I’m fascinated by the Revolutionary War period of American history. The events which lead up to the war, and the dissolution of a society, are both tragic and inspiring 1. Tragic because ending of the society came at an incredible human cost. Inspiring because it is remarkable how ordinary people forged a new identity in the face of unsurmountable odds. It is an extraordinary period.
I read many books on the period, and have visited a number of Revolutionary Era sites, but I’ve rarely found a drama which captures the complexities of the period. That is, until AMC’s Turn came on. My wife purchased a season pass for Turn through Amazon as the series was airing last Spring, but for whatever reason I was unable to sit down and watch it at the time. Now that Season 2 is about to start, I’m finally sitting down to take in the story – it’s amazing. The series is based on the book, Washington’s Spies, and takes place on Long Island in the wake of the debacle that was the Battle of New York. It’s a rare bit of decent Revolutionary Period drama. Let me share two particular high points.
Please note the word “characters.” Sadly, much Revolutionary Period drama is portrayed by caricatures – the patriots are all virtuous and noble, the Tories without principals, and the Red Coats without compassion. This is, after all, the myth passed on to us through American Culture.
Turn however, has very few such portrayals. Instead, the players form a web of dense relationships, and each character’s motivation is wonderfully complex. Many Red Coats are likable and kind, many Tories as desirous of their British rights as the Patriots, and many of the Patriots are depicted as foolish or immoral. This is more than simply a reversal of the American myth, though the ability to counter it realistically is powerful. There are vicious Red Coats in the series, as there were in history. There are also conniving Tories, honorable Patriots, and people of divided loyalties. The people depicted in Turn are a mess, as were the people who lived in the period. The main protagonist, for example, is a supremely unlikable character whose motivations are difficult to nail down. To put it bluntly, the guy has issues – and yet I find myself rooting for him anyway.
To Washington, the Revolution was the Continental Army. He was no doubt correct, without the army there would have been no Revolution. Sadly, Washington’s assertion has colored the way we explore the period. The stories of the battles, as well as intrigue in the ranks, are well known. Little, however, is known of the rest of the countryside at the time. What went on in Philadelphia as the Congress tried to come to grips with it’s declared independence? What went on the areas where the British dominated the countryside? How did residents no directly involved in the war, both Patriot and Tory, deal with life as war raged on around them? Turn explores this world in upheaval, and does it well.
My verdict? Even though it’s a show you will have to purchase, watch this series. It’s not a cartoon, and there are many “adult” themes in the series 2, but this will give you a greater understanding of why it’s called the Revolutionary Period. Hurry up and watch it before Season 2 comes on!