Saturday, May 2, 2015

Sunday Corner with Lee Liberman visits TURN: Washington's Spies -- Red colony/Blue colony

This post is written by our correspondent Lee Liberman

A series more likable than not, TURN will nevertheless please American History buffs more than spy thrill-seekers, at least to begin with. It's the story of three real American heroes who grew up together in Setauket, Long Island, NY to become the core of the Culper Spy Ring that helped General Washington outwit the British. A history of the Culper ring was published in 2006 by historian Alexander Rose (below) in his book Washington's Spies, a lively and highly-praised history of their activities.

Turn has a notable cast, film location of Colonial Williamsburg, costumes by HBO's John Adams' award winning designer, Donna Zakowska, and the look and feel of a major undertaking. But showrunner /writer Craig Silverstein offers up too many story threads in Series 1 (now streaming on Netflix) to allow a satisfying dramatic arc in any one. For drama to work and entertain, climax and resolution is needed. Series 1 operates as an endless series of skirmishes that leap around introducing players and context.

The series is provocative anyway. Most striking is the image of our ancestors under occupation by the British. Braveheart and Outlander revealed the horror the Crown imposed on the Scots -- it was equally intolerable in Red-occupied U.S., particularly New York, where British operations and "lobsterback" soldiers were headquartered. Nor do we think of the Revolutionary period as a daily domestic political struggle between Crown-loyal Americans (tories) and American whig patriots who sought independence. Our own Red vs Blue politics can't be more dramatic than Red-Blue political differences during the Revolution that set families and neighbors in anger, if not spy-mode, against each other.

Then we are introduced to the slow burning disagreement in the Patriot army between General Charles Scott, intelligence traditionalist, and the army upstarts who championed guerrilla networking methods of obtaining intelligence. It took the capture and killing of young Nathan Hale and other spies futilely deployed by Scott to bring about his demise and the young bucks getting their way with Washington in the spy business.

It was the Crown Queen's Ranger and rogue Robert Rogers and his hounds of war who captured Hale, friend and Yale classmate of Ben Tallmadge, Culper ringleader. Rogers cut through British army hierarchy as a mercenary for hire, played by Angus MacFadyen (Robert the Bruce in Braveheart), above. MacFadyen is now bulky, boisterous, and as Robert Rogers, a thorn in all sides.

The main protagonists (above) are Patriot army officer, Yale-educated and radicalized (Yale was a hotbed of agitation against mother England) Ben Tallmadge (Seth Numrich, r); Caleb Brewster (Daniel Henshall, l), a scrappy bearded adventurer who served on whaling ships before settling into his role as army courier reporting to his friend Tallmadge; and their very reluctant cohort Abraham Woodhull (Jamie Bell of Billy Elliott, ctr) who became collector of data behind enemy lines, using the nom-de-guerre of Culper. In Setauket, Woodhall represented himself as pro-Crown while continuing to compile information about troop movements, activities, and numbers to pass to Washington through Brewster. A fourth compatriot was Anna Strong (Heather Lind, center right) made out here to be the doomed love interest of Woodhull, but in history years older than him and unlikely to have been his lover. Still, a love story was needed and Strong was party to information gathering. Further family dealings, also likely fictional, include Abe's Setauket magistrate father (Kevin McNally), a Tory, and Abe's mostly annoying pious Tory wife Mary (Meegan Warner), both of whom Abe must deceive.

The first series introduces the main players and story-lines, especially Woodhull's involvement in Patriot politics as he becomes reluctantly entangled in his two friends' intelligence efforts. We meet General Washington (Ian Kahn) and a trio of British officers, above, who figure throughout -- the comparatively humane Major Hewlett (the excellent and familiar Burn Gorman, left, of Torchwood fame); suave Major John Andre (JJ Feild, center, of Not Safe for Work); and our villain-in-chief, sadistic Welsh Captain John Simcoe (Samuel Roukin, at right).

Major Hewlett describes the colonies as in a state of anarchy -- chaos masquerading as freedom, an excuse for criminal activity and every man for himself. Woodhull mutters under his breath: self-rule.

The second series is in progress now on cable channel AMC, Monday's at 9 pm. Abe Woodhull, aka Samuel Culper, is now a crucial participant in intelligence gathering, engaging in a dangerous double spy game, above.

There are efforts made by our side to discover traitors (General Charles Lee) and by the British to recruit as a spy the dissatisfied General Benedict Arnold. Assorted spycraft comes into play such as making good use of Thomas Jefferson's letter "duplicator" (Tallmadge is shown using it, above), messages delivered in newly-invented invisible ink, conveyed on boiled eggs, etc.

The chapter story arcs are better in series 2, but whether the entirety will live up to its potential for drama remains to be seen. Even so, this is an intriguing corner of the American Revolution to find out about, offering much more food for thought than Mel Gibson's trumped up good-vs-evil film, The Patriot.

All photos are from the series itself, courtesy of AMC, 
except for the shot of Mr. Rose, which is by Dave Kotinsky
courtesy of Getty Images

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