Greetings, TURNcoats! How about a nice link roundup to compliment the first two episodes of Season 3?
Here we are, technically 1/5 of the way into Season 3, and things have been suspiciously quiet over here at the blog. Sure, we’ve had a blast live-tweeting every episode, but no new articles here at the blog. What gives?
Well, to be honest, there hasn’t been a whole lot of actual historical stuff happening in TURN Season 3 thus far. As a historian watching the show, there’s very little fact-based material to capitalize on, aside from a few name drops (e.g. Joseph Reed, Austin Roe) that don’t yet have enough context in the show to merit a full-length analysis. Nearly all of the first two episodes have revolved around made-up love triangles, fictional family feuds, and other interpersonal relationships that never happened.
Thankfully, we have covered most of those subjects in previous posts – so while we wait for some meatier historical topics to arrive in Season 3, here’s a quick and dirty link roundup for those of you trying to sort fact from fiction regarding all the personal drama in the TURNiverse:
- Abe and Anna: Never happened. (Although thus far in Season 3, their fictional affair seems to have cooled considerably.)
- Abe and Robert Rogers: An amusing (if bizarre) premise – but this also never happened. For more about the real Robert Rogers’ wartime escapades, check out Todd Braisted’s excellent summary here.
- Anna and Hewlett: Never happened. Although if you’re interested in the real Hewlett’s role in occupying the town of Setuaket, we’ve got you covered. We featured an article on the historical Hewlett in the middle of Season 2, right before TURN’s Hewlett dramatically veered away from the (until that time) realistic portrayal of his real-life counterpart.
If you’re a little confused from the “authentic” messaging you’ve been hearing from AMC staff regarding Hewlett – no, you’re not crazy! On Twitter and Reddit, Alexander Rose (who joined the show’s writing staff in Season 2) has repeatedly insisted that TURN’s Edmund Hewlett, the royalist commander of Setuaket during the Revolutionary War, has absolutely no connection whatsoever to the historical Richard Hewlett, the royalist commander of Setauket during the Revolutionary War. It is a total and complete coincidence that both men held the exact same station, at the same time and in the same place, and had the last name “Hewlett.”
Needless to say, viewers of the show are right to be a little skeptical. By that logic, of course Anna Strong could never have had an affair with a fictional Redcoat officer! Not to mention, the real Anna Strong was still (by any reasonable account) contentedly married and the mother to several children by the time the summer of 1778 rolled around, so there’s that, too.
- Austin Roe: Okay, Austin Roe DID happen! He was a real person (definitely not anyone’s pseudonym or alias) and, for a time, an absolutely fascinating member of the historical Culper spy ring who served as the vital link communicating intelligence between New York City and Setauket. I’m seriously hoping the one mention he’s had thus far in Season 3 is some kind of bizarre red herring and/or bad history joke – it would truly be a shame for him to be cut out of this series, regardless of how much the show has already careened off the historical record. We will definitely revisit Mr. Roe here on the blog – after we get a better idea of where the show is going to take him.
- Woodhull family drama (especially concerning Mary and Thomas): Never happened. Thankfully,
we’ve got a post on TURN’s convoluted family trees to help viewers sort things out!
- Peggy Shippen and Benedict Arnold: Oh yes, this happened – although as many of you likely guessed, it wasn’t exactly the bizarre love triangle with ulterior motives depicted in TURN. We’re in the process of reaching out to a few exciting guest authors for this particular topic, so stay tuned!
- Blood-spattered John Graves Simcoe: Well, it looks like TURN’s “Psycho Simcoe” portrayal isn’t going anywhere this season! Only two episodes into the season and we’ve seen plenty of Simcoe-generated ketchup. If you’re only familiar with Simcoe through what you’ve seen in TURN, you may be in for a bit of a shock once you read a little bit about the real Queen’s Ranger commander by that name! Thankfully, Todd Braisted has not one but two excellent articles about the real Simcoe: one about Simcoe’s captivity at the hands of the Continental Army (as loosely portrayed in Season 1) and another about his tenure as leader of the Queen’s Rangers (TURN Season 2 and beyond). At the TURN roundtable on Common-place.org, guest author and Purdue University history professor T. Cole Jones also analyzes the many liberties TURN takes with John Graves Simcoe.
Well, I think that just about does it for tonight’s link roundup. Plenty of reading to re-visit while we wait for bigger and better spy-related history to materialize in TURN Season 3. Enjoy tonight’s new episode, TURNcoats – and if you’re watching live, don’t forget to join in the fun on Twitter and Facebook!
Greetings, TURNcoats – and Happy Patriots Day!
Still recovering from the highly-anticipated 2-hour premiere of TURN: Washington’s Spies last week? So are we! The Season 2 premiere – which was technically two separate episodes played back-to-back – covered an awful lot of historical ground. The show’s timeline has leaped ahead several months to the fall of 1777, and viewers quickly learn that several major events of the Revolutionary War have already passed them by, including the Battle (technically, “Battles” plural) of Saratoga and the start of the British occupation of Philadelphia. And most Americans have at least heard of how King George III went “mad” later in life – but was he really starting to lose his marbles in 1777?
To help clear things up, we’ve updated the Historical Timeline feature with several events that will be especially interesting to TURN fans trying to sort out the events referenced in the Season 2 premiere. You can view the full-size Timeline by clicking on it below, but I recommend visiting the full Timeline page for even more useful information – including informative links!
Re-watch the Season 2 Premiere on AMC.com
For a limited time (of course) you can watch the Season 2 premiere of TURN on AMC.com for free with no cable subscriber login required. Better hurry — as of this posting, the free premiere (technically Episodes 1 and 2 of the second season aired together) is only available for 9 more days!
No doubt about it: TURN: Washington’s Spies has captured quite a lot of people’s attention. The heavily-promoted season premiere garnered its fair share of reviews, which range from excited and positive (IGN) to cautiously optimistic (AV Club and Wall Street Journal, who wins the ‘Best Review Title’ award) to unimpressed (Variety). Most reviewers have noted that AMC dramas have a habit of starting off very slowly, only to conclude with riveting, fast-paced drama at the end of each season – which was certainly true of Season 1 of TURN.
My favorite review, however, was written by a fellow Early American historian (shocking, I know). More specifically, written by J. L. Bell, a prolific historian of Revolutionary Boston who also covered Season 1 of TURN at Den of Geek.
While we here at TURN to a Historian opt out of episode summaries to, among other reasons, save space (our posts are lengthy enough already), Bell aptly summarizes the on-screen drama while simultaneously providing insightful commentary from a historian’s point of view. There are lots of excellent takeaways in his latest review, but the quotes that caught my eye were the ones related to the ongoing issues of historical accuracy in the show:
“…The differences between Turn’s king and the real George III, Turn’s sculptress and the real Patience Wright, are significant. Despite its producers’ claims to remaining true to the past, the series veered away from the historical record immediately and continues to follow its own path.
[In conclusion,] You can’t rely on Turn for accurate history, and you can’t read ahead in history books to know exactly how this season will play out.”
These passages hit upon one of the strangest idiosyncrasies of TURN. The show is supposed to be based on Alexander Rose’s book Washington’s Spies — and yet, because the show plays so fast and loose with historical fact, reading Rose’s own book won’t tell you anything about the direction the show will ultimately take. I’m often asked “What’s going to happen to [X character] in TURN?”
In short: when following the historical record is option, there’s no way for a historian to tell. For example, producer Craig Silverstein has said in several interviews that he originally planned on killing off Simcoe in the circa-1776 pilot episode. You’d never find that in any history book, because it never happened.
Bell also suggests an excellent prescription for peace of mind for any Revolutionary War history buffs or historians watching the show:
“As I’ve written before, it’s best to think of the history of the Revolutionary War and Turn as two separate continuities, like the Marvel Comics universe and the Marvel movies universe.”
I couldn’t agree more! I’ve often referred to TURN as “alternate universe” myself on this blog. Frankly, this kind of attitude is standard operating procedure for most period dramas. In most cases even the most nitpicky fact-checkers understand the need to bend the truth in order to tell a compelling narrative – as long as it’s acknowledged to be fiction! It’s a shame that the writers and producers of TURN continue to adamantly promote their show as “a true story” and try to claim the mantle of authenticity and “historical truth” when an abundance of evidence (most of it basic, Google-able facts) handily proves otherwise. If only they’d embrace the fact-bending nature of their historical fiction, they’d get a lot more love from history-loving viewers who are hungry for excellent period dramas but cringe at the misrepresentation of the Revolutionary War on TV.
Thankfully, there’s still plenty of time for that, since Season 2 is just getting started. And there have already been some notable improvements in historical accuracy – including, as you can see in the Timeline above, more 1777 events actually happening in the show’s version of 1777. Chief among the material culture improvements are Simcoe’s transition to a green-coated Loyalist uniform and Robert Rogers’ freshly-shaven visage. Let’s hope the momentum continues as Season 2 gathers steam!
Oh, and for you social media-savvy folks: Don’t forget to join us on Twitter during tomorrow night’s new episode! I’m live-tweeting at @spycurious and the hashtag to follow is #TURNamc. It’s always a rollicking good time!
In case you missed it on social media: AMC released two TURN-related goodies last week. The first was confirmation of TURN’s new airtime and premiere date: Monday, April 13th. You can read the finer details in the official press release, but the takeaways are:
- TURN is moving to Monday nights. This means no more audience competition with blockbuster Sunday night shows like “Game of Thrones.” (AMC has also been experiencing excellent ratings with ‘Better Call Saul’ on Monday nights and is hoping TURN will follow suit.)
- Season 2 will be 10 episodes long.
- The April 13th premiere will be a 2 hour long event (just like the Season 1 premiere). Time to bring back the ‘Next Episode’ countdown clock!
The second item was a thirty second “trailer” for Season 2 of TURN – the first official TV spot of the new season. It definitely merits a look if you haven’t already seen it:
(You can also view the trailer on AMC’s official TURN page.)
Personally, I’m a big action-adventure fan myself, and thought the commercial was a big success in portraying TURN as a “period thriller” TV show. Fast pacing, quick clips of guns firing/people jumping/people shouting, building tension, dramatic music – it grabs your catches your attention, that’s for sure.
But I’m also a historian. And so, unfortunately, the excellent action pacing of the commercial was irredeemably marred by the accompanying text. IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS, no less.
Yikes! This does not bode well for the historicity of Season 2.
As far as Hollywood mythbusting goes, this is one of the most open-and-shut cases I’ve ever seen. It’s this simple: Abraham Woodhull was not the first American spy to go behind enemy lines. He wasn’t even close to being first. There were likely dozens of agents who preceded him, only a handful whose names we know. Among them is a young man nearly every American kid heard about in grade school by the name of Nathan Hale.
That’s not to say Woodhull wasn’t a good or effective spy, of course. But this “first spy” claim is truly baffling. It’s not even remotely plausible – anyone with the ability to undertake a thirty-second Google search can debunk it for themselves. (We’ll discuss that in further detail soon — see below.) But it doesn’t make any sense internally, either. Even within the alternate historical universe of TURN, Abraham Woodhull wasn’t the first American spy to go behind enemy lines. In one of the last scenes from Episode 6 of Season 1 (“Mr. Culpeper”), George Washington pulls Benjamin Tallmadge aside and tells him the following anecdote:
Washington: Following our retreat from Brooklyn Heights, I tasked an agent to reconnoiter enemy encampments around Long Island and seek out contacts friendly to our side. His name was Nathan Hale, and he was captured while on a mission for me. He was hanged as a spy.
So there you have it: An American spy predating Abraham Woodhull is mentioned by George Washington — the head spymaster himself — halfway through Season 1. Even within the show’s own timeline the “first spy” claim would rank as a continuity error on IMDB’s “Goofs” list. The anecdote is an important one, too — it shows that Washington is evolving in his role as spymaster as a direct result of the experiences of previous agents like Hale. (Which is well-grounded in historical fact, I might add.)
So what is going on with the Season 2 trailer?
Normally I’d entertain the idea of chalking this up to an overzealous marketing team that didn’t do its homework, but unfortunately, the rather shoddy historical track record of Season 1 makes me think that painting Woodhull as “the first American spy behind enemy lines” is a deliberate call from higher up in the TURN chain of command. What makes this even more troubling is that the showrunners (and marketing team) are trying harder than ever to convince its audience that it’s grounded in meticulously-researched history. Heck, they even changed the name of the show to double-down on its connection to Alexander Rose’s “Washington’s Spies” book. And now, they’re making BOLD HISTORICAL CLAIMS IN ALL CAPS. A claim that happens to be completely false.
The question you’re REALLY waiting for
Finally, for those of you who are wondering, “Well, if Abraham Woodhull wasn’t the FIRST American spy ever, who was?” — stay tuned! Even before AMC released TURN’s Season 2 trailer last week, there have been plenty of dubious claims about the designation of “first spy” flying around, both online and in print. And what about the Culper group being labeled as “America’s first spy ring?” We’ve got the answers on deck here at the blog — right after a short digression on the fifty shades of historical fiction that we’ll post by week’s end.
And did you know that John Graves Simcoe and Benjamin Tallmadge are, in fact, birthday twins? You would have if you followed TURN to a Historian on Facebook or Twitter! Both men were born on February 25th, only two years apart from one another (Simcoe in 1752, Tallmadge in 1754). We’ve got plenty of reading material on both brilliant officers if you’re feeling celebratory — click the links above or search the subject tags on the sidebar to the right, and enjoy!
And… we’re back! After a long, refreshing, weekend without the Internet, I finally watched the latest episode of TURN:“Epiphany.” The biggest storyline of Episode 5 (well, besides the nearly perfectly-executed dramatic reveal of General Washington) brought the issue of slavery front-and-center in the TURN universe. Since this will be a recurring theme in the show, and because there’s quite a backlog of updates here at the blog, I’ll mention just a few major first impressions here.
Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation
Early in the episode, when Anna Strong petitions Major Hewlett about the attainder against her husband Selah, we learn that it apparently contains mention of a “Dunmore proclamation” that frees the slaves of “suspected patriots.” Indeed, there WAS a famous (or infamous, depending on who you asked) proclamation issued by a certain Lord Dunmore, the Royal Governor of Virginia – but naturally, the real story is more nuanced than what we see on-screen.
- Proclamation issued in November 1775 by the Royal Governor of Virginia (John Murray, fourth Earl of Dunmore).
- Declared martial law in the colony of Virginia.
- Promised slaves and indentured servants of Virginia rebels their freedom if they left their masters and took up arms in defense of the Crown (which is a pretty big “if”).
- Dunmore’s motivations had little to do with the morality of slavery – his primary goal was to disrupt the growing rebellion in Virginia.
- Dunmore’s proclamation would have no standing in New York (though it did make white slaveowners throughout the American colonies REALLY uneasy).
In short: The Dunmore Proclamation wasn’t the harbinger of universal emancipation that the show might have you believe. Granted, it’s a fascinating piece of Revolutionary War history (and I encourage you to click the links above for more information), but I’m a bit confused as to why the show’s writers mentioned it at all, since its usage in TURN is both unnecessary and out of place. Major Hewlett could have simply confiscated Selah Strong’s property – including his slaves – upon “confirming” (as he says) Selah’s traitorous actions against the Crown. No additional justification would be necessary. Not to mention, anyone trying to enforce a gubernatorial edict from Virginia in New York would probably be laughed out of town. (If you think state rivalries are bad nowadays, they’re nothing compared to the late 18th century, when Americans often equated their neighboring states/colonies with foreign countries.) But hey, if this means someone learned something new about the Dunmore Proclamation today, then I’m a happy
Slave Literacy Laws
In Episode 5, the fact that Abigail and her son Cicero can read is treated like a terrible, life-threatening secret. Some of you – faintly remembering some distant high school history lessons, perhaps –might wonder if Abigail’s worry was due to slave codes forbidding slave literacy or education. In the 18th century, New York and other northern colonies did not forbid the education of slaves – but certain southern colonies like South Carolina (which passed such laws in 1740 following a major slave rebellion) did. Since the majority of enslaved blacks in the northern colonies (and there were many) worked in households and businesses, literacy could be viewed as a beneficial trait in some cases. In other circumstances, slave literacy was encouraged in order to read and study the Bible, though this encouragement was hardly universal, even throughout the northern colonies.
To be fair, no one in TURN has (yet) stated that slave literacy is a punishable offense, and there are plenty of other good reasons why an educated slave like Abigail would want to avoid drawing attention to herself or her literate son. But if you were pre-emptively wondering about the legality of slave literacy in colonial New York, there’s your answer. New York had plenty of incredibly restrictive slave laws (click here to read a list of them through the early 18th century) but a ban on slave literacy was not one of them.
Also, in case you were wondering: the “BFF” vibe between Anna and Abigail is a painfully inaccurate portrayal of even the “friendliest” possible relationship between a slave and her mistress. If you felt funny watching Anna get on her knees in front of her slave, beg her for forgiveness, and tearfully ask for her advice, that’s a good indicator that your internal historical “spider sense” is working properly.
That about wraps it up for this “First impressions” blog post. There’s still plenty to discuss on the thorny, complicated, and massively important topic of slavery during the American Revolution — and given Abigail’s new and extremely interesting role in TURN, I have no doubt that upcoming episodes will provide plenty of opportunities to talk about it. It’s a delicate subject to portray on TV or film, that’s for sure. What were YOUR first impressions of TURN’s inaugural venture into the subject of slavery, readers? Feel free to sound off in the comments!
Site notice 1: Holy backlog, Batman! Between a multi-day absence and a misbehaving spam filter, there are an awful lot of outstanding questions and comments in the blog’s moderation queue. If you’ve submitted a question or comment lately, my apologies – I’m working on them ASAP. It’s great to see that readers’ spy-curiosity remains unabated!
Site notice 2: The post on the gravestone conundrum of Episode 4 (“Eternity How Long”) will be slightly delayed due to ongoing revisions, since I found a few surprising new sources dealing with the subject. And the Historical Timeline will be updated very soon. Thanks for weathering the dry spell, faithful readers! We now return to our regularly scheduled programming…