The Revolutionary Spies Of TURN


I wasn’t looking to get hooked on another series, especially a period drama about a historical era with which I’m woefully unfamiliar. But I tuned in to AMC to get ready for the season premiere of Mad Men and caught the last five minutes of the second episode of TURN, a new program about the exploits of the real life Culper Ring, a small network of spies on Long Island during the Revolutionary War. After just a few minutes, I had programmed my DVR to catch up and became a fan of the show.

TURN centers around four spies: young farmer and magistrate’s son Abraham Woodhull (Jamie Bell), Anna Strong (Heather Lind), wife of the local tavern keeper, himself jailed for treason against the Crown, and militiamen Ben Tallmadge (Seth Numrich) and Caleb Brewster (Daniel Henshall, and Australian actor with the best pan-Celtic accent I’ve ever heard). The four are tired of the mistreatment at the hands of the occupying British, and they manage to pass information back and forth unscathed (so far), risking their lives both on the battle front and in a Loyalist-friendly hometown.

The show has challenged the way I think about the spy game. As one who grew up on James Bond, it’s always been difficult for me to get away from the quips, technology, and hot women and see espionage in a more realistic context. The visceral, realistic rush of TURN is a far cry from 007’s high flying adventures. As I’ve already written over at The Macho Sophisticate:

Instead of cool gadgets, these spies rely on standard weapons. Rather than fire off witty quips, this crew must keep their wits about them. Where James Bond has the backing of a massive government organization, this group counts on clandestine rendezvous and elaborate signals involving hanging laundry to pass on information. And their escapades are just as fascinating as anything Ian Fleming could devise.

Each of the spies has his or her own problems that complicate their roles. Abraham Woodhull must contend with his father, a loyalist judge, and Anna Strong fends off lusty British soldiers. Ben Talmadge must deal with a commanding officer who threatens to court martial him over his interrogation of a British captain, while Caleb Brewster fights nature and his own enthusiasm for the patriot cause.

TURN doesn’t lack for dramatic excitement, either. There’s a slight romantic subtext to Abraham’s relationship with Anna – they were engaged before Abraham married his deceased brother’s fiancee Mary (Meegan Warner) out of duty. And Abraham feels the pull of British influence, both from his father (Kevin McNally) and his father’s ally Major Hewlett (the creepy Burn Gorman), as well as from a Scottish mercenary (Angus MacFadyen) who attempts to recruit him as a loyalist spy.

I haven’t yet read Washington’s Spies, the book on which TURN is based, but I plan to soon, and might even write about it here. In the meantime, I’m encouraged that historians view the show as relatively accurate. After pointing out some inaccuracies, one Revolutionary War buffs’ site goes on to commend it:

And viewers will enjoy that “Turn” is fairly faithful to the history of the Culper Ring.  Woodhull is accurately shown as a conflicted man who nevertheless follows a strong moral compass.  Benjamin Tallmadge was the intelligence visionary as he’s shown, and went around his commander (who had little interest in clandestine operations) to build a successful spy network.  Caleb Brewster (Daniel Henshall), one of Woodhull’s compatriots, really was a tough and fearless mariner.  Anna Strong (Heather Lind) played a key role as presented.  The dialogue, plot and production design address some very real factors that were in play during the Revolution.

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’ve begun to look more forward to TURN than I have to the new season of Mad Men. Lovers of history, drama, and intrigue should check it out. It’s not too late to catch up. You can view previous episodes on the TURN website, and new episodes air on Sunday nights at 9:00 on AMC.