Turn: Washington’s Spies Back

Adapted from Alexander Rose’s book Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring (Bantam Books, 2006), the 30-episode AMC drama Turn: Washington’s Spies brings the subjects of loyalty, intelligence gathering, and conspiracy during the American War for Independence to the forefront for contemporary audiences. Numerous historical movies, documentaries, theatrical plays, and dramatized mini-series focus on prominent American political and military figures like George Washington, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton. These series and events rarely examine common people’s roles in the war. Beyond the delegates’ chambers and army camps, however, lies a shadowy world of sabotage and subterfuge, unyielding principles and malleable loyalties, which shaped British and American forces’ endeavours to gain the advantage in a brutal imperial civil war.

Turn centres on Patriot-spy Abraham Woodhull and the Culper Spy Ring’s formation in 1778. Woodhull, played by Jamie Bell, leads audiences into the infrequently-seen world of intelligence gathering amongst eighteenth-century Britons and Americans. While a staunch devotee of the American patriots’ cause, Woodhull chooses not to enlist in the Continental Army in 1776 and remains at his farm in Setauket on Long Island, New York. Woodhull’s financial debts in the autumn of 1776 drive him to smuggling provisions to Patriot-sympathizers, which delivers him to Captain Benjamin Tallmadge (Seth Numrich) and Lieutenant Caleb Brewster (Daniel Henshall). These childhood friends of Woodhull recruit him to work as a Patriot spy against the British in New York City and Long Island. His intelligence network and accurate reporting on troop movements persuade General George Washington (Ian Kahn) to authorize Woodhull’s code name (“Samuel Culpepper”) and the spy ring’s creation.

The second and third seasons delve deeper into the tangled web of personal relationships, desires, faults, and Machiavellian machinations that turned soldiers and civilians against each other. Prisons and British hulks serve as useful settings for Turn to demonstrate both the officers’ interrogation tactics, and the prisoners’ deteriorating mental and physical conditions that wardens and officers exploited to create desperate, malleable pawns willing to divulge their fellow prisoners’ secrets. When portraying British Major John André (J. J. Feild), Turn makes a great effort to show his exploitation of the Continental officers’ personal weaknesses and vices: specifically, the ambition of General Charles Lee (Brian T. Finney), and the vanity and greed of General Benedict Arnold (Owain Yeoman). André uses these to undermine the army’s unity and weaken Washington’s forces to British attack. Furthermore, Turn combines scenes addressing Arnold’s financial debts, the Continental Congress’ inability to reimburse his expenses, and his romantic relationship with Margaret ‘Peggy’ Shippen (Ksenia Solo) to elucidate the complex personal and political factors that wore down his loyalty to Washington and the Patriot cause—culminating in Arnold’s turn and defection to the British Army.

Personal differences over military strategy, love, and lust sowed divisions within the British command as well. Turn’s portrayal of the British Army officers’ contrasting beliefs on how best to defeat the rebels and restore British rule and civil order is particularly noteworthy. The first season demonstrates this through the pronouncement by Major Edmund Hewlett (Burn Gorman) that the British military had to win the American colonists’ hearts and minds in order to win the war. This contrasts with Captain John Graves Simcoe (Samuel Roukin) and his determination to crush both the rebellious Continental forces and any colonists who did not exhibit absolute loyalty to the Crown. Love and desire, however, erode what little common ground Hewlett and Simcoe shared. The two officers’ romantic interest in Anna Strong (Heather Lind), a Patriot sympathizer working for Woodhull, turn the commanders and their troops violently against each other as they attempt to remove the other from Setauket—threatening to destroy the British occupation from within.

An important part of Turn is its portrayal of tensions that divided individuals and communities. The first and second season illustrate the British occupation’s impact on imperial fidelity through quarrels between colonists and British officers quartering in homes and taverns, resentment of public loyalty oaths, and Patriot-Loyalist family divisions—exemplified in Abraham’s interactions with his Loyalist father, Judge Richard Woodhull (Kevin R. McNally). Another noteworthy element is the juxtaposition of hope and reality experienced by the black community during New York’s occupation. In ‘Epiphany’ (season 1, episode 5), the posting of Lord Dunmore’s order promising freedom to slaves who joined the British war effort is broken with scenes of Setauket slaves singing ‘Read’em [freedom] John’ on Christmas Eve outside Selah and Anna Strong’s home in celebration of their prospective liberation. Yet inside, Setauket loyalists and British officers singing ‘Rule Britannia’ intentionally drown out the slaves’ rejoicing—an act illustrative of slaves’ marginalization within British colonial society, and a contrast between a subversive folksong heralding liberation and an overpowering anthem of imperial domination.

While Turn presents an intriguing portrayal of espionage’s role in the American rebellion, as the series progresses the depictions of the central characters become increasingly divorced from historical reality. Serious alterations to Abraham Woodhull’s backstory appear in several noteworthy instances. The historical Woodhull’s sympathies for the American patriots solidified after learning that the British Army killed his cousin Brigadier General Nathaniel Woodhull—a fact that negates Turn’s fictitious portrayal of Woodhull grappling with a moral quandary caused by his participation in New York City’s liberty pole riots that killed his brother, and his work as a Patriot spy and supporter. Woodhull also lived as a bachelor until marrying his cousin Mary in 1781, rather than already being married to his brother’s fiancée with an infant son as at the series beginning—a change designed, in all probability, to smooth over and simplify for contemporary audiences the complex nature of eighteenth-century marriages between extended family members. Another series of historical inaccuracies arises from Turn’s depictions of Simcoe, Hewlett, Anna Strong, and Nathaniel Sackett (Stephen Root). The educated, genteel, Scottish-born Major Edmund Hewlett portrayed in the series bears little connection to the historical Richard Hewlett, a prominent Long Island loyalist who served as a colonel throughout his command at Setauket. Turn distorts the historical Colonel Simcoe from an educated Oxonian and ruthless officer into an arrogant and blatantly psychotic leader. Consequently, Simcoe appears to serve a greater role as the series’ embellished arch-villain than he actually did as commander of the Queen’s Rangers. With respect to Anna Strong, she remained married to her husband and was the mother of several children by the summer of 1778, and no evidence exists to suggest she engaged in any romantic or intimate relationships with either Simcoe or Hewlett. A further inaccuracy appears early in the second season via a fictitious British assassination of the Continental Army’s spymaster Nathaniel Sackett, who in reality lived to see the war’s end. Another noticeable detraction is Turn’s inclusion of anachronistic language and colloquial phrases, specifically Caleb Brewster’s frequent use of ‘yeah’, ‘okay’, ‘hello’, and ‘bollocks’.

In centring its narrative on actors outside the pantheon of revolutionary American military and political figures, Turn: Washington’s Spies delivers an important depiction of the rebellion that traverses economic, social, and racial lines. Through illustrating the roles espionage and deceit played in the American War for Independence, Turn illuminates the challenges individuals engaged with as they endeavoured to navigate loyalty to family and comrades, ideals, and country simultaneously. Nevertheless, in an effort to ground the characters in late eighteenth-century life, the series runs into problems that make the main characters appear out of place in an otherwise meticulously reconstructed revolutionary America. Perhaps the final season can steer the series back into a firmer historical reality through a deeper exploration of Arnold’s betrayal. Although accomplishing this with the psychotic Captain Simcoe’s continued presence, as well as the prospect of further interactions between historically unconnected characters, may prove a difficult task.

The fourth and final season of Turn: Washington’s Spies premieres Saturday, 17 June 2017 on AMC in the US. Seasons 1-3 are available for purchase on DVD and on Amazon Prime Video in the UK.