Danger, secrets, intrigue and revenge were all part of the Culper spy ring, and the new AMC series “Turn,” premiering April 6 (Sundays 9/8 central), offers a fascinating look into how these intrepid American spies helped win the Revolutionary War. AMC provided Journal of the American Revolution an early screening of the first three episodes.
“Turn” opens in the autumn of 1776 with the British capture of New York City and the surrounding area. In the town of Setauket on Long Island’s north shore, farmer Abraham Woodhull (played by Jamie Bell) is barely making a living for his wife and infant son. Woodhull hopes to stay out of the conflict but British troops occupy Long Island and the king’s soldiers are ever-present. The Revolution forces citizens to consider where their loyalties lie. A minor altercation with a British officer lands Abraham in trouble with Crown authorities, and his father Richard (Kevin R. McNally) lists the Setauket families that support the Rebel cause saying they chose the wrong side. “I wasn’t taking sides,” his son replies, as civilians caught in the middle of a war have throughout time.
Outside of Setauket a bigger problem is brewing. New York City is now a British base and the Americans need spies in the city to report on Crown plans, but as a Continental dragoon commander tells his subordinate, Captain Benjamin Tallmadge, “We have no friends in New York.” The forward-thinking Tallmadge (Seth Numrich) plans to develop a spy ring in the city, and it involves civilians including his boyhood friend, Abraham Woodhull. That’s not an easy task with British officer John Graves Simcoe (Samuel Roukin) and the Loyalist Major Robert Rogers (Angus MacFadyen) on the hunt for secret Rebels. Woodhull focuses on providing for his family but circumstances and intelligence operatives force him to choose a side, and the intrigue begins. What follows is a stylish spy story with the heroes, villains, plot twists, tension and coded messages you would expect.
Alexander Rose’s excellent book Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring, provided the basis for the series and as Executive Producer Barry Josephson explained in a telephone interview, Rose was integral to production. Working with Rose, the production staff strove for historical truthfulness in everything from plot to set details. The series accurately depicts the major factors that brought the Culper Ring together, such as how the Continental Army had to build an intelligence arm from nothing in the midst of the New York campaign and how Tallmadge formed a spy network with people who knew each other in Setauket. The series also shows the tumultuous times of the Revolution, when cosmopolitan New York City was the biggest military target in America and citizens in its surrounding areas harbored secret suspicions and mixed loyalties. Most importantly it shows how Tallmadge’s spies existed in a state of constant fear. These are people who met in the woods at night and spoke in whispers; discovery meant summary execution.
That said, detail-oriented Revolutionary War enthusiasts will spot plenty of historical faux pas. For example, the series plotline has the Culper Ring developing in the autumn of 1776 whereas it actually came together about two years later. The real Woodhull was unmarried and childless at the time. His father was 63 and of a family that supported the Patriot politics, so not really the crafty Loyalist as depicted. The timeline is also a little early for Tallmadge’s unit of Continental dragoons, which wasn’t formed until the end of 1776 and did not operate in Connecticut until the summer of 1778. John André is introduced as the Chief of the British secret service in New York, but in reality he was a prisoner of war for most of 1776. Even after André rose to the Army staff, he was naïve and inexperienced in the spy business, not the master of intelligence as presented in the series. John Graves Simcoe truly detested the Rebels but some of the significant things that happen with him in the series simply did not occur in real life. Most of the language is a fair representation of 18th century styles, but some modern terms sneak in, such as when Woodhull tells another character, “This is a one-time deal.” Actor Angus MacFadyen’s native Scottish burr adds to his portrayal of Robert Rogers as a scoundrel, but may be incongruous with the facts that Rogers was born in America to Irish colonists and grew up in Connecticut. And the white wigs that the British characters wear were out of style during the Revolution so I found them a little distracting. Sharp-eyed viewers may notice other items that raise some questions.
But none of these details significantly detract from the series. The elements I noted above are certainly important to the Culper Ring story but they are not its core. Human interactions were the essence of Revolutionary War spying and that makes “Turn” a character-focused tale. Executive Producer Barry Josephson explained that the series required some minor liberties to support a better narrative arc, to best show how characters developed over time, or to allow situations to illustrate the experiences and emotions of the characters. That’s been a common method in filmmaking for decades and I don’t take issue with it in “Turn.”
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. How black marketing, or “the London Trade,” as it was known, applied to the Culper Ring’s formation is one example. Another is that at one point Woodhull has to name some suspected Rebels and he emphasizes them to be Presbyterians, which speaks to how the loyalties of Long Islanders sometimes followed religious lines, with Anglicans and Quakers being more Loyalist-leaning. Robert Rogers and John Graves Simcoe were the bane of Rebels on Long Island, though the series takes some liberties with their roles. The depiction of a British headquarters in a church is a representation of the 1777 occupation and fortification of Setauket’s Presbyterian meeting house (Benjamin Tallmadge’s father was the minister) by the Loyalist commander Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Hewlett. However the placement of a horse stable in the same room as a senior officer’s headquarters seems a bit of a stretch. Overall, the major dynamics of the times and the Culper Ring come together in a style that is both thrilling and accurate – with some artistic allowances for the medium.
As television, this is good watching. All of the actors deliver strong performances and it’s a pleasure to watch them bring the characters to life. Playing Woodhull, Jamie Bell conveys the apprehensiveness of someone feeling his way through uncharted territory. In one scene, Woodhull learns some information that jeopardizes his friends and you can sense his panic. Daniel Henshall plays Caleb Brewster with relish, as does MacFayden as Rogers and Samuel Roukin as Simcoe. Heather Lind is a forceful Anna Strong. The actors portraying Americans capture a sense of being normal people caught in desperate circumstances beyond anything they ever imagined, which is one of the most important things to understand about the Culper Ring.
And therein lies the best reason to watch “Turn.” The spies that made up the Culper Ring did so not for money (they barely received compensation for their expenses), or recognition (most never spoke of their activities), or personal gain (spying was frowned upon at the time). They did it for a cause and put their lives in constant risk, and “Turn” richly and creatively depicts their journeys. So take a few steps back, watch how the story unfolds, then check out Washington’s Spies or the original Culper correspondence that still exists in the George Washington Papers, The Writings of George Washington, and other document collections. Read up on Rogers and Simcoe; fascinating characters whose exploits illustrate the turmoil that took place on Long Island during its occupation.
As Woodhull’s father says to him, “Legacy is everything.” There’s nothing else like “Turn” on television, and it keeps the legacy of the Culper Ring alive in grand style. And just as Disney’s “Johnny Tremain” and “The Swamp Fox” helped usher in a new generation of American Revolution enthusiasts and historians, a successful TV series like “Turn” has the potential to spark a whole new generation of buffs.