly be dangerous. This season opens with Arnold having having been pressed into the new role of “Spyhunter General” in New York City. And Peggy soon uses his assignment to wreak revenge on a romantic rival.
Arnold’s hunt for spies drives the first episodes, countered by Gen. George Washington’s decision that Continental agents should try to kidnap Arnold to “make an example out of him.” The season’s first scene shows mounted redcoats running down a civilian. This arrest starts a chain of captures as each side tries to seize key members of the other, sometimes simply to trade for comrades who had been captured earlier. (For a comprehensive look at this aspect of the war, check out Christian M. McBurney’s recent Abductions in the American Revolution.)
These opening episodes also direct our attention to the women who traveled with the Continental Army. The common understanding of such “camp followers” has been shaped by the use of that term as a euphemism for prostitutes. In reality, most of those women provided necessary labor as nurses, laundresses, cooks, and other support staff. It would be nice if Turn hadn’t reverted to a “doxy” caricature with no cap, wild hair, bad teeth, and a Cockney accent.
Which brings us to Turn’s on-and-off relationship with historical accuracy. As I wrote last year, it’s wise to think of this series as taking place not in the American past but in a parallel universe or alternate continuity.
Characters have the same names as historical figures and generally the same positions, but any detail is liable to change for the sake of drama. For example, this season’s second episode reveals that Col. Simcoe wasn’t born in Britain but in India during Britain’s earliest colonial activity there. Scholars of the real Simcoe long ago had to reconcile themselves to the man being portrayed as a psychopath. This different character history may make it easier to separate the historical Simcoe from the fictional one.
Even bearing that in mind, however, Turn continues to offer a frustrating combination of period detail and howling anachronisms that seem driven not by plot or characterization but by simple slackness. For example, many scenes are shot in telegenic (and expensive) candlelight, but characters speak of “lunch” in a period when people called their midday meal dinner.
The show correctly notes that New York newspaper publisher Hugh Gaine charged five shillings for a typical advertisement. But it puts men in beards that would have sent eighteenth-century children shrieking. One minor plotline turns on the invention of the spork—actually, I’m going to treat that as a knowing wink to us viewers since sporks are never not funny.
The really frustrating anachronisms aren’t minor errors but show a fundamental misunderstanding of the history the show is working with. The character Abigail talks about moving to Canada to avoid being re-enslaved decades before Canada became a refuge for African-Americans. (Ironically, one person who helped to establish Ontario as free territory was the real John Graves Simcoe; see this article for more about him.) For a show about war, Turn has tremendous trouble dealing with military rank, with Col. Cook giving orders to Gen. Arnold and the commander of the Queen’s Rangers being treated as a “militia officer.”
Another annoyance is the show’s determination to take advantage of the freedom of cable television to work blue. Thus, when secret courier Caleb Brewster rows himself ashore, he not only sings at the top of his voice (which is really poor spycraft) but sings about “fireships”—eighteenth-century slang for prostitutes afflicted with venereal disease. A conversation between British officers is played out while one man urinates just off the bottom of the screen. There’s an extended torture sequence. And if you’ve always wanted to hear Martha Washington lament the wartime shortage of the aphrodisiac Spanish fly, this is the show for you.
I didn’t find this season’s first two episodes as compelling as the series’ best, but they do promise twists to come. Aldis Hodge returns as Akinbode, once an enslaved captive from Africa and then a trusted member of the Queen’s Rangers; we can expect to see more of him. Anna Strong’s husband Seelah also comes back, presenting her with a difficult choice ahead. What little we see of the Continental Army is on edge over lack of pay.
At the end of the second episode, it looks like Brewster (Daniel Henshall) will return to the American camp after being physically and emotionally traumatized. His reaction to that experience could finally give the character some motivation and plot of his own, rather than simply carrying out other Americans’ schemes.
For me, Turn’s weakest link in both plotting and entertainment has always been the initial central character: Abe Woodhull, played by Jamie Bell. I particularly disliked his dealings with his father the magistrate, played by Kevin McNally. Now that they’re on the same side of the war, they’re actually showing promise as a comedy duo. The Woodhulls’ partnership is already uneasy—and they’re about to walk into the mouth of the British lion.
Owain Yeoman’s performance as Arnold continues to remind me of young John Cleese playing tight-lipped irate British businessmen on Monty Python’s Flying Circus. It’s clear that the character is a poor fit in counterintelligence. But if this fictional Arnold is anything like the real one, he’ll return to being a danger on the battlefield, whether along the Connecticut shore or in Washington’s Virginia.
Fans of the musical Hamilton have two characters to look for in the season premiere: Col. Alexander Hamilton as one of Washington’s aides and the tailor Hercules Mulligan as a man on the inside of New York. And of course there’s Ian Kahn as Gen. Washington. He’s long been my favorite part of Turn. I hope the show can find a figure of equal weight on the British side.
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 Boston1775.net 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).