AMC’s brand-new show Turn, based on Alexander Rose’s book Washington’s Spies, tells the story of America’s first spy ring: the Culper Ring. The pilot starts off in the autumn of 1776, a time at which it seems like the end of the Revolutionary War isn’t far off: the British have forced George Washington’s rebels into the wilderniss and New York City now serves as their military base of operations. There’s a divide among Long Island’s people though: some are Loyalists and serve the Crown, others sympathize with the rebellion. And then there are some who just try to mind their own business without getting involved in the politics and battles of what would later be called the American War of Independence. Jamie Bell’s Abraham Woodhull is such a man, a farmer looking out for his wife and infant boy first and foremost. It’s this man who will prove to be istrumental to Washington’s eventual success.
Like most pilots Turn‘s first episode was mostly preoccupied with setting the stage: introducing its characters, their agendas, the time period and its stakes. Turn had a lot to set up, and did so effectively, for the most part. The history is front and center here, and it’s an intriguing period for a series, especially given the fact that the foundation of America’s first spy ring is at the core of the story Turn wants to tell. It’s inherently suspenseful and intriguing, and one the show’s major draws. Another is its lead: Jamie Bell has proven himself many times over to be a versatile actor and an engaging screen presence, which is used to full effect here. Bell’s Abraham is a man you immediately root for, because of the actor’s likeability and ability to clearly emote what’s going on inside his head. This is a man who’s torn between doing what’s right and providing income and stability for his family. Bell had to sell some of the changes his character goes through, in very quick succession, and he managed to do so. A lesser actor wouldn’t have been able to pull it off; the acting was crucial here to get viewers to suspend their disbelief quite a bit. Woodhull changed from an easygoing farmer into a willing spy over the course of this one pilot because the show obviously really wants to get to the juicy bits, but it was an uneasy stretch as far as character development is concerned. The writers opted to have Woodhull be bullied into a corner by the Redcoats (this may be historically accurate), which made his turn understandable, even if it wasn’t entirely organic. I could’ve done with more subtlety though: the British were downright evil, one of their leaders a psychotic sadist and most of the other soldiers violent drunks. Major Hewlett, played by Burn Gorman, was the only level-headed Brit, a man who at least appeared to be human, more than a one-note antagonist.
Basically the pilot covered Woodhull’s journey toward spydom: because of crop failure he tried to trade goods via the black market, which led to his capture by some of Washington’s soldiers. Among them was an old friend who tried to recruit Abe as a spy. At first he refused, but because of a former lover and his circumstances, he was left no other option than to enlist and become a rebel spy. A neat twist saw him openly declare his loyalty to the British however, which puts our hero in a difficult situation. In addition his own father, a Loyalist, knows he’s lying, upping the ante some more for what’s to come. This episode Turn chose to present us with a lot of events, but how at it all came together seemed very coincidental and convenient, taking some logical leaps, another clear sign of the show’s desire to get to the exciting stuff as soon as possible. Because of it the pilot felt rushed and uneven, too black and white for a spy genre tale, a genre usually the most interesting when it deals in grays.
Turn‘s pilot was entirely serviceable, but right now it’s too early to judge the show’s quality. It’s a promising series start though, with wonderful actors and an intriguing plot covering an interesting period of history. For now, let’s give Turn the benefit of the doubt. 7/10