Two of the biggest genre guarantees in television history are spy stories – everything from the loopy comic brilliance of Get Smart to the intrigue of FX’s terrific The Americans – and historical dramas, including celebrated miniseries like Roots and, recently, Hatfields & McCoys. However, bridge the two genres together and the results do not bustle with as much promise.
AMC’s newest drama, Turn, brims with intrigue but is subpar with its execution for the first hour. It tells the true story of America’s first spy ring in Revolution-era America. Rebel farmers in the Northeastern U.S. organized the Culper Ring to monitor the occupying British, later relaying this intel to Gen. George Washington’s army. (As the brief opening text explains, Washington’s rebels retreated into the wilderness, with much of New York and Brooklyn Harbor under British control.) The Culper Ring is already in action as the episode begins, with an American soldier playing dead near the bloody aftermath of an attack in New Jersey. As a Redcoat approaches the soldier, preparing to stab his corpse with the sheath of his sabre, the Patriot grabs the weapon and fires at his enemy. It is only after he starts running that the lookout nearby realizes what is going on. This scene boasts a suspense that the rest of the pilot unfortunately lacks.
One of the ordinary folk turned to watch on the Loyalists overtaking their land is a young father and Setauket cabbage farmer, Abe Woodhall (Jamie Bell). Poor and forced to barter in the wake of a lousy harvest season, Abe pines for purpose. His wife, Mary (Meegan Warner), gets little to do except tend to their young baby boy and the clothesline – although that latter duty will become a cunning way to communicate information. Abe has debts to pay to a tavern owner, whose wife Anna (Heather Lind), is fiercely anti-British and is harboring a British captain, John Simcoe (Samuel Roukin), in her home. Simcoe thirsts for Anna, while Anna still has a spot in her heart for young Abe.
Meanwhile, two of Abe’s pals – Caleb (Daniel Henshall) and one of Washington’s officers, Ben Tallmadge (Seth Numrich) – recruit their friend into joining their Patriot cause. “If you can smuggle cabbage, you can smuggle something more valuable,” Caleb says, steering Abraham to become an informer, However, Abe’s father, a judge and loyalist played by Kevin R. McNally, has a loyal allegiance to the imperialist Brits. “Legacy is everything,” he tells his son, “and if you wish to preserve it, stay away from those who want to sully theirs.” At the episode’s end, he realizes that his son is up to no good – perhaps a bit too early for this conflict to appear.