As promised last week, here’s my take on AMC’s new drama, Turn about the spies of British Occupied New York. Here, I’ll be providing my take as a history buff first and a viewer second. Like I said last week, I’m mainly interested in how Turn moves beyond the clichés of the American Revolution to create an innovative new work.
In a single sentence, what do I think? Turn is entertaining enough and definitely worth a watch, but it has a number of storytelling problems and LOADS of historical ones–it does make the period a bit more interesting, but still falls back on clichés way too much!
Below be SPOILERS.
Abraham Woodhall is just an ordinary man. A cabbage farmer living in Seatuket, Long Island with a loving wife and son. And a Redcoat living in his house. But he’s not nasty, though a bit messy. And that’s all this war business will affect him, right? Right?
The War is all around Benjamin Tallmadge, and he’s having a rough go at it–and not only because he is in New Jersey. His unit of Connecticut Dragoons has just been ambushed and wiped out by a ragtag group of Loyalists led by the mercenary Robert Rogers: the Queen’s Rangers. After Tallmadge makes a harrowing escape to American lines, he tells his Commanding Officer that they need spies of their own just as good as Rogers. On the other side, Rogers is given a new mission by his handler, Major John Andre.
Back in Setauket, Abe goes to the tavern of Selah and Anna Strong. These three have quite a history of their own. Abe and Sarah were engaged to be married, but Abe’s father, the arch-loyalist judge Richard Woodhall, broke off the engagement because of Sarah’s equally arch Patriotism. Abe’s only at the Tavern to repay a debt to the Strongs, but a fight breaks out between Selah and the occupying Redcoats, egged on by Lt. John Simcoe. When one of the British officers ends up dead, Selah is arrested and Abe is charged with keeping his wife safe from the ravenous Simcoe. Abe could wait until the end of the harvest to repay Strong, but he is hit with a weevil infestation and must smuggle out what he has now. After meeting his old friend Caleb Brewster, Woodhall is captured by troops led by his old friend Ben Tallmadge asking him to become a spy for America.
Who will Woodhull support? His father, the occupying army and the wishes of his neutralist wife? Or his childhood friends and country?
To which side will he Turn?
The answer is kinda obvious, isn’t it?
It’s simply awesome that this got made at all! Fifteen years ago, we RevWar buffs had only old Disney movies to draw on. Now? There’s tons of stuff! What does Turn do differently? I’ve heard a good number of stories about Washington’s spies in New York and it is about damn time that this angle has been looked into!
My first watch through I was drunkenly chilling with the other BroCasters and trolling like crazy so I wasn’t totally sold on things. On my second watch, though, I definitely got into the characters and story. I really want to see where this goes next!
There is an attempt to view the American cause as not completely noble: the Continental Army is shown to be using some underhanded tactics while also not shows as total underdogs. Refreshing!
- In the opening crawl, the American rebels are referred to as “Insurgents”. Maybe not 100% accurate, but a nice perspective-flip-y touch. Will the actual show follow, though?
- Protagonists start as neutralists – in which case throughout the episode there are few tiresome tirades of freedom. Do I need to explain why these are so boring? Look, we know Freedom is awesom! Hearing out most obvious assumptions assured is downright dull. New interpretations are the order of the day!
- OMG! Loyalist soldiers! In Green Uniforms! Hasn’t really been done before! Folks like these were implied in The Patriot, but here they are on full display and actually wear distinct, non-British uniforms!
- What I like about the scene with the loyalists is that they are seen as a ragged mob while Benjamin Tallmadge and the Continental Dragoons in their sharp blue coats and helmets seem quite posh. A nice reversal on the common depiction, albeit an inaccurate one. The Continental Army would not have dragoons for another few years.
- Benjamin Tallmadge is quite the badass!
- Holy crap, the actually mentioned that Washington burned down NYC! It is not left ambiguous–the Continental officer who Tallmadge reports to actually says that, and that they no longer have support there! Wow! A ballsy approach! I’m liking this so far!
- The intro sequence, showing animated reflections of 18-th Century spycraft in action is SO COOL!
- Slavery is…kinda present. Woodhull does have men of colour working on his farm. Whether they’re paid or not is not touched on. IMHO, the presence of black farmhards treated as a mere fact of live, and not having them as plantation workers, is itself quite an achievement. Let’s hope this stuff is touched on in future episodes!
- The senior British commander, Major Hewlitt, is an interesting case. His snobbish Received Pronunciation accent is infuriatingly anachronistic–British and Americans sounded pretty much the same; that is, how the Americans sound in this series (not modern American, more Irish). The posh-sounding accent was only beginning to become a thing during the Revolutionary period. However, his attitude of winning hearts and minds of the American people was very accurate, to say nothing of simply logical. British General Henry Clinton actually used the term and tactics during his time as occupier of New York, though to varying degrees of success.
- There is mention made of the prison-ship Jersey, and that Woodhall’s friend would find safety there. Uh…probably not. The Jersey was nicknamed “Hell” by its inmates for a reason. Still, the fact that the ship was mentioned is an excellent demonstration of research.
- Woodhall is arrested for illegal trade by act of Congress. Yup, they certainly were arresting people on that charge. Waterboarding I’m not so sure about, though.
- Abe Woodhall is equally badass for standing up to Tallmadge!
- Judge Woodhall brings up the possibility of pardonning his son for smuggling if he pledges loyalty to Britain. A common practice in occupied territories. Odd that Major Hewlitt forgot it, though I assume that’s so the Audience learns about it. However, I’m surprised that’s not dome with many of the other period elements so the lay audience would be able to follow along as well as someone like me. We’ll see….
There is a kind of historical uncanny valley when it comes to AmRev media. The more a work tries to be innovative, the worse its stumbles into cliches stick out. That is most certainly the case here!
While the Americans are portrayed more complexly, the British are again simply left as stock baddies. WHY? WHY DO YOU STILL DO THIS, MEDIA?!?!?!?!? Making the Redcoats complex and interesting characters instead of generic baddies leads to a more complicated conflict. My goodness, Nazis have had more comples and sympathetic portrayals! Come on! You can still have interesting villains and not make them total monsters for chrissake! It seems like the writers have ignored the major works put out just last year! Maybe the characters become more interesting as the series goes on. The pilot is mainly about building up the hero group.
The plot moves so slowly! A full third of the episode was just setup and exposition. I suppose that’s necessary for a pilot but you’d think the economy of characters would also be applied to the storytelling.
The dialogue is wooden and cliché, with the characters mainly speaking in exposition. They also refer to things that a RevWar expert would know about without context but a lay viewer would not. The most important set up events: the capture and burning of New York, the prison ships, all happen offscreen, making the situation even more confusing to someone not in the know.
The main problems in Turn come from a clear lack of budget for complex costume design and a desire to simplify on one hand and show verisimilitude on the other, leading to more confusion than really necessary while ultimately keeping the story needlessly black and white. These problems are not enough to make me stop watching, but still distracting as all hell.
- Neutralist-starting heroes sounds neat at first, but it’s been done! The Patriot pretty much had the same plot. There, though the hero was a member of the colonial government. And he becomes a militia leader, not a spy.
- Queens Rangers shows as mercenaries. Uhh….no. Turn is conflating Loyalist units with the Hessians. Loyalists were different: they were treated either like any other unit of the British Army–albiet certainly less well supplied–or formed into Ranger units who fought like light infantry and Natives. While certainly there were quite a few motivated by pure greed, the units themselves were not mercenaries (neither were the Hessians for that matter, but that’s not relevant here). Ranger units were indeed quite rough and tumble, but not all Loyalists were rangers.
- WRONG EFFING FLAG! They get it right in the show and not the intro AARGH!
Just google it! It’s not that hard!
- All the Redcoats, with the exception of Major Andre, look the same regardless of rank. This sucks in loads of ways. For obvious storytelling reasons, it’s tough to tell the characters apart. Now you may think that this is accurate, but in fact the uniforms of the British troops varied wildly. There were various types of soldier: line infantry who did wear tricorne hats as seen in this series; grenadiers who wore the tall fur caps ; and finally the light infantry, who you almost never see in media except for Assassins Creed III, Total War and the TV Movie April Morning, where they look like this: — Equally egregious are their wigs. They’re all sheer white and all look the same. What, did the entire British Army go to the same wigmaker? And finally there’s the fact that you can see from the various pictures that the facings on the Redcoat Uniforms came in a variety of colors, not just white. You might find this interesting, Paul: the white on the uniforms denotes the Redcoats as Marines (not Royal yet, that term would come later). All soldiers would buy their own uniforms and regiments would have their own facings with the color determining the regiment. Apparently Setauket is a Marine base. Ok. I doubt there are that many Marines, though.
- Major John Andre is portrayed completely inaccurately, shown as the British spymaster. During the time of this series, he was actually a prisoner of war. He certainly was involved in spycraft, but he was not a spymaster and certainly would not have been a “handler” of a loyalist ranger unit.
Does a guy this evil deserve a statue of his own? Blame Canada!
- Lt. Simcoe is shown as the most evil British person since Jason Isaacs’ cavalry commander Tavington in The Patriot. I’m no expert on Simcoe, but I know a bit about his post-Revolutionary career. After the War, he became Governor-General of the Loyalist refugee colonies in the Niagara peninsula, called Upper Canada and the future province of Ontario. In Canada, John Graves Simcoe is seen as a founding father and a hero who sought to make his colony a model of British lifestyle, featuring a parliament and a gradual ban on slavery. He was certainly no lover of Americans, and a personal hypocrite on the Slavery, but whether he was as creepy a brute as portrayed here is a subject for debate.
Go ahead, watch Turn! Enjoy it, no shame there! Then come to me or these guys for the REAL story, which will probably end up better anyway!