By John Anderson | Thompson on Hollywood April 4, 2014 at 10:43AM
There’s no truth to the rumor being started right here, right now, that AMC is changing its name to the American Metaphor Channel -- that “Mad Men” is about the death of American innocence, “Breaking Bad” the death of the free market; that the zombies of “The Walking Dead” are meant to parallel the rise of the Tea Party, or their decomposition to reflect the state of our political discourse.
However, there's no mistaking the ripe political symbolism of “Turn,” AMC’s Revolutionary War-era spy thriller debuting Sunday, which features Jamie Bell, Seth Numrich, Heather Lind, Angus MacFayden as cutthroats, mercenaries, strategically placed black petticoats and rub-outs worthy of “The Godfather.”
Opening its narrative in the autumn of 1776, at which point General Washington has been driven out of New York City and left it burning in his wake, the 10-part series begins with a Continental Army suffering an espionage deficiency. How they get into the spy biz makes for a potent parable about radicalization, terrorist recruitment and the how the meek end up inheriting not the Earth, necessarily, but certainly all its struggles.
Bell, who makes for a convincingly charisma-free protagonist, is Abraham Woodhull, a farmer on a highway-less Long Island who’s keeping his head down and just trying to get by. He’s got enough troubles: His cauliflower crop has developed maggots, and his wife (Meegan Warner) kind of knows he’s still in love with another local woman, his ex-fiancee Anna Strong (Lind), with whom he would have had a mixed marriage – his father being a hardcore Loyalist, her family leaning insurrectionist. He’s got a British soldier quartered in his house, and he is, essentially, a bit of a wimp. “If one redcoat is as close as it [the war] comes, I will thank the Lord,” he says, though not feeling very prayerful.
Over in Jersey, where Fort Lee and its on-ramps were still a Revolutionary encampment, Rogers’ Rangers have slaughtered a company of Continental dragoons, and are bayoneting the wounded -- the singing of the blade as it enters flesh being one of the first indications that “Turn” is not going to be your “Washington Crossing the Delaware” version of colonial America. Rogers (MacFayden) is a loathsome sort who might have, in an earlier time, been played by Robert Newton or Oliver Reed. He’s a mercenary, a killer for hire – a contractor, one might say, to adopt the parlance of the Cheney-Rumsfeld regime. That the English Crown used “contractors” to quell a grass-roots rebellion is meant to be the repulsive act of an imperialist power. No one with any sense of recent history watching will be missing the point of that.
The one dragoon to avoid execution by Rogers’ Rangers is Ben Talmadge, who is based on a real-life member of the Culper Ring, the exploits of which are the basis for “Turn.” Played by Numrich, Talmadge makes a hair-raising escape from a field of the dead, and reports back to his superior officer that the entire episode was a set-up, that the Rangers knew his men were coming, that they were led into a trap, and that what the Continental Army needs to do is fight a war of information with some spying of its own.
“Are you saying,” the captain squawks, “that there’s a breach in our ranks?” No, moron, he’s saying your laundry will be done on Monday. What the hell do you think he’s saying? Really, not to drag the First World War into all this allegorical conversation but with the centenary looming this summer, and WWI holding a kind of singular place in the world’s long history of military malpractice, it’s easy enough to see this guy as part of a long, hallowed tradition that will continue through the War of 1812, Custer’s Last Stand, Gallipoli, Verdun, Vietnam and the invasion of Iraq.
Which brings us to the War on Terror, which is exactly what the British were fighting, and which they manage to incite in “Turn” through violent oppression, martial law and by treating the locals as something inferior to their own regal selves. What’s particularly significant in “Turn” is how it portrays humiliation as an incendiary device: By attacking the manhood of the one perceived as your inferior opponent, you raise the game to an all-new level. Which is precisely how Abraham Woodhull gets recruited for undercover duty – you knew he was going to, right? – and how kids are radicalized in the Occupied Territories, and Afghanistan, and Somalia, and how Putin brainwashes Russians into thinking the world is against them. As is often said, there’s nothing more dangerous than a man with nothing to lose.
Having only seen the premiere episode, it's hard to predict how characters will develop and what they’ll do. Anne Strong is a fairly fierce opponent of British rule, so “Turn” won’t entirely be a boys’ game. Still, the way “Turn” uses machismo as a mechanism in the theater of war is completely enthralling, and true, in its nature. Abraham is already feeling a bit gelded when the story begins: He’s in debt to Anna’s husband, his crops aren’t coming in, and he’s under the thumb of his father (Kevin R. McNally), a judge of the provincial court and adamant Loyalist. His wife is forced to wash the clothes of that British soldier lodged in their home.
By interrupting a bar fight, he incurs the enmity of a British captain, John Simcoe (Samuel Roukin), an obvious sexual predator with his eye on Anna (which will no doubt cause all manner of emotional complexity for the married Abraham). So by the time his humiliations are over, he’s pretty ripe to kill someone.
Luckily for him, the British are nearby, lording it up.