Turn: Washington’s Spies – The Complete First Season (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray, DVD) – The Revolutionary War was launched with a declaration of independence and fought for the ideal of self-determination and democratic representation. By any measure it was unprecedented and it gave birth to the first sustained democracy in the world (despite D.W. Griffith’s insistence that the Civil War as the Birth of the Nation), yet there are fewer dramatic portraits of the war in movies or on TV than practically any other American conflict, and fewer still that stand as significant productions in their own right: John Ford’s Drums Along the Mohawk, the HBO miniseries John Adams, and… I’m sure there are others, but none jump to mind.
Turn from AMC (the cable network of Mad Men, The Walking Dead, and Breaking Bad) doesn’t quite jump to the top of the list, at least based on the initial season, but it is an intelligent show with a novel approach: it’s built around the civilian spy network supplying intelligence to the revolutionaries under the noses of the occupying British soldiers. This is historical drama, not documentary, but it is based on the true story of the Abraham Woodhull, the head of the real-life Culper Spy Ring in New York City and Long Island. Jamie Bell plays Woodhull, a farmer in Setauket, New York, who sells his produce on the black market to both sides while committing to neither until he’s recruited by an old friend, Continental Army officer Ben Talmadge (Seth Numrich), to use his smuggling routes to pass messages. The one-time favor turns into a full-time commitment and puts him on the opposite side of the conflict from his father (Kevin McNally), the town magistrate and a committed law-and-order British loyalist, and in partnership with his childhood sweetheart Anna Strong (Heather Lind), whose husband was sentenced to certain death aboard a British slave ship for a crime he didn’t commit.
In a TV culture of anti-heroes and compromised protagonists, this is a fairly straightforward conflict: there are a few honorable Brits (notably Major Hewlett, the garrison commandeer played by Burn Gorman) but far more of them are brutal and sadistic, while the rebel sympathizers may be conflicted but are ultimately on the side of their neighbors. The show has its share of romantic and dramatic complications, especially as Woodhull contrives to carry information through British territory to the rebel forces while posing publically as a loyalist, and it’s light on action and spectacle. It takes some time for the story to get any traction, but when, about halfway through the season, George Washington arrives to discuss the fledgling spy network with Talmadge, the show offers a crash course in state of the art spycraft, circa 1776. That’s a fascinating history lesson that gives scope to the personal drama and illustrates just how novel a civilian espionage circle was in warfare. As the season develops, it also takes on the issue of slavery, though while it shows the hypocrisy of the British (who free the slaves only to make them indentured soldiers in their fight) it’s frustratingly quiet when it comes to exploring the colonists’ relationship to the reality of slavery and shies away from seeing the war through the eyes of the blacks who, in the event of American victory, would remain enslaved.
What I find most interesting is the portrait of conflicted loyalties among the Americans. Friends, neighbors, even family members cannot necessarily be trusted, but that doesn’t make them enemies. Woodhull secretly defies his father’s allegiances but never his father, who he loves and protects through the conflict, and he keeps his activities secret from his wife (Meegan Warner), who suspects something is going on but isn’t sure what. That’s the real human story of the show, not the personal conflicts between Woodhull and sneering, sadistic British officer Simcoe (Samuel Roukin) or Talmadge and Scot mercenary Robert Rogers (Angus Macfadyen) or the renewed passions between Woodhull and Anna Strong, flamed by the danger of their missions.
There are also fun bits of history woven through here, like the crossing of the Delaware from the point of view of a soldier at the back of the makeshift armada (Washington is never seen) and a rousing rendition of a British drinking song over dinner with British officers, which became the tune to The Star Spangled Banner. These are dropped in without comment, nudging the viewer to dig into their American history (Wikipedia should get a workout while watching the episodes).
10 episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, with two very brief featurettes that are really no more than promotional pieces and about 25 minutes of deleted scenes. This season will also be available on Netflix later this month.
The second season begins in April.