Don Johnson is a Ph.D. candidate in History at Northwestern University. His work explores how ordinary Americans experienced the major political and military events of the Revolutionary era in the course of their everyday lives, and how those experiences shaped actions and changed world-views going forward. Don’s dissertation, now nearing completion, examines the social dynamics of six port cities occupied by the British army during the Revolutionary War.
The AMC series Turn ended its first season last month with mixed reviews. The consensus seems to be that the series, which tells the story of the Culper spy ring during the American Revolution, has a strong cast, good production values, and promising subject matter but ultimately fails both as a drama and as an accurate representation of history. Popular reviews have mostly found the narrative arc slow and frustrating, while the show’s numerous departures from the historical record have inspired an entire blog devoted to separating fact from fiction. As The Junto’s Roy Rogers put it in his review of the first three episodes back in April, these narrative and historical failings made the series in large part “just another morality play—The Patriot in the guise of Mad Men.”
While Turn‘s main storyline falls far short of doing justice to the fascinating story of the Culper spies, in its background characters and neglected subplots lie many of the complex and diverse experiences of ordinary Americans. In the margins of the show, we get the stories of how people of different races, genders, and economic standing navigated the Revolutionary War, both as individuals and as a community. Although mostly incidental to Turn‘s main plot, these depictions are nonetheless important, because while academic historians have uncovered many different Revolutionary experiences, they rarely even make it into popular books on the event, much less films, television series, and other mainstream media representations.
At the center of the series lies the village of Setauket, a farming and fishing community on the northern coast of Long Island that has been occupied by the British army. In addition to being the hometown of most of the cast, its population reflects the diversity of colonial American society. While the main characters move about Setauket in the course of spying for the Continental Army, in the background we see African American slaves, white laborers and craftsmen, and women and men from a variety of different religious and ethnic backgrounds. Though the series does not often focus on these characters, when it does we get fascinating snippets of how war disrupted lives and changed communities across North America in a variety of ways.
To take one example, in the fifth episode (“Epiphany”), a major subplot introduces the characters of Abigail and Jordan, two enslaved people in Setauket suddenly set adrift when their master is imprisoned for sedition. After initially experiencing the euphoria of liberation under a British military policy promising freedom to the slaves of patriot masters, they soon learn that the British army instead intends to use them as laborers and soldiers in the royal cause. As a result, Abigail becomes a servant in the Manhattan lodgings of British major John André (of Benedict Arnold fame), while Jordan winds up as a soldier in a loyalist militia unit. The series follows up on both characters in the eighth episode (“Challenge”), where Abigail’s former mistress, who still holds the ex-slave’s young son in servitude, blackmails her into betraying her new master in exchange for the boy’s safety. Meanwhile, Jordan experiences some of the savagery of small-scale warfare in one of the Revolution’s “no-man’s lands,” as he and two comrades are trapped in an hours-long firefight with patriot soldiers in the Connecticut woods. Such violence typified areas controlled by neither side, where loosely organized bands of loyalists and patriots fought one another in brutal fashion. Caught up in different aspects of the war, Jordan and Abigail stand in for the experiences of many enslaved Africans and African Americans during the Revolution. Further, they do so in an understated way that nevertheless leaves the viewer with a sense of the intersecting racial, social, and gender hierarchies which informed their actions.
In addition to depicting the experience of enslaved Africans and African Americans during the war, the larger society of Setauket illustrates how countless rural communities experienced the war. When the British arrive in the village, they find a community already divided along political, economic, and ethnic lines. One major subplot that persists throughout the season is a conflict between the local magistrate, who becomes a loyalist, and a prominent minister, who sympathizes with the revolutionaries. While it would have been easy for Turn to use these minor characters to portray a rather simple loyalist-patriot dichotomy, instead the writers take great pains to demonstrate that the bad blood between the two men goes back far beyond the outbreak of the war, as Setauket’s secular and religious leaders engaged in a decades-long power struggle imbedded in the village’s social fabric. In stories such as these, Turn demonstrates a concept that scholars have long understood but which rarely attracts popular notice: that the American Revolution played out not only on battlefields and in the abstract realm of political thought but also in the everyday lives of seemingly peaceful communities like Setauket, disrupting social relationships and complicating but not erasing pre-existing rivalries, family conflicts, and economic tensions.
The complex relationships between members of this rural community play a major role in Turn‘s first season finale, misleadingly titled “The Battle of Setauket.” The episode’s plot revolves around a band of Continental soldiers from Setauket who cross Long Island sound to attack the nearby British garrison and rescue several townspeople imprisoned for sedition. As their assault on the fortified garrison falters, the patriots fall back to the village, taking the civilian loyalist population hostage in a tavern. As the revolutionary soldiers confront their former neighbors, old jealousies, friendships, and familial connections re-emerge, revealing a complex tapestry of social relationships which have been changed by the Revolutionary experience but not entirely forgotten. Ultimately, the “battle” ends with only a few casualties, as the former neighbors negotiate a settlement and the patriot forces leave peacefully, narrowly escaping British reinforcements dispatched from New York City. In deftly portraying the complicated relationships between loyalists and patriots and often precarious positions of both, the final episode transcends the show’s typical one-dimensional characterizations and portrays an important yet oft-misunderstood facet of the Revolutionary experience.
The finale’s reliance on the community of Setauket itself to drive the action points to a way forward for the struggling program, which AMC has renewed despite lukewarm ratings. As the series enters its second season, perhaps the writers and show-runners can move the primary focus away from spies, spy-masters, and soldiers and onto the village itself and the ways its diverse population navigates the war raging within and outside their community. Such a shift would transform Turn from “another morality play” into a depiction of the complicated, ambiguous, and often contradictory nature of the American Revolution. As season one’s side characters and subplots have demonstrated, such a story would be far more interesting than the one the program has presented so far.