It’s primetime for cable historical action series (Vikings) and for historical spy dramas (The Americans). AMC’s new Revolutionary War drama Turn merits a place in that company.
Turn is a page-turning serial with well-defined characters, based on a colonial spy ring that was not fully understood until quite recently. As befits a well-written spy drama, irony hangs over every scene and nearly every line. There even are three-dimensional female roles, particularly tavern owner Anna Strong (Heather Lind), who encourages farmer Abraham Woodhull (Jamie Bell) to gather information about British Army activities in the New York City area in 1776 and pass it along to Continental Army officers who happened to have grown up in Setauket, the same Long Island, N.Y., community as Anna and Abraham.
Episode one opens promisingly, not on a battlefield but on a shabby cabbage field, the struggling farm of Abraham Woodhull, his wife Mary and their 1-yearold son, Thomas. We learn that Anna and Abraham used to be sweethearts before they married others, and Abraham soon runs afoul of local Redcoat officers who have been billeted in Setauket after the Brits defeated George Washington’s army and kicked them out of New York City. The opening episode also introduces us to the former Setauket friends now in the Continental Army, Caleb Brewster (Daniel Henshall) and Ben Talmadge (Seth Numrich), whom Washington has told to recruit spies. And we meet their principal antagonist, the venal British Capt. John Graves Simcoe (Samuel Roukin), and another vigorous opponent, the mercenary Robert Rogers (Angus Mac- Fadyen), among others.
The scenes shift colorfully among Connecticut, New York City and New Jersey sites (actually filmed in Virginia) as small victories are gained by both sides because of intelligence they’ve gained, perilously. Viewers may also draw insights into how the rules of engagement — such as interrogation approaches and the treatment of war prisoners — that existed more than 200 years ago are still being tested and pushed in more modern wars.