TV SERIES REVIEW
Quick—name a spy.
James Bond, right? Yeah, everybody knows good ol’ double-oh-seven. The gadgets, the tuxes, the Walther PPK, the Aston Martins, the vodka martinis. Oh yes, we know quite a bit about him. Which, come to think about it, suggests maybe Bond wasn’t so good at his gig.
But what about Abraham Woodhull? Robert Townsend? Samuel Culper? Were they among the spies you named? If you answered yes, congratulations. Because you’re either an American history major, or you’ve seen AMC’s TURN: Washington’s Spies.
HALT! WHO GOES THERE?
Abraham and Robert are, as you might’ve gathered from the show’s title, spies. Their job? Funneling British secrets to none other than Gen. George Washington during the Revolutionary War. They sometimes go by the aliases “Samuel Culper Sr.” and “Samuel Culper Jr.” They’re a part of the Culper Ring, a group of dedicated patriots, devious scoundrels and some folks who were a bit of both whose shadowy exploits helped pave the way for Washington’s eventual victory over the British.
Some familiar historical figures (George Washington makes frequent appearances, as does the still-in-good-graces Benedict Arnold) turn up on TURN. But for the most part, the plots and counterplots of this well-regarded AMC show feel as labyrinthine and obscure as the historical espionage that inspired them.
WHAT WOULD WASHINGTON THINK?
TURN may take some dramatic liberties with the historical material it’s based upon. But for the most past, it feelsauthentic. This is no CW historical romance like Reign or, worse yet, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Robert Townsend’s spiritual values—he’s a pacifistic Quaker—are treated with respect, for example.
But despite taking place in a more religious, more genteel time, TURN unpacks thematic elements that would never pass muster at an 18th-century dinner conversation. Many characters, both highborn and low, have out-of-wedlock sexual trysts, and some have longstanding extramarital affairs. When we don’t glimpse these racy interludes, we hear about them. In fact, key plot points sometimes hinge on such couplings. Likewise, the language used here would shock good General Washington. (In 1775, the real Washington issued an order to his new army, which forbade “profane cursing, swearing and drunkeness [sic].”)
And let’s not forget that there’s a war on. People are shot, stabbed and axed, leaving behind barrels of blood. Indeed, some characters positively revel in shedding it.
TURN isn’t the most salacious or violent drama on cable. It’s not even the most problematic spy show airing at the moment. (That would be The Americans.) Still, despite a couple of centuries’ separation from our own era, it depicts a world where James Bond—and all of his worldly habits—would feel right at home.