Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Lee Liberman's Corner for this Fourth-of-July -- TURN: Washington's Spies

Hush, hush 

Snakes in the garden 

Blood on the bough 

Know there will 

        come a day 

I can’t wait anymore 

Hush, hush….. 

Click here to view the witty title sequence to (each episode of) AMC’s splendidly acted four-season series, TURN: Washington Spies, about the American Revolution and the stealth resistance to Britain’s invasive occupation of New York. Actor Ian Kahn -- who towers quietly as General Washington, below -- has said in a recent interview, in effect, that we earned our freedom, we made this country ours.

Compare us to Ireland, Scotland, and Canada where mother England never did leave entirely. Our entrepreneurial immigrant ancestors could ‘not wait anymore’ to get rid of their lobster-back overlords, though civil strife muddied anti-Redcoat efforts because many colonials were loyal to the Crown. Our Red/Blue divide is as old as pre-revolutionary America.

TURN’s spy theater was New York and environs during the British occupation (NY was the heart of the struggle); and General Washington was foundering without intelligence. The Setauket, L.I. Culper Ring of citizen spies emerged to supply the information needed to enable beleaguered Continental forces to vanish from where the British expected to find them, stop a plot to flood the colonies with counterfeit currency, ferret out turncoats like Charles Lee and Benedict Arnold, and smuggle goods and guns for the cause. The ring leveraged its home turf and the war may have turned on its guerrilla tactics and grit. (Above, left to right, are ring members Caleb Brewster, Abe Woodhull, Anna Strong, Ben Tallmadge.)

Based on historian Alexander Rose’s book ‘Washington’s Spies’, the story comes to life as a sometimes ingenious, satiric spy-thriller orchestrated by Craig Silverstein, show-runner, producer, writer (shown below, left, with Mr. Rose, who co-produced and wrote some episodes).

Terrific in parts, tedious in others, TURN is overall a busy, lively animation of pages from history. The main character is Setauket cabbage farmer, Abe Woodhull, played by British star Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot, Fantastic Four) but the idea for the Culper Ring belonged to his childhood friend Ben Tallmadge, then a rising star under General Washington and graduate of Yale, a patriot hotbed. Tallmadge (Seth Numrich, American stage actor) was sure that a close-knit ring of spies would get better results than the usual army intelligence methods. The capture and hanging of his Yale classmate, Nathan Hale, plus other spy missions gone wrong told him that, but Tallmadge had to wait for his superior, General Charles Scott, to fail before Washington improved Tallmadge’s rank to major and agreed to the spy ring.

Also from Setauket was Army Lt. Caleb Brewster, a whaler, adrenaline junky, and boisterous action man (Australian actor, Daniel Henshall, above) and Anna Strong (American actress Heather Lind). Later Abe brought in buttoned-up Quaker, Robert Townsend, of Oyster Bay (Nick Westrate, Ricki and the Flash). Townsend (below) was the ring’s ‘inside man’ – he’d invested in a York City (NYC) tavern where British officers drank and gossiped. Taciturn Townsend dispensed liquid comfort and opened his ears.

Season One was a jumble of wild and crazy comings and goings but it matures into the Ring’s coalescence and producing results for General Washington. We see the code books, invisible inks, mechanical copying device (and later the Turtle, Brewster’s egg-shaped wooden submarine that moved through water by peddling). We meet the enemy full on, as Setauket was occupied by the British who trampled all over the daily life of the rural North Shore Long Island town (below). One unsavory antagonist is Robert Rogers, a mercenary who worked for both sides, galloping around the region wreaking havoc (Caleb Brewster’s nasty twin), played by Angus MacFadyen (Braveheart’s Robert the Bruce) with a thick Scottish brogue, although real Robert Rogers was born in America.

The arch-villain of the series is one Major John Graves Simcoe, a vicious sadist whose life record suggests his sadism was amped up for dramatic effect. Real Simcoe moved north to Canada after soldiering and became a noted member of Parliament, influential in ending slavery, and was the first Lt. Governor of Upper Canada. Excellent British actor Samuel Roukin plays the man to hate (above and below), developing some humanity in Season Four to align with the historic record.

Season Two marches forward to the battle of Monmouth with General Lee in command, aggravating Tallmadge who had already warned Washington that Lee had ‘turned’ (based on Culper information). Washington arrives on the scene with troops enough to prevent sabotage and win the battle; he then court-martials Lee for ‘negligence’ and avoids the bad aroma of a traitor general in the ranks.

But Washington’s strategic wisdom fails to prevent the impending debacle of Benedict Arnold. The story of dashing military-hero-gone-wrong is well-told in Season Three (best of series) as Welch actor Owain Yeoman (The Mentalist) blazes into the frame as the winning battlefield general (below); then Yeoman conveys the pain of Arnold’s pride getting the better of him. Arnold was self-righteous, quick to anger, and full of self-pity; he must have annoyed equals and superiors. The turn was preceded by a serious battle injury and learning that Congress had no funds to pay him the fortune he was owed in back-pay. Wanting assets to bring to his coming marriage to Peggy Shippen, beautiful Philadelphia socialite, the back pay issue may have been a humiliation too far. Staunchly Loyalist Peggy (the marvelous Ksenia Solo, of Lost Girl) had no trouble convincing Arnold he was not valued by Washington and should change sides. In history the couple married, were devoted, and had many children although his career never fully rebooted in his new coat of red -- the British scorned him as a traitor too.

Rather than plumb their early romance, the writer’s room had other ideas for Peggy. In season 2, she and we meet Major John Andre, intelligence chief for the British. He was both in TURN and real life a lovely man, admired on both sides (British-American actor JJ Feild). Peggy and Andre carry on a benighted affair for which there is no record in history, although they are known to have been acquainted in Loyalist social circles. Andre covets the theft of the famous Continental army general and Peggy willingly helps contrive her husband’s turn. Andre’s housekeeper (a link to the Ring) informs Anna Strong of the impending defection and Andre is famously later caught with Arnold’s traitorous documents hidden in his stockings (see the hide in the title video). Arnold escapes but Andre pays the price of a captured spy. Illogically Andre and (newly married) Peggy’s doomed love is written all over this chapter.

Another affair is unlikely true – that between Abe Woodhull and Anna Strong. On the record she was a decade older and they are said to have spouses and growing families in later years. Abe married Mary Woodhull around 1784, thus unwed during the years we see him in TURN as a family man (in love with Anna).

Dramatic license is expected and necessary, but a better use of it was the romance created for Ben Tallmadge with a Loyalist woman who saves his life. Writer-meddling with reputations or known facts feels a bit unwelcome in 2017 as we are being pounded with the deceit of an American president and celebrating our most patriotic holiday. (How did historian-author Rose deal with the abuse of fact in TURN? Are authors co-opted by fame into going along? Are show-runners indulgent with license when sticking closer to truth might have yielded just as much drama?)

TURN helps you imagine living through the Revolution. Although the Culper Spy Ring made history, it got to be newsworthy when Craig Silverstein brought Alexander Rose’s text to life. The Culper members had faded quietly into history – that is how well they’d kept their secrets.

Shown in the group photo, above, from left to right: Abe Woodhull, Caleb Brewster, Abe’s wife Mary Woodhull (Meegan Warner), Ben Tallmadge, Anna Strong, Robert Rogers, John Andre, Abe’s father, Richard Woodhull (Kevin R. McNally), John Graves Simcoe, Major Hewlett (Burn Gorman). Seasons One through Three of TURN are streaming now on Netflix and Season Four is in progress on AMC. (Press here for my earlier review of Season One.)

The above post was written by 
 our monthly correspondent, Lee Liberman

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