It was Mark Twain who said, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.” This just might apply to the Culper Ring, a small group of colonial American men and women, led by a Long Island cabbage farmer, who risked their lives to spy on the British during the Revolutionary War and in so doing are believed to have changed the course of the war.
The TV series TURN: Washington’s Spies, returning for its fourth season on Saturday, June 17th, tells the story of the Culper Ring, and makes clear just how dangerous such spying could be. These were not highly trained intelligence operatives in the field but ordinary men and women, pretty much making it up as they went along.
The story of the Culper Ring was first the basis of the book Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring, written by Alexander Rose. Three years ago, a TV adaptation premiered on AMC. When the third season ended last year, Benedict Arnold (Owain Yeoman) had conspired to betray his friend and mentor General George Washington (Ian Kahn) by turning over West Point to control of the British army. He failed and fled West Point with discovery moments away, leaving his beautiful young wife behind.
With the tagline Finish the Fight, the show’s fourth and final season focuses on a humiliated Benedict Arnold obsessed with revenge on the Culper Ring spies who had uncovered him, and on the other side an embittered George Washington, desperately trying to hold his rebel army together.
Beautifully filmed and crafted, the show takes us on a long journey through all the intricacies and heartbreaks of war. It takes time for the story to progress, focusing on the characters and their interactions, moral choices, and dilemmas. TURN works as a tense espionage thriller and a period drama. It is a tale for the unsung, lesser known heroes of war.
In the series, Great Britain, after defeating Washington’s army, has occupied New York City as its base of operation, come to subdue the American colonies who’ve declared independence. In nearby Setauket, Long Island, the townsfolk live under British occupation, soldiers quartered in their homes. Outwardly, the people are Loyalists. But beneath the surface, some in the town seethe.
While there are many other real life characters that turn up, the series main focus is on Abraham Woodhull (Jamie Bell). Starting off as a young cabbage farmer from Setauket, we don’t get the impression at first that he is our hero. But as the story progresses, Culper is recruited by his old friend and neighbor, Major Benjamin Tallmadge (Seth Numrich), to be a spy for the Patriot cause against the British occupation. Abraham, thrown into the war, becomes a key part of the Culper Ring, what would be known as the first spy organization in America. At any time, if he or his fellow ring members were caught, they would have been hanged.
What ensues is a cat and mouse game. The members of the Culper Ring worked under aliases and their task was to observe closely the British Army and feed information to General George Washington about their troop movements, number of ships in the New York harbor, supplies, and any discoverable plans.
On one side are Culper and Talmadge, as well as Caleb Brewster (Daniel Henshall), a whaler and frequent smuggler; Robert Townsend (Nick Westrate), a Quaker businessman; and Anna Strong (Heather Lind), a Setauket neighbor who hangs black petticoats on her clothesline near the water to send a signal to Caleb Brewster that a message is ready.
On the other side is British head of intelligence Major John Andre (JJ Feild), who used his own resourcefulness to defeat the American rebels. At one point, Townsend warns Washington, then in camp in New Jersey, of Andre’s plan to flood the colonies with counterfeit currency, and the fledging Congress was forced to recall all of its bills in circulation just in time.
In Setauket itself, the Culper Ring is constantly on the brink of being discovered by Colonel John Graves Simcoe, played with verve by Samuel Roukin. In Canada, where Simcoe relocated after the war’s end, he is a national hero, with Simcoe Day held in many provinces. But in TURN, Simcoe is close to a sociopath—and a fan favorite.
The creators of the show truly go for authenticity, especially showing in vivid details the 18th-century colonial reality. Some of the scenes were shot at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, one of the most popular living history museums in the U.S.
TURN also shows how spycraft worked, from cyphers to invisible ink and coded newspaper ads.
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While the show takes some liberties for the sake of drama, it never feels like it is watering down history. All is properly used to tell the story more effectively. But the most important accomplishment is making us understand that while history remembers George Washington, it should never forget all the others who were in the shadows, who fought for a cause and sacrificed almost everything.