While there are a lot of spy shows on television right now, and a lot more in development, AMC delivers a different sort of spy drama in TURN. Different because of its unique setting, at least… but also pleasingly familiar in a lot of ways. In the ways that mean the most to aficionados of the genre.
TURN is set in 1776 against the backdrop of the American Revolution. The Continental Congress has declared independence, and an insurgency against the British rulers is raging. In the Long Island town of Setauket, farmer Abe Woodhull (Jamie Bell) doesn’t want to pick sides. He wants to stay neutral, he wants the war to end, he wants to tend to his crops, and he wants to watch his baby son grow up and not have to fight. But fate has other plans for him. His complicated personal relationships and a rash decision to smuggle his cabbage across the Long Island Sound to Connecticut result in on offer from American patriot Ben Talmadge (Seth Numrich) to spy for General Washington, providing news of troop movements and other vital intelligence from within the British stronghold of New York. It’s the same sort of offer that Harry Palmer’s always grumbling about—the sort Abe can’t really refuse. Abe is given the option of spying for the patriots or jail time for his smuggling activities. But one gets the sense that there’s already a budding insurgent inside Abe’s soul, and it might not have taken blackmail to get him to take up the cause.
While Abe is married to Mary (Meegan Warner), who seems to genuinely care for him, he still carries a torch for his ex-fiance, Anna (Heather Lind)… but she’s now married to tavern owner Selah Strong (Robert Beitzel), a patriot sympathizer to whom Abe owes money. For Anna's sake, Abe finds himself stepping into an altercation with British soldiers in Selah’s bar. The altercation gets Selah sent to jail, but Abe’s father, Richard (Kevin McNally, The Contract), a British loyalist close to garrison commander Major Hewlett (Burn Gorman, Torchwood), manages to get Abe off the hook. Selah makes Abe promise to take care of Anna while he’s in jail, and it’s for her sake that he seems to have some patriot sympathies even before Talmadge presses him into service. The same smuggling that got him into that predicament with the Continental Congress also gets him into trouble with the Redcoats, and once again his father steps in on his behalf. The only way Abe can avoid jail time is by taking a public oath of loyalty to the Crown, which he does… even as he’s secretly embarking on his new career as a spy against the British.
The biggest flaw in the pilot is that it introduces so many characters that they’re a bit hard to keep track of and in some cases difficult at first to tell apart. (And I’ve only mentioned a handful of the many featured players!) But with all these characters, obviously, there’s plenty of human drama to drive the story even without the spy plot. But it’s the spy plot we’re here for, and in that respect TURN doesn’t seem as different as you might think. While the technology has certainly changed over the years, the basics of espionage and treachery have remained the same since the dawn of time, and spy fans will be thrilled to find the makings of a labyrinthine le Carre-style plot of spymasters and agents, assets and couriers, tradecraft and double-crosses, and even rudimentary gadgetry. (The British make use of a cool, if very basic, decoder.)