Just when you thought every kind of spy story had been told, here comes AMC's new espionage drama, Turn, which tells the story of the spies who played a key part in the birth of our nation. An uneven, if promising, period drama set during the American Revolution, the series premieres at 9 p.m. on Sunday.
Based on historian Alexander Rose's 2006 book, Washington's Spies: The Story of America's First Spy, the drama chronicles the key role a group of covert agents on Long Island called the Culper Ring played in helping George Washington formulate his strategy against the British.
Turn is set in the months after Washington's retreat from New York, now fully occupied by the British. Eager to get information about the enemy's plans, one of Washington's officers, Benjamin Tallmadge (played by Seth Numrich), decides to find New Yorkers who would pass on information.
It was no easy task: Most of the people who stayed were loyalists.
"Tallmadge was a great spymaster," said Turn executive producer Barry Josephson, "because he recruited his childhood friends" from Setauket on Long Island. "These are people . . . he knew he could trust."
That included Caleb Brewster (Daniel Henshall), an adventurer, privateer, and former whaler who could slip in and out of Long Island unnoticed.
Turn is told primarily through the eyes of one of Tallmadge's closest friends, cabbage farmer Abraham Woodhull (Jamie Bell), who was deeply conflicted about his participation. Conflicted? Wasn't he an American?
Rose said in a phone interview we tend to have a simplistic view of the Revolutionary War, believing it involved two clearly identifiable sides: the British and the Americans.
The colonists weren't automatically pro-independence. They were deeply divided, and many viewed Washington's men as terrorists, Rose said from his home in Chappaqua, N.Y.
"The Revolution in a sense was a civil war" pitting neighbors against each other, he said. "And Woodhull, like most civilians, just wanted to keep out of the way. He wanted things to return to normal."
Josephson said Woodhull was the epitome of the reluctant hero, a favorite type in all great myths. "You can see clearly in his letters that he really wants to do the right thing," he said, "but he was split down the middle: What is the right thing?"
Rose said there was a great irony at the heart of the Culper Ring story. These spies may have contributed to our winning the war, but they lived at a time when most of society viewed their vocation as ignoble, villainous, and cowardly.
Unlike spies, true gentlemen faced the enemy head-on, in uniform. "To go behind enemy lines in civilian clothes wasn't considered honorable," Rose said. "Men who did that were considered mercenaries who did dirty deeds for anyone who would pay them gold, which, of course, is regarded as highly dishonorable."
The closest thing to wartime spying was what we would call basic reconnaissance: A soldier would be sent in full uniform to the front lines to gather information about the enemy's troop numbers.
Turn, Rose said, depicts not just one revolution, but two. Set at a watershed moment, it shows the birth of a whole new method of espionage:
"The Culpers were absolutely unique in American history: They were the first network of civilian spies permanently stationed behind enemy lines."
9 p.m. Sunday on AMCEndText