Turn, Turn, TURИ

I had the opportunity, over the course of Passover-Easter break, to watch the first three episodes of AMC’s new series Turn (transcribed as TURИ on subway ads).[1] The show is very much in the vein of the recent spate of high-serious historical (Mad Men) or faux-historical (Game of Thrones) dramas airing on the finer cable networks (AMC, IFC, HBO). Turn, like its sister-shows, features excellent acting and wonderful set and costume design. Unlike these other shows, however, it adapts for television a historical event that gets a lot of coverage on this blog–the American Revolution.[2] For the series AMC has turned Alexander Rose’s Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring into a tale of conflicted loyalties, love, betrayal, and waterboarding fit, some ways, for our new Golden Age of television. At the same time, much is lost in the adaptation process.

For the more spoilerphobic among our community, this essay will contain spoilers for the pilot episode of Turn.

The strongest element of Turn is its characterization of its protagonist. By the end of the very first episode the viewer has an excellent understanding of the series’ dramatization of Abraham Woodhull (Jamie Bell). Woodhull is a good man pushed and pulled in a multitude of directions–from love for his childhood sweet heart (Anna Strong) and his duty to his wife (Meegan Warner) and child, to his passion for liberty to his duty to his Loyalist magistrate father (Kevin R. McNally). When Woodhall makes his fateful choice as the pilot winds up to its dramatic conclusion, the viewer cannot help but fully sympathize with the man. This is a wonderfully strong foundation to build a successful drama series upon.[3]

Turn features the same cast of gorgeous and, largely, excellent actors found in these sorts of dramas.[4] The best-acting and best-looking aspect of the series, however, is from the exquisite Virginia scenery, play-acting as Revolutionary-era Long Island for ten episodes.[5]  Shooting in and around Richmond and Petersburg the directors and producers of Turn do a very effective job of recreating rural eighteenth-century life. Things are, certainly, much too clean and soldiers are wearing uniforms that may or may not be appropriate in this particularly historical context.  Acknowledging all that, the production makes a good faith effort, from my perspective, to capture the scenery and life of eighteenth-century Long Island.[6] Centering, for example, Woodhall’s choices on the fate of his cabbage crop is a very nice and important touch.

In assessing Turn, or any other historical drama, I cannot help but bring my own very idiosyncratic and particular sense of historicism towards historical dramas. I’m not particularly interested in nitpicking minor, or sometimes major, historical inaccuracies–such as Woodhull and Tallmadge’s ages.[7] Dramatization required liberties.[8] I am interested, rather, in what is gained by telling this story in this particular historical period and if the themes of the historical fiction fit the epoch being adapted. Put more pithily, what is the point of watching an episode of Turn instead of, say, another outing of Homeland?[9]

On these questions Turn fills me will a great deal of ambivalence. This has to do with the series’ treatment of the wonderfully complex politics of the Revolution. In the pilot there is some brave talk about “freedom”–in between waterboarding sessions–but very little about why one would embrace either the British Crown or the Continental Congress. There is a sense of inevitability to the Patriot position, which makes the detaining of semi-innocent cabbage farmers and waterboarding of them feel vaguely acceptable. George Washington’s resistance to espionage casts him as a noble idealist, compared to the rapacious Robert Rogers.[10] This does little justice to the contingent and complex nature of the political scene of Revolutionary New York.

My ambivalence can be largely traced to Turn’s treatment of Loyalism and the British army. The British are more caricatures than characters. In the pilot, alone, we see the Queen’s Rangers stab injured men to death, a drunk British officer threaten and abuse a stoic Patriot innkeeper, another British officer threaten to rape Woodhull’s childhood sweetheart, and yet another officer choose the pride of the British officer corps over the innocence of an American colonist. The only well-drawn Loyalist figure is Woodhull’s father, Richard, who does not leave a particularly sympathetic impression. This makes (SPOILER ALERT!) an American General shooting a prisoner pale in comparison.

The more, in fact, Turn tries to push its characters into morally complex situations, the black and white nature of the series’ treatment of politics of the Revolution becomes clearer. Complexity casts into sharp relief the inch-deep characterization of British motivations. Woodhull and Benjamin Tallmadge, despite their involvement in espionage and the brutality of warfare, remain morally pristine figures.[11] This turns the series into just another morality play–the Patriot in the guise of Mad Men. This is, in a way, its own dramatic tragedy because the complex political and moral questions raised by the American Revolution could make for some very compelling television.[12]

In the end, I cannot help but believe that Turn does not do full justice to its source material. As far as post-Sopranos dramas go, the show is perfectly acceptable. The series features some excellent scenery and set design. The cast is often quite excellent. Yet as an adaptation of Revolutionary-era espionage, much less the greater era of the American Revolution, Turn fails. It fails in bringing the moral and political complexity of the foundational moment of the United States fully to life. The adaptation choices made by the series turn the high drama of late eighteenth-century British North America into something simpler and much less interesting than the actual history.


[1] I will refuse to refer to the series as TURИ in this essay.

[2] Turn is not the only contemporary television show to adapt the American Revolution. FOX’s campy Washington Irving adaptation, Sleepy Hollow, also seeks to bring the Revolution to 21st-century audiences. By treating the Revolution as a key part of an epic, trans-historical struggle between good and evil (where John Noble eats people’s sins) Sleepy Hollow does more justice to how eighteenth-century Americans saw their Revolution than Turn.

[3] The man just wanted to sell his cabbages!

[4] Led by lead actor Jamie Bell and Seth Numrich who plays Benjamin Tallmadge. Tallmadge’s ghost, I hear, appreciates this casting.

[5] There is so much wonderfulness in the fact that the Virginia plays New York on this show. As a lover of Virginia’s luscious scenery, particularly the area in and around Richmond, I appreciate an opportunity to admire it from the comfort of my Brooklyn couch. The location choice feels like another victory for Jefferson over Hamilton, a location scouting version of that regional-political Revolutionary era feud between the Old Dominion and the Empire State.

[6] I am of a couple of minds about the decision to make Woodhull’s farmhands African-Americans. On one hand it is great to see non-white faces in this story–even if they are largely silent extras–and both free and enslaved African-Americans made up a significant part of Revolutionary New York’s labor force. On the other hand only including African-Americans as largely silent workers downplays the dynamic and important role played by free and enslaved blacks in the Revolution. These feelings verge on “wishing they’d told another story that they’re not interested in telling” territory. I discuss this issue below.

[7] I am not a historian of Revolutionary New York, so there are very few nits I could pick with any expertise.

[8] I actually get more upset when fictional worlds are butchered by adaptation than when history (my profession!) falls under the storyteller’s knife. I will never forgive David Yates for his adaptation of Ginny Weasley.

[9] Turn is a kind of eighteenth-century edition of Homeland; just replace George Washington with Inigo Montoya.

[10] This makes Washington a Ned Stark like figure to Robert Rogers’s Gregor Clegane with the Queen’s Rangers cast as the eighteenth century version of the Brave Companions.

[11] Remember, Tallmadge refuses to shoot Newt Quill at the price of a court martial.

[12] There is a part of me–the part that loves to indulge in “wishing they’d told another story that they’re not interested in telling” rants–that the creators of Turn had chosen to take better advantage of the tableau of the American Revolution instead of their narrow focus on Woodhull and the greater New York area. Something closer to the scope of Game of Thrones would do more justice to the complex number of actors that shaped the Revolution. Casting a wider dramatic net would allow for the inclusion of more Loyalists, Native Americans, and African-Americans and fully explore the variety of lived experiences of the era–for Patriots, Loyalists, and neutrals. Such a move would, likely, do more justice to the military history of the Revolution as well. This, however, is not the story the creative team behind Turn is interested in telling. I cannot entirely begrudge them the story they want to tell about the Revolution. However, what we get from this series is yet another tale of the Revolution which focuses largely on whites.

11 responses

  1. “George Washington’s resistance to espionage casts him as a noble idealist…” am wondering where anyone gets the idea that General Washington resisted espionage as a strategy for winning the War for American War for Independence. On the contrary, the historical record clearly shows that he embraced the idea and used it to its fullest extent. A cursory reading of Washington’s letters will clearly show that he maintained personal contact with some of the American spies and those who handled them
    Without this tool the outcome of the Revolutionary War might have been quite different. The war for independence from Great Britain was not just one of battles and firearms, it included an extensive network of spies particularly around New York City and its environs which arguably was the center of British military operations during the War. He was particularly fond of putting out letters that would fall into enemy hands that gave false information about American intentions. Washington also made extensive use of the “Spanish Observers” sent by Carlos III to keep tabs on the British in America and in Europe. As one defeated British intelligence officer named Beckwith once said: “Washington did not really outfight the British. He simply out-spied us.”

  2. PS: “There is nothing more necessary than good intelligence to frustrate a designing
    enemy, & nothing requires greater pains to obtain.
    Former British Lt. Colonel George Washington (1766)

    The necessity of procuring good intelligence is apparent & need not be further urged.
    All that remains for me to add, is that you keep the whole matter as secret as
    possible. For upon Secrecy, Success depends in most Enterprises of the kind, and for
    want of it, they are generally defeated, however well planned & promising a
    favourable issue.”

    General George Washington (1777)

  3. Great review. Some thoughts I had while watching the first episode:

    I thought I was getting something portraying the moral complexity of the war? Obviously this isn’t the case.
    This is The Patriot. Guy minding his own business gets pushed into fighting with the rebels because of the moral depravity of the British.
    AMC, you’ve let me down. For the house of Walter White and Don Draper, this is disappointing.
    Gosh, it’s beautiful.
    LOOK! It’s complex because both sides bayoneted combatants and were capable of torture!
    Here we go again, another American Revolution tale centering the northern colonies.

    Anyway, maybe it will become more interesting? I do think that it speaks volumes to the embeddedness of the founding myth of the US that when they try to go and make a “Golden Age” of television drama about the rebellion, they end up relying on the same narrative arc.

  4. Roy, I quiver in sympathy with your very civil disdain for the historical bona fides of this TV extravaganza.
    I don’t imagine that you were surprised.
    I haven’t seen it, don’t plan to.
    It’s TV. End of story.
    More on my blogs:
    History: Bottom Lines
    Barley Literate

  5. Thanks for your thoughtful review. Having had relatively low expectations, I’ll admit that I’ve enjoyed the first three episodes.

    I had wondered if the reason that the British come across as so caricatured is that the show has featured far more British officers than ordinary soldiers. In the most recent episode, there are a few glimpses of ordinary soldiers fighting for Britain, and they’re presented charitably enough (if too briefly to balance out the mostly villainous officers). In fact, the show so far seems to be (predictably enough) much more generous to ordinary soldiers on both sides than to the officers – as we often see in American war movies.

  6. Mr. Johnson: Not sure what you mean by “…another American Revolutionary tale centering on the northern colonies.” As you may recall the “Patriot” takes place in the South. I think the locales have been fairly evenly spread. Anyway here are two of my favorites
    There have been about two dozen 28 films loosely based on the American Revolution.
    My favorite is “1776” No, David McCullough had nothing to do with it. It is a 1972 American musical film directed by Peter H. Hunt with screenplay by Peter Stone. Portions of the dialogue and some of the song lyrics were taken directly from the letters and memoirs of the actual participants of the Second Continental Congress. The song score was composed by Sherman Edwards. I understand it was originally a Broadway show that was later adopted for film. I liked it because it was awful.’
    Another favorite is “Benedict Arnold: A Question of Honor” i a 2003 film starring Kelsey Grammer as George Washington which I thought was ridiculous. I just could not get Frazer Crane out of my head. The most historically accurate scene of the film occurs when Arnold derisively refers to Gates “Granny Gates.”

  7. I was not able to get beyond the first episode because the inaccuracy of the material culture kept getting in the way (and the convoluted story line was difficult to follow). Besides the material culture, there are inaccuracies in the storyline itself that could have been avoided and still made for good drama. You might want to check out http://spycurious.wordpress.com/ for more information.

  8. Pingback: The Week in Early American History « The Junto

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  10. Pingback: Guest Post: The Revolutions in the Margins of AMC’s “Turn” « The Junto

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