The second episode of AMC’s Turn turned into CSI: Setauket, Long Island as several characters, for different motives, investigated how a British army captain turned up last week with his throat slit. There was an on-camera examination of the captain’s body, preserved in rum, as well as a bloody shot of a knife digging for a bullet in someone else’s leg.
The series’s central character, Abe Woodhull (Jamie Bell), is an unlikely person to undertake such an investigation, preferring to keep his head down. One reason for him to do so is that he’s a chief suspect in the captain’s murder. At night neighbors appear to take revenge by burning down his cabbage barn, and even his father, Judge Woodhull (Kevin R. McNally), considers him the most likely culprit.
But that’s not what galvanizes Abe into action. Once again, his big motive is learning that his old flame Anna Strong (Heather Lind) is in danger, this time as the next person on his father’s list of suspects. When Abe warns Anna, she insists on searching the captain’s room and trunk herself. After all, he was staying in her tavern (played by Virginia’s Shirley Plantation, a handsome but miscast mansion).
The last and most dangerous of the investigators is Maj. Robert Rogers, commander of the Queen’s Rangers, or what we’d call the king’s special forces. I found it impossible to watch Angus Macfayden playing Rogers without thinking, “What an eccentric performance,” and I found it impossible to look away. He looks and sounds nothing like the real Rogers, but he injects a lot of needed energy into the story.
All this takes place against the backdrop of Setauket’s celebration of Guy Fawkes’ Day on November 5th, 1776. Colonial Americans did celebrate that anniversary, particularly in New England, but in ways that would be awkward in today’s media. They called it “Pope Night” and burned giant effigies of the Pope to show their loyalty to British Protestantism. Turn opts for showing more recent Guy Fawkes’s Day rituals and celebrants wearing the sort of mask that David Lloyd designed for V for Vendetta in 1982.
While the murder investigation unrolls in Setauket, two other plots are advancing elsewhere in the New York theater. On the “Connecticut border” (one of the least frightening borderlands I can think of), Continental Army officers Ben Tallmadge (Seth Numrich) and Caleb Brewster (Daniel Henshall) play good cop–very bad cop with the captured and wounded British captain, John Simcoe. As Simcoe, Samuel Roukin continues to audition for the role of the Joker.
The Americans’ torture session is interrupted by the arrival of a general. At first I thought this was Washington, but a look at the cast list indicates he’s “General Scott” (Michael Gaston). In real life Tallmadge’s commander for a while was Col. Charles Scott.
Meanwhile, over on “New York Island,” Maj. John Andre (J. J. Feild) has sex with an actress (Amy Gumenick), bragging about how good an intelligence officer he is. She transparently pumps him for information on the British military, which should cast some doubt on his boast.
It makes sense for Andre to be the first major character this series shows having sex since people agreed he was a very attractive, charming man. Lately, however, more authors have also said that he was gay. Turn doesn’t shy from acknowledging homosexuality, though it does overstate the likely punishment for same-sex affairs in this period. Harsh sodomy laws were on the books in the eighteenth-century British Empire, but prosecutions were quite rare.
All in all, it seems wisest to forget most of what one knows about the American Revolution while watching Turn and take its version of the world on its own terms.