George Washington’s spy ring comes alive in AMC drama ‘Turn’

I have begun watching Series 1 of Turn (2014), courtesy of Wollongong Library. I see it comes from the same mob who brought us Breaking Bad. Piya Sinha-Roy noted at the time the series premiered:

The world of espionage has been brought to life by characters such as James Bond, Jason Bourne and Jack Bauer on film and television, but a new AMC drama is going back to spy origins with America’s own founding father, George Washington.

“Turn,” which premieres on Sunday, tells the story of four childhood friends who find themselves pulled together as spies during the height of the American Revolutionary War in 1778 in New York’s Long Island, under the orders of General Washington.

The series is based on Alexander Rose’s 2007 book “Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring.”

The Culper Ring was formed by Major Benjamin Tallmadge, who chose an unsuspecting group of his friends, civilians who opposed the British occupation of New York – farmer Abe Woodhull, pub landlady Anna Strong and fisherman Caleb Brewster.

Abe, played by British actor Jamie Bell, is the symbol of the “everyman,” reluctantly drawn into the Culper Ring because he is forced to stand by his beliefs and try and change the country for the sake of his baby son’s future.

“He’s not a hero. He’s not a spy. He’s a farmer, a failed farmer, and he’s a family man. He wants the war to disappear. He doesn’t want to be one of these people who wants to step up,” Bell said of his character.

“Even though they are muted in the show, his politics are that a man should be in his own country and make decisions for himself.”…

And yes, that is the Jamie Bell who was so memorably Billy Elliot in the 2000 movie.

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The attention to historical detail in setting and costume is first rate. There is little flinching from what the fighting really was like, meaning my library copy is labelled MA15+.  Very early in Episode 1 you are left in no doubt what bayonets are for.

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I did find myself lost at times in early episodes, however, as I am not all that familiar with the details of this part of US history. I might have benefited from a little internet research before watching. Sinha-Roy continues:

…”Turn” goes back to a time when state-of-the-art tradecraft consisted of invisible ink, laundry on washing lines, and dead letter boxes. The true story of the primitive efforts of an underground group of operatives is what both Bell and Silverstein think will surprise audiences.

“What this show gives you is that insight; it’s as close as we could get to what it would have been like. The show isn’t so much a history lesson as it is a glimpse into a different era and time,” Bell said.

“The history of American espionage and spying is such a crucial asset to this country, and this is George Washington trying to figure out how to do it.”

With espionage very much in the headlines these days – with U.S. soldier Chelsea Manning convicted of violating the Espionage Act and former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden charged for leaking classified documents to the public – “Turn” resonates in the current debate over spying.

“It definitely shows that this is nothing new, that spying is in America’s DNA,” Silverstein said….

Apparently while striving for an authentic look, the series

…takes considerable liberties with the biographies and activities of the historical personalities. For example, Abraham Woodhull is portrayed as having broken an engagement to Anna Strong, in order to wed his brother’s betrothed and by so doing, satisfy his father, a staunch Loyalist. This plot device is also driven by the fictional claim that the younger Woodhull had felt responsible for the death of his elder brother (a member of the Loyalist militia), due to Abraham’s involvement in the Liberty Pole riots. The show portrays Woodhull and Strong as carrying on an adulterous affair during their involvement in the Spy Ring. In truth, Abraham Woodhull was unmarried during the war years, and there is no evidence that any romantic connection ever existed between him and his fellow spy Anna Strong, who was 10 years his senior and long married to one of his relatives.

For more see Rotten Tomatoes and this List of Episodes. It is ongoing, with a third series current and a fourth due next year. See the program website.

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Jamie Bell as Abraham Woodhull

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