I just want to bow down in gratitude to Craig Silverstein for bringing this idea to the small screen and to AMC for having the guts to let him do it. History is so filled with terror, passion, and excitement, I sometimes wonder why we bother to make anything up! And what a time period to cover: the American Revolution. I know it’s weird for an avowed leftie to admit, but I’ve always been deeply patriotic (even while believing that we’d be better off without any borders). I put my hand over my heart for the Star Spangled Banner. I disdain the very notion of “royalty.” And I still think someday I might pull out the paperwork my dear Aunt Hazel left me and sign up for the DAR.
So, what makes this series so compelling? First off, the story. I’m sure I’m not the only person who thought that the majority of American colonists in 1776 were all for booting out the British. I figured the “loyalists” were a quiet little band with some sort of gutless attachment to the mother country. Apparently, at least half of the “Americans” did not want to be weaned from the mother’s tit. So here’s a history lesson. A “United States of America” was not a given. Our ancestors had to be willing to fight for it and die for it — and not just theoretically.
TURN: Washington’s Spies is a complicated story, and the pilot episode doesn’t do a great job of connecting the dots (it might be episode two or three before you can differentiate the characters and the interweaving plot lines). One of the major battles also left me scratching my head in wonder as to what actually happened. Oh, and there’s a bizarre flash forward to a major character’s death at the beginning of one episode that comes across as a complete non sequitar. But even when the story is murky, we’re given enough thread that we can follow along. And if that doesn’t work, the compelling characters and the fine acting keep us enthalled.
Jamie Bell plays Abraham Woodhull, the leader of the “Culper Ring.” Bell is not a typical leading man type. He’s more like the guy who was your best friend in high school until one day you realized he had the sexiest eyes you’d ever seen. And the character of Abe is a reluctant hero. He’s willing to take an oath he doesn’t believe in order to save his skin, but also to provide cover for his skullduggery. He vacillates between loyalty to his family and loyalty to an idea, between his good and faithful wife, Mary, and his true love, Anna. In his utter humanity, his fear, his vengefulness, and his weakness, Abe has the appeal of an everyman. But with each episode, his commitment to the cause grows, and our investment in his survival grows, too. Even when he’s willing to sacrifice an innocent Quaker to the Redcoats, we hold out hope for him. And our hope is rewarded when his plan is thwarted, and Abe proves stronger than anyone, especially he, expected.
The women characters are absolutely wonderful. You can’t help but love them all but most especially Anna Strong, who is played by a steely Heather Lind. Devious, headstrong, clever, and sometimes reckless, she shows us what it means to be an American woman. You take what they give but you get what you want. And if you have to put a bayonet in someone’s gut, well, they asked for it. Mary, the wronged wife, has no dearth of courage either. She’s a loyalist with no love for the rebels, but she proves she can connive with the best of them when it comes to protecting her family. Abigail, Anna’s former slave, played by Idara Victor, is another character who must draw on enormous reserves of inner strength from a position of absolute powerlessness. I constantly found myself wringing my hands in worry over her precarious position in the home of British Intelligence Officer John Andre (the gorgeous JJ Feild).
Stellar acting abounds. Ian Kahn as Washington is perfect. Handsome Ben Tallmadge (Seth Numrich), the truly heroic mastermind behind the spy ring, makes us cheer. And yet, the real genius of the show is the portrayal of the “enemies,” specifically John Grave Simcoe, played by the towering Samuel Roukin. My God! He’s evil incarnate with such admirable qualities. He’s a sociopath of the first order and yet with an inner logic that makes his every move thoroughly justifiable. He’s a dazzling warrior, with finely honed killer instincts, arrogant in the face of death, bold and cunning. And here’s the rub: while the Patriots uphold the “peculiar institution” of slavery, Simcoe is an abolitionist who treats a former slave as his equal. My Turn compatriots and I did a little research on the real John Simcoe, who went on to be a Canadian governor, and found that perhaps there is not a little exaggeration in his portrayal, but who cares. This is what makes exceptional television. A thoroughly despicable character that you thoroughly enjoy watching.
Unlike the one-dimensional depiction of the British military in Mel Gibson’s The Patriot (which was a thrilling piece of cinema, regardless), the British soldiers and the loyalist Americans are portrayed as complex individuals who are a mixture of good qualities and bad. It simply makes for a more nuanced and interesting story. And it feels honest. Hollywood always exaggerates and manipulates, but in this case you know that there are some essential truths and some historical facts being conveyed. It’s not just another TV show. It’s the story of us.
TURN: Washington’s Spies is based on the book Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring by Alexander Rose. I haven’t read the book yet, but I’ve just downloaded the audible version which I plan to listen to soon. I expect it will keep me enthralled until Season Three is complete and I can binge once again. “There are snakes in the garden, blood on the vines.”