U-S-A!

04.06.14

‘Turn,’ AMC’s New Series About America’s First Spy Ring, Is A Visually Arresting Historical Epic

Jamie Bells stars as Abraham Woodhull, a young Brit who smuggles intel in and out of British occupied New York to George Washington during the Revolutionary War.

The new AMC series Turn, which premieres April 6, is bewildering at first.

We’re dropped smack in the middle of British-occupied New York. The year is 1776, and Abraham Woodhull (Jamie Bell) is scraping by as a cabbage farmer and sometime innkeeper in Setauket, Long Island. He’s husband to Mary (Meegan Warner), and father to a young child. His father, Richard (Kevin McNally), is a local magistrate loyal to George III.

Then the scene shifts. We’re now in New Jersey. A stunning overhead shot reveals a sprawling field of bluecoat rebel bodies lying next to a pool dyed red with blood. It looks like a John Trumbull painting. A man, dressed in rags, stalks across the field, impaling the bodies with a bayonet. He approaches a corpse and raises his bayonet when—suddenly—the bluecoat flips over and shoves a dagger deep into the executioner’s throat, emitting a geyser of blood. Before you can chant “U-S-A!”, a pro-British militia is chasing the man through the woods, showering him with musket balls. 

These men are the Queen’s Rangers, a ragtag Loyalist military unit led by Robert Rogers (Angus Macfayden, best known for backstabbing Mel Gibson’s character in Braveheart). The man returns to his battalion and addresses his superiors: 

“These were not Tory militia or regulars… these were Queen’s Rangers.”

“Are you saying there’s a breach within our ranks?”

“I’m saying they have spies… everywhere, Sir.”

So, the rebels seek to give the Brits a taste of their own medicine and, on orders from General George Washington, establish a covert courier system from New Jersey to occupied New York.

The show offers plenty of fascinating through-lines, including the exploration of early American torture, espionage/spycraft, politicking, homosexuality, and even a bit of a murder-mystery...

If all this is confusing to you, well, it should be. The ambiguously-titled Turn, created by Craig Silverstein and based on Alexander Rose’s tome Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring, provides precious little historical context—no placards, no In a galaxy far, far, away… intro scroll. It just teleports you to 1776 and forces everyone not named Doris Kearns Goodwin to piece it together as it goes. This odd omission may be why many TV critics weren’t exactly wowed by the 90-minute season premiere—which is a shame, because they, and their acolytes, are missing out on a helluva show.

Despite the confusing setting, Turn seduces you with its mélange of gripping performances by an ensemble cast of Brits (taking a page out of the Game of Thrones handbook), a powerful score by Oscar nominated composer Marco Beltrami (The Hurt Locker), and stunning direction courtesy of Rupert Wyatt, who helmed Rise of the Planet of the Apes. And the scope is massive, with the show boasting jaw-dropping production design—the series was shot in Richmond, Virginia, and used many exterior sets left behind from Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.

The action does, however, take a while to get going.

We learn that Abe was engaged to Anna Strong (Heather Lind), the rebellious wife of Selah Strong (Robert Beitzel), who runs an inn that caters to redcoats, but Abe’s allegiance to the Brits—due to the influence of his overbearing, Loyalist father—led them to split. After a row with a gang of drunken, handsy Brits, led by the Anna-obsessed Lt. John Simcoe (Samuel Roukin, deliciously devilish), Selah is arrested for “insurrection” and shipped off to prison, leaving Anna unprotected.

Meanwhile, Abe’s cabbage crops have become infested by gross maggots so, in an act of desperation, he travels by boat to Connecticut to trade what cabbage he has left for silk—to avoid taxation by the Brits. There, the Continental Congress busts him for illegal smuggling and, suspecting he’s a spy, waterboards him Revolutionary War-style—until Major Ben Talmadge (Seth Numrich), a bluecoat and childhood friend of Abe’s, intervenes.

Video screenshot

“We’re of the mind where if you can smuggle cabbage, you can smuggle something more valuable: information,” says Talmadge.

Abe is still reluctant, but is convinced by Anna to become a spy for the rebels.

Reviewing a television series premiere is a tricky thing, and it really takes about an hour for Turn’s wheels to start, well, turning. Fortunately, the first three episodes of the series were made available to members of the press and, whereas the first is mostly comprised of scene-setting, the next two are a rollicking good time. The show is, after all, based on the real-life Culper Ring—a spy ring organized by Talmadge under the guidance of Gen. Washington that was tasked with reporting on British activities in New York and Connecticut—and the ring doesn’t begin to take shape until Episode 2. When it does, the show offers plenty of fascinating through-lines, including the exploration of early American torture, espionage/spycraft, politicking,homosexuality, and even a bit of a murder-mystery thrown in. And this is, of course, the network that airs The Walking Dead, so there are also plenty of riveting, ultraviolent battle sequences.

The cast, led by the underrated Bell, is aces all around and Turn, with its occupied territory setting, ex-lovers reuniting for a common cause, awe-inspiring staging and cinematography, and rah-rah patriotism, is like Casablanca-lite, and well worth your time and/or DVR space.