Turn: Washington’s Spies Season 2 Premiere Review

AMC's Turn is back for season two. Here's our review of the premiere episode...

The second season of AMC’s Turn starts with a fresh face: King George III, posing for a bust in his immense CGI-built palace. Within minutes, the monarch reveals himself as petulant, snobby, greedy, lazy, and childish, ripping pages from a government ledger. Not only does the actor not look like George III’s portraits (the real king had a weaker jawline), but he acts nothing like the man. Until he went mad later in life, King George was a diligent head of state committed to preserving the British constitution, which meant maintaining Parliament’s authority over the colonies.

American viewers might be quick to accept this caricature of George III and more surprised to see whom he is posing for: an American sculptress named Patience Wright. In fact, Wright was a successful artist in 1770s London. She really did sculpt figures of the king and queen, though in wax, not clay. She was a widow with children, and there’s no evidence that she rolled around on her studio floor with a young model, as the next scene shows. But Wright did get involved in wartime espionage—she sent reports to Benjamin Franklin in Paris. Alas for her, Franklin paid little attention to those messages while her clientele deserted her because she was pro-American. Even so, the real Patience Wright had a happier fate than the one on Turn.

The differences between Turn’s king and the real George III, Turn’s sculptress and the real Patience Wright, are significant. Despite its producers’ claims to remaining true to the past, the series veered away from the historical record immediately and continues to follow its own path. As I’ve written before, it’s best to think of the history of the Revolutionary War and Turn as two separate continuities, like the Marvel Comics universe and the Marvel movies universe. (That analogy seems especially apt now that Turn’s lead actor, Jamie Bell, is playing Ben Grimm in a heavily rebooted Fantastic Four movie.) 

In both continuities, famous characters share names and basic profiles, but their costumes, backgrounds, abilities, speech patterns, and actions can be quite different. In the real eighteenth century, people ate dinner in early afternoon; in Turn, people dine in the evening by telegenic candlelight. The show was inspired by a real spy ring that operated from 1778 to 1783, but its members use Cold War terminology like “mole.” Historically Gen. William Howe was notorious for his mistress while some authors speculate Maj. John Andre was gay. In contrast, Turn’s Andre (JJ Feild) is a ladies’ man, and his general exchanges meaningful looks with a fop before they both slip out of the room. You can’t rely on Turn for accurate history, and you can’t read ahead in history books to know exactly how this season will play out.

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As the series returns, it has the extended title Turn: Washington’s Spies and an extended two-hour season opener, directed by Gary Fleder and Andrew McCarthy (yes, that Andrew McCarthy). The production design is even more handsome. The CGI-enhanced scenes of New York and its harbor are particularly striking. The hairdressing is also impressive as the ladies in Philadelphia and even those in little Setauket, Long Island, aim for the high fashions of the time. And most of the performances remain entertaining in their arch way.

The opening scenes establish a major maguffin for the upcoming season: Wright slips a scrap of the document that George III rips up into one of her busts and ships it to America. Later the monarch and his ministers send Maj. Robert Rogers to retrieve it. Rogers is almost unrecognizable from the first season since actor Angus Macfadyen has shaved his beard and is no longer costumed like a cartoon Scotsman. In fact, he looks a lot more like the surviving engraving of the real Rogers. We should expect to see him back in New York soon. 

Meanwhile, out on Long Island the tensions among Abraham Woodhull (Bell), his wife Mary (Meegan Warner), and his beloved fellow spy Anna Strong (Heather Lind) feels much the same as last season. Since that season ended with Mary realizing that Abe was both having an affair with Anna and spying for the Continentals, Abe killing a British officer, and Mary burning down their home to hide the evidence, we might expect things to have changed. But for months Abe has again been moping around his father’s house. Mary is still casting jealous glares at Anna. The big change seems to be that Abe and Mary can now speak directly about how much each is committed to preserving the family life they clearly loathe.

Life in the Continental Army camp also feels familiar. Last season took place mostly in the fall of 1776 as the British drove Gen. George Washington (Ian Kahn) and his army through New Jersey after capturing New York. Now it’s the fall of 1777, and the British have captured Philadelphia, too. Washington is under pressure from the Congress and rival generals. He in turn is putting pressure on Capt. Benjamin Tallmadge (Seth Numrich) to get more intelligence from Long Island. The bright new addition to camp this season: Gen. Benedict Arnold (Owain Yeoman), fresh from helping the Continentals win a big victory at Saratoga and one of Washington’s biggest fans.

Then, with no apparent reason for changing his behavior besides the start of the new season, Abe Woodhull decides to resume his spying. He tells his father that he wants to go into New York City to study law. He also tells the British commander in Setauket, Maj. Richard Hewlett (Burn Gorman), that he plans to infiltrate the city’s Sons of Liberty, thus creating a new promise he has little hope of fulfilling. As for Hewlett, he takes over the role of Anna Strong’s undesired admirer, bringing a whole new level of awkwardness to the wooing.

Over at the British headquarters, Maj. Andre continues to spin his webs as he meets young Philadelphia heiress Margaret Shippen (Ksenia Solo). Andre doesn’t realize his own servant Abigail (Idara Victor) is sending his secrets to Setauket. And by the end of the second hour, Capt. John Graves Simcoe (Samuel Roukin) has wrestled his way into the command of the Queen’s Rangers, the light infantry unit formerly commanded by Rogers. So many characters and storylines to keep track of! But don’t ignore Robert Townsend (Nick Westrate), the innkeeper who gets in the way of Abe’s attempts to gather information. In one continuity, at least, Townsend turns out to hold a lot of secrets. 

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4 out of 5