TV Tuesday: Turn — Washington’s Spies

Having ploughed my way through various other historical series over the last few weeks, I turned to Turn, which has been sitting on my watchlist on Amazon since forever. The show is based on Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring by Alexander Rose, which I picked up the last time I was in the US and then seem to have somehow left behind. So I know not as much about the specific history as I should, although I’m pretty up on my American War of Independence, having read it up a year or two ago.

So the show follows a farmer from a Loyalist family, Abraham Woodhull (Jamie Bell) who becomes a spy for the Continental army. He teams up with some childhood friends and his former sweetheart, while a shitheel British officer (Burn Gorman) and various other ruffians pursue him. The organisation is what would go on to be known to historians as the Culper Ring. And the show … it’s OK, I guess.

But boy oh boy, this is the least tense spy show I have ever seen. I have not risen above historical curiosity at any point in the proceedings. It’s like nobody told them that espionage shows were supposed to be deadly games of cat and mouse; I do not give a shit if Abe Woodhull gets on with his father or the gruff Scottish officer tracks down Seth Numrich’s idealistic young dragoon, especially not if he’s going to take umpty-million episodes to do it. I don’t know what it is, exactly, but damn. Things start to pick up around episode 6 or 7, with some intrigues and battles and stuff, but that is way too far into a 10-episode season for things to start to pick up.

And yet I keep watching it with apparent enjoyment. Why is that?


Partly it may just be that I have a certain amount of historical drama that I consume to stay happy. Often I’ll be painting, or tidying or doing something else that doesn’t require too much language, and I’ll just throw a bland historical show on, or a cop show where two people bicker while they solve a crime. I know it’s not high drama, but I’m OK with that fact. So maybe I just like my usual dose of old-timey houses and muskets and so on. Also Stephen Root.

Partly I think that this show is good with a few things that I like in my history, namely ambiguity and fun details. So, for instance, Anna Strong (Heather Lind) is outraged by the government confiscating her family’s property because her husband is a rebel. But the scene where this happens is interwoven with a scene of her slaves receiving the knowledge that they’re going to be freed. And when she goes to complain to Major Hewlett, he just tells her that slavery is bad, mmkay, and is illegal in Britain (since 1772!). One of the pro-British characters is Jordan (Aldis Hodge), an ex-slave who gets the usual tough-guy soldier story, complete with dazzling likable baddie Robert Rogers (Angus Macfadyen) with his mad capoiera-or-equivalent-thereof skills. I’m not sure that’s quite historical exactly, but it’s the kind of exciting stuff a white guy would get to do in a show like this one, so hey.

Anyway, I guess I’m just saying that it would be possible to do a show like this one as a conventional heroes-and-villains thing, and this programme doesn’t. There are decent, civilised British officers, there are thugs and bullies on both sides, and the issues of the war are not ignored.

I think I like the little details quite a lot more, though. I’m trying to think of some good examples, but the only one that really leaps to mind is that when Anna turns up to infiltrate the drunken party that Abe is also infiltrating, they’re singing a drinking song with a familiar melody:

There were a few niggles, I felt:

  • I wasn’t wholly convinced about some of the language. Did 18th-century people really say things like “all clear” (possibly) or “chunder-bucket” (less sure)? Other examples: “the way forward,” “cross-reference,” “one-time deal.” Maybe these really are all Georgianisms; I haven’t checked.
  • The story of the Culper Ring has been moved back in time slightly; the show is set in 1776 and 1777, although the ring wasn’t actually formed until a little later. I guess this is to fit in with well-known historical moments like the battle of Trenton, so fair enough.
  • The usual simplifications and make-this-seem-like-a-new-idea-isms.
  • Jamie Bell’s leather coat may be authentic, but it looks idiotic. By contrast, his little woolen hat is amazing.
  • Also, either he is minute or he has been put next to some huge actors, like Samuel Roukin, who plays Simcoe and just absolutely towers over him.
  • It is not OK to put the Turtle submarine in the opening credits and then not have it in the actual show. What the hell.

I’m definitely going to give Season 2 a watch; it’s not the world’s greatest thing, but it has some good moments despite its overall lack of tension and drama. Apparently the second season is better than the first, which is the wrong way to go about it. I just worry that the things I like about it are the things that actually make it frankly pretty uncompelling television.

(Edit: Jamie Bell, not Jamie Bamber. I always get those two mixed up.)

TV Tuesday: Turn — Washington’s Spies

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