Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Turn: Washington's Spies - Yes, I Really Love This TV Series!

 ~It seems that virtually every movie or TV show of a historical nature gets shot down by historians for one reason or another, and, to be honest, there are times I agree with them. AMC's Turn: Washington's Spies is no different. With all the good in this series, there is plenty of fabrication. 
But I still like it. A lot.
In fact, it's my favorite show, to be honest with you.
Those who are not fans of Turn (usually due to the inaccuracies) really despise it. But then, they will find fault with most American-made history shows. But for those of us who do like it tend to be major fans. That being said, if you do not like "Turn: Washington's Spies" then you probably will not care for this posting because, as I said, I am a major fan. So rather than read this and get all upset because you don't happen to like it, I suggest you move along til the next post.
If you are like me (and so many others) and love the show for what it is - a television series with great drama - stick around, for there are plenty of pretty cool pictures in store for you.
Thanks.~

I enjoy the TV show "Turn: Washington's Spies" on AMC.
Yes, I do.
I am also a stickler for truth in history.
Yes, I am.
But I am a lover of a good period drama/action flick, and, for me, "Turn" is that show.
Yes, it is.
Unfortunately, "Turn" also has scenes that are historically inaccurate!
Yes it does.
Talk about being in conflict with yourself!!
In case you are not aware of the premise of the series, AMC’s “Turn: Washington’s Spies” tells the untold story of America’s first spy ring.
A historical thriller set during the Revolutionary War, “Turn” centers on Abe Woodhull (Jamie Bell), a farmer living in British-occupied Long Island who bands together with his childhood friends to form The Culper Ring -- the most successful chain of spies George Washington employed during the Revolutionary War, which also gave birth to modern spycraft.
It's as good as this description states...actually, better!
And one of the reasons for loving the show as I do is a no-brainer:
except for Swamp Fox from the 1950s and The Young Rebels from the 1970s - both of which lasted only a season - can you name another American colonial/RevWar-era television series in the last, say, 40 years?
50 years?
60 years?
We've had the Waltons set in the 1930s and 40s, Little House on the Prairie set in the 1870s, Deadwood in the 1870s, Dr. Quinn (1860s), the Wonder Years (1960s), and more recently Mercy Street set in the 1860s. Plus there were the many cowboy shows set in the late 1800s - and pretty good ones, too, like Bonanza, Gunsmoke, and the Rifleman.  But, there hasn't been any other TV series I can think of that even comes close to taking place during America's founding period (aside from the two mentioned), unless we want to include a few quality mini-series (George Washington and John Adams come to mind).
Now we have an actual TV series, going into its 4th season, based in the American Revolutionary War.
That makes Ken very happy.
Well...until just recently when the 4th and final season recently ended.
"Turn" mixes fiction with historical fact in this story of the Culper Ring:  
with the capture of New York by the British, Washington needs eyes in the city. He makes a bright young Benjamin Tallmadge his head of intelligence. Tallmadge employs his childhood friends as spies; Caleb Brewster, Abraham Woodhull, and Anna Strong operate out of their hometown of Setauket, Long Island, which is occupied by a small garrison of British soldiers. Woodhull, a farmer and son of the town judge, is Tallmadge's main agent who works with Anna Strong, wife of the town's tavern owner, to sabotage Tory efforts. 
 (From the web site Journal of the American Revolution)
The all-around quality is pretty darn good, especially considering it's a TV series. As noted in the Journal of the American Revolution: The series accurately depicts the major factors that brought the Culper Ring together, such as how the Continental Army had to build an intelligence arm from nothing in the midst of the New York campaign and how Tallmadge formed a spy network with people who knew each other in Setauket.  The series also shows the tumultuous times of the Revolution, when cosmopolitan New York City was the biggest military target in America and citizens in its surrounding areas harbored secret suspicions and mixed loyalties.  Most importantly it shows how Tallmadge’s spies existed in a state of constant fear.  These are people who met in the woods at night and spoke in whispers; discovery meant summary execution.
I missed the first season when it originally aired on AMC, but upon hearing the acclaims, I purchased it, unseen, on Blue Ray.
I was hooked! I was drawn in from the first five minutes of the first episode. And because there was so much going on - numerous characters to get to know and small but important details of the spy ring that can be easy to overlook - I watched each episode twice for a greater understanding.
Oh, I know it's not perfect, but most television shows aren't, and, to be honest, sometimes we need to look deep into the forest to see the trees. I do know for a fact that "Turn" turned many viewers onto the real Washington's spies, and these folks began researching on their own the true story.
That is very awesome.
Aside from the story itself, the sets blew me away; for instance, Abraham and Mary Woodhall's saltbox house in Season One was perfect.
The farm of Abraham and Mary Woodhall.
And, just to show you how authentic this "set" is, below is a similar-style photo taken of an actual 1750s saltbox house situated inside historic Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan: 

This is the Daggett Farmhouse now located in Greenfield Village.
Pretty cool, huh?
The Woodhull Saltbox House...
And below we see another shot of the 1750 Daggett House
Again I have to ask, is the exterior of the house used in "Turn" a set or the real deal?
Although there were liberties taken with historical fact in the dramatization of Washington's spies, which many times is needed to keep a larger audience interested, the "Turn" folks seemed to have gotten the world of the 18th century down to a "T" - much better than most movies of this time. You see, I enjoy the feel of a period movie or tv series as much as the plot, for it's the background that pulls me in - it can make or break it for me.
I took notice of the little things placed inside, such as the style of furniture, tin candle holder nailed to the wall, and even their table ware

Mary Woodhall sitting near her hearth...
and below is a photo I took inside the Daggett Saltbox House:
 
 Pretty close, eh?
The set designers went above and beyond in historic authenticity. Just compare the quality of "Turn's" sets to the History Channel's poorly done "Sons of Liberty." "Turn" is so much more accurate.
(Spoiler alert!) I was very saddened when the house was burned down.

“We built the Setauket set from scratch. We even built a water wheel with water going around, to be our mill. As you can see, there’s no water nearby, so the visual effects team has to drop water into the background, since Setauket is by the sound. They also add Setauket’s windmill.” 
— Production Designer Caroline Hanania

But as good as Season One was, they stepped it up a few notches more for Seasons Two & Three. 
In the second season, the Patriot cause has suffered the crushing loss of their capital city of Philadelphia to the British. Washington's army faces desertion and death, and the embattled General faces conspirators from within his own ranks, as well as personal demons he keeps hidden from the men he leads. Washington’s closest ally in these dark times is also his most celebrated battle commander, Benedict Arnold, a friend whose growing discontent will threaten the fate of the Revolution. Outnumbered and outgunned on the battlefield, Washington is counting on his ring of young spies and his greatest hope, Abe Woodhull, who finds he has little left to lose and is willing to risk everything he has left.
His Majesty's Army looks a bit bedraggled here.
As you can see by the description above, the story line in Season Two was of higher historical quality and became even more compelling as we got to know other important historical figures with details depicting what went on behind the scenes of the Rev War. By bringing in Benedict Arnold, Peggy Shippen, Robert Townsend, and giving Washington a more prominent role in the series added life to people I've only read about. Of course, we don't know exactly what these folks were like, and TV always makes them more dramatic, but, like the John Adams mini-series, it gave them a personality. It added realism.
And, in my opinion, it was in season two that the fleshing out of each character became a priority for the producers.
And then came the sets for Season Two.
Do you know what the producers did in filming many of the exterior scenes? They went to Colonial Williamsburg!
Is there a better, more authentic way to bring the Revolutionary War to life than utilizing an actual restored colonial city?
Colonial Williamsburg sits in for Philadelphia in the 1770s.
Using the actual colonial-era facades of such a historic place rather than build false-front movie sets gives the very real sense of authenticity.
Colonial Williamsburg is the perfect backdrop to film "Turn." In fact, this carriage, normally a part of their visitor tours, belongs to Williamsburg. 
Even the driver (not shown in this photo) is a Williamsburg employee.
Hey! Is that the Charlton Coffee House I spy in the background of the above photo? 
Why, yes it is! And below is a photograph of me inside this historic building---
"You see? Judge Woodhall's son is not a spy! He took the oath!"
(What? You didn't see this part in the series? Ha! Neither did I!)
Here is another picture of Colonial Williamsburg "standing in" for Philadelphia.
“The exterior of Benedict Arnold’s house is actually the capitol building of Williamsburg, Virginia. All of the exterior shots of Arnold and Peggy at Penn Mansion [in the first episode of the season] were shot in Williamsburg, using elements from the town, including that carriage that they ride in.” — Production Designer Caroline Hanania

Although most of "Turn" is drama, they didn't leave out battles.
The Battle of Monmouth - Sunday, June 28, 1778 
There are not many actual battle scenes in "Turn," but the few they have are very well executed.
The Battle of Setauket - August 22, 1777

Washington commanding his men to move forward and fight!
Not only are there battle scenes, but military camp life is shown as well.

Then there is the important role that the taverns played not only in the show, but in real life:
By the 1760s and 1770s, the ordinaries (aka taverns & public houses) were the rendezvous for those who believed in the Patriot cause and listened to the stirring words of American rebels, who mixed dark treason to King George with every bowl of punch they drank. The story of our War for Independence could not be dissociated from the old taverns, for they are a part of our national history, and those which still stand are among our most interesting Revolutionary relics.
I enjoy the few tavern scenes in "Turn." They are well done and seem to represent the 1770s tavern crowds very well.

Spoiler alert (unless you know history) - - 
(From an Amazon.com review):
For Season Three of TURN: Washington's Spies, the Revolutionary War spy thriller builds towards one of the most notorious moments in American history: the treasonous defection of Benedict Arnold. Embedded within the Continental Army, Arnold is seduced to become an informant for the British. As the consequences of their espionage ripple through the battlefield, the spy game becomes a heart-stopping race to see which mole will be unmasked first. In 1778, there is only one fate that awaits a captured spy -- the hangman's noose. The price for treason is blood, and not all of our heroes will survive.
October 2, 1780 
British Major John Andre hung as a spy by the Continental Army.
A very well-done scene in Season Three of "Turn."
It seems with each new season, "Turn" continues to improve. The story line in Season Three was the best yet, and, at times, were page-for-page accurate to history.
Season four, which recently completed the series, continued on along the same manner as the previous three - still top notch, though a bit more on the dark side - and the final episode of the entire run was well done. In my opinion, the series ended as it should have.
I am satisfied.
Season four: Thomas and his parents

Okay, now, since I've written about the story line and the sets on "Turn," how about a little something on the quality of the acting?
I feel the acting itself is pretty much well done, though a few of the mannerisms may be questionable. As stated in the Journal of the American Revolution:
Most of the language is a fair representation of 18th century styles, but some modern terms sneak in, such as when Woodhull tells another character, “This is a one-time deal.”  Actor Angus MacFadyen’s native Scottish burr adds to his portrayal of Robert Rogers as a scoundrel, but may be incongruous with the facts that Rogers was born in America to Irish colonists and grew up in Connecticut.  And the white wigs that the British characters wear were out of style during the Revolution so I found them a little distracting.
Major Hewitt from His Majesty's Army and patriot Abraham Woodhall's loyalist wife, Mary.
Mary is my favorite female in the series for the simple fact that even though she does not agree with her husband's spy work, she still stands by him, though she needs to remind him every-so-often that she is his wife (if you know what I mean).
I do have a few small complaints of my own, however, concerning a couple of the more prominent actors. For instance, the vocal intonation of Judge Woodhall, father of Abe, leaves much to be desired. I like his acting, but his voice mannerism is very 21st century.
Another question concerning Abe and his father: why does Abe have a slight accent and his father doesn't? Was he raised elsewhere?
I know...this is minor, but sometimes it's these little details that I notice...
No, it doesn't detract from the story...it is just one of those grating occurrences that make me ask "Did anyone else catch this?"
Again, from the Journal of the American Revolution: Detail-oriented Revolutionary War enthusiasts will spot plenty of historical faux pas.  For example, the series plotline has the Culper Ring developing in the autumn of 1776 whereas it actually came together about two years later.  The real Woodhull was unmarried and childless at the time.  His father was 63 and of a family that supported the Patriot politics, so not really the crafty Loyalist as depicted.  The timeline is also a little early for Tallmadge’s unit of Continental dragoons, which wasn’t formed until the end of 1776 and did not operate in Connecticut until the summer of 1778.  John André is introduced as the Chief of the British secret service in New York, but in reality he was a prisoner of war for most of 1776.  Even after André rose to the Army staff, he was naïve and inexperienced in the spy business, not the master of intelligence as presented in the series
Captain John Graves Simcoe of His Majesty's Army, and Anna Strong, Patriot spy for George Washington.
The actual Simcoe was nothing like the evil bastard portrayed on this show. Yes, it's true that Simcoe truly detested the Rebels but some of the significant things that happen with him in the series simply did not occur in real life.

In my opinion, even though "Turn" may not be totally 100% historically accurate, it is still very well done.
Okay, now, I know...I am the same guy who totally panned the "Sons of Liberty" mini-series from a few years ago because of its many inaccuracies. So why do I knock "Sons of Liberty" but accept "Turn"? Maybe because "Sons of Liberty" was a mini-series produced by The History Channel which caused me to hope for much more truth and accuracy. And maybe it's because the couch historian believes they are seeing historically accurate programming when watching something on The History Channel, therefore taking what is produced on the station as the truth, whereas "Turn: Washington's Spies" is a TV series on AMC (American Movie Classics), and therefore, can be enjoyed in a different sort of way. Kind of like the way I watch "Little House on the Prairie," which is based around a real person and her family.
George Washington dances with the recently betrothed Peggy Shippen at her engagement ball. Her beloved? Benedict Arnold. We do learn of Benedict's infatuation of Miss Shippen during the 2nd Season.
Understand, most of us who study and research history cringe at the idea of the armchair historian getting their information from The History Channel (or Facebook memes), though I do remember a time back in the day when the station would produce real history (Civil War Journal, Biography, and Founding Fathers & Founding Brothers comes to mind) before aliens and ice truckers took over. It is unfortunate that today The History Channel gives little more than a false impression of the past - something of which too many people believe to be truth. I suppose if "Sons of Liberty" was on any other station, or was even a dramatic TV series (ala "Turn"), I could possibly accept the inaccuracies and dramatizations and would have little problem enjoying it for what it is...Hollywood History.
Ah...but that's just me, I suppose...
Patriot spy Abraham Woodhall in the cellar of his burned out house, working on the secret codes for the spy ring.
And then the picture below is a painting of Patriot spy Robert Townsend done by American artist Mort Kunstler.
We meet Mr. Townsend during the 2nd season.

A fine summary, of which I fully agree, comes, once again, from the web site Journal of the American Revolution:
All in all, “Turn” is fairly faithful to the history of the Culper Ring.  Woodhull is accurately shown as a conflicted man who nevertheless follows a strong moral compass.  Benjamin Tallmadge was the intelligence visionary as he’s shown, and went around his commander (who had little interest in clandestine operations) to build a successful spy network.  Caleb Brewster (Daniel Henshall), one of Woodhull’s compatriots, really was a tough and fearless mariner.  Anna Strong (Heather Lind) played a key role as presented.  The dialogue, plot and production design address some very real factors that were in play during the Revolution.
Yep---that sums it up for me perfectly!
Washington meets with his spies
With the story, the clothing, and the sets, which all work together well in bringing the viewer into their 18th century world, you have what is, in my opinion, the finest historical TV series ever.
Yes, I really did say that.
But remember...I said TV series. Not docu-drama, not mini-series, not movie. Add to that the two words "my opinion."
I wonder...will we ever get another that will represent the American Revolution?
Not in my lifetime, that's almost for certain.
But I am thankful for the four seasons - nearly 40 hours - that we can watch and re-watch. There are not that many series I can say that about.
AMC - ya done good. Shoulda kept it going, but ya done good.
Thank you.

~ ~ ~ 

All are very good pages to visit if you are a fan.
AMC's Turn and Rev War History' is run by Marlene Di Via, a very active Rev War historian who posts historical articles and fun memes throughout each day, enlightening the members to 18th century America and enticing members to return multiple times daily. 
A New Turn - We the People Revolt is another excellent source for Turn-era history on the show as well as on the Revolutionary War itself. Like the above group, it utilizes many on line sources as well as photographs of reenactors, articles, and original paintings as tools for teaching Revolutionary War era history.It is run by another very active Rev War historian, Jackie Lucia, and she, too, keeps the information on Rev War history flowing.
'AMC's Turn and History Fun Group' is run by Cynthia Hauer and is similar to the groups above in that it has loads of pictures and is member interactive, again, enticing members to return throughout the day.
'The Black Petticoat Society,'  also gives members information about the show as well as historical links to Revolutionary War happenings. And like the other two here it is filled with pictures, articles, and memes, and, yes, I return multiple times as well.
I myself enjoy visiting all of these pages - and that is because the administrators usually go beyond the typical gossipy fan photos and add plenty of Revolutionary War history rather than make it a Facebook version of a fan magazine. 
Um...okay...yeah, a couple sometimes can get fanzine-y, but it's done in a fun and historical way. They're certainly not boring, that's for sure. And more than once I've laughed out loud at the memes and comments!
I go to these pages quite often and love interacting with the other members. Some of my best times on Facebook...
In fact, one of the members of the 'Turn & Rev War History' page, Ann McDermott, visited a few of the actual sites of where some of the real "Turn" events took place and took some excellent pictures.
I did ask her if I might share the following photographs with my readers, and she willingly obliged in me doing so:
Here is the marker denoting where the home of 
Abraham & Mary Woodhull once stood

Here is a memorial plaque honoring Abraham Woodhull 
erected by the Mayflower Chapter of the DAR

The grave of Abraham Woodhull

And the grave of his wife Mary Woodhull

The grave of Anna Strong
Pretty cool, eh?
Thank you, Ms. McDermott!
Also, many, many thanks to Marlene Di Via from 'AMC's Turn and Rev War History' for allowing me usage of a few the "Turn" photographs she posts on her page. Also, she took the time to get me the pictures of the Woodhall house.
My tricorn hat is off to you, my dear!
The pictures of the historic Daggett house were taken by me. Daggett is located in historic Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan.

By the way, there is also a blog dedicated to "Turn" that I read frequently whose sole purpose is to "weigh in on each episode and discuss where historical fact ends and fiction begins." I do enjoy reading it and have learned quite a bit. Click HERE so you, too, can read it.

As most of you already know, I also write pretty extensively on life for the colonists during the Revolutionary War.
Here are a few that I believe you may like:
With Liberty & Justice for All: HERE
Paul Revere: HERE
An excellent and true story that occurred just before the Rev War: HERE
A general overview of Colonial life: HERE
Cooking on the Hearth during colonial times: HERE
Travel and Taverns during colonial times: HERE
Flags during the birth of our nation: HERE
Thanksgiving in colonial times: HERE
Christmas during colonial times: HERE

And, to check out my blog series on Colonial Williamsburg, click HERE

To purchase the 1st Season of "Turn: Washington's Spies," click HERE
2nd Season, click HERE
3rd Season, click HERE

And stay tuned to one of the various Facebook "Turn" pages mentioned to keep up with and discuss Revolutionary War history, and maybe even find out when Season Four will be available on DVD.

Until next time, see you in time...




















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3 comments:

Gina @ VictorianWannaBe said...

Oh my goodness Ken, I didn't even know such a series even existed. I can see why you are taken with it! I'm not sure I could stay with it, I would definitely have my eyes on the the interior views, the period clothing, and such as that but beyond that I don't know. I'll have to check it out though.
The cemetery stones and story to go along with that is quite something to tack on to this post.
Have a great day and thanks for your recent visit to my blog.
Gina

Sarah C said...

I just recently discovered this show on Netflix myself. I binged through all three seasons in about 2 weeks. While there are definitely some historical inaccuracies, this show is well worth the watch. I am addicted to it! I cannot wait for season 4 to come out.

Bama Planter said...

Thank you so much for posting about this show. I think my sister is buying the dvd's for me. I got Downtown Abbey all at once and watched all six seasons in a week. I love the scenery and costumes in Turn. I think reenactors have played a major roll in the past 30 years of researching and discovering what people actually wore back them to be as near to perfect as possible. Reenactors stopped the poor costuming...outfits that never existed. I see the old Civil War movies from the 1950's sometimes with belts/belt loops and cavalry handkerchiefs on infantry who are supposed to be civil war. Terrible. I think "Turn" has brought us to a new level of realism. Marshel in Alabama