Stay Tuned: Engaging espionage on ‘Turn: Washington’s Spies’
Based on the book “Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring” by Alexander Rose, the AMC series “Turn: Washington’s Spies” follows a group of childhood friends who form the Culper Ring and spy for the patriot cause during the American Revolution. The action takes place in and around Long Island in 1776 and 1777. The British have recaptured the area and made New York City their base of operations. The members of the Culper Ring risk their lives gathering intelligence to pass to George Washington’s army, hoping to turn the tide of the war.
It’s challenging to create the right amount of tension in a story where everyone knows the big ending so the trick is to create high stakes individual stories. “Turn,” now in its second season, does this most successfully through its main character Abraham Woodhull (Jamie Bell) who struggles with the idea of becoming a spy. The son of a prominent, loyalist magistrate, Abe spends the first season wanting to maintain his quiet life as a farmer and a father. A series of injustices, a few villainous characters, including Captain John Simcoe (Samuel Roukin) and a renewed relationship with his first love, Anna Strong (Heather Lind), who he leaves out of familial duty, leads him to fully commit to the cause.
Abe’s internal conflict is well played by Bell. You believe the doubt he has over his choices just as much as you admire his determination to stay the course. Abe has a contentious relationship with his father, Judge Richard Woodhull (Kevin McNally) who is unfailingly loyal to the British and a shaky union with his wife Mary (Meegan Warner) who he married out of obligation rather than love. The story intertwines his tense personal life with the constant threat that he will be discovered. Bell moves between the two plots with ease, giving each the emotional depth they deserve. You know the outcome of the revolution but you don’t know Abe’s fate in either part of his life. In lesser hands, you might not care.
In Season 2, the show has a wider point of view, which allows for more time spent on George Washington (Ian Kahn) and the battles of the war. Benedict Arnold (Owain Yeoman) enters the story and the Culper Ring members, Major Benjamin Tallmadge (Seth Numrich), Lieutenant Caleb Brewster (Daniel Henshall) and Anna take bigger risks. Major Edmund Hewlett (Burn Gorman), commander of the British garrison in Setauket, is showing more vulnerability this season which makes him slightly less of a cliché bad guy. Head of British intelligence, Major John Andre (JJ Feild) is all charm and seduction and his scenes continue to be a highlight of the story.
Shot in and around Richmond, Virginia, the show’s exterior settings lend authenticity to the time period that will appeal to history buffs. The too obvious good guy/bad guy characterizations are the show’s weakness. The British officers are mostly smug or cruel or both. This isn’t meant to be a deep exploration of history. It is however, a history worth knowing and in this case, watching.
“Turn: Washington’s Spies” is on Mondays at 10 p.m. EDT on AMC.
Melissa Crawley is the author of “Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television’s ‘The West Wing.’” She has a Ph.D. in media studies and is a member of the Television Critics Association. To comment on Stay Tuned, email her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter at @MelissaCrawley.