If not before, then right around the time the proudly menacing and mercy-free Lieutenant Colonel John Simcoe (played by Samuel Roukin) is applying lacerations with his serrated long knife, and then literally rubbing “salt into the wounds” of captured rebel and smuggler Caleb Brewster, we realize that Turn: Washington’s Spies is more than just a Revolutionary War period piece. Rather, the somewhat teasingly melodramatized but often fascinating and binge-worthy series offers some living-room-sized revelations. For one, it disabuses us of our collective assumption that our war of independence was something cleaner or less complicated by turn-coating, spies, and dirty, bloody dealings on Colonial soil than it actually was. War is messy and hellish and rarely follows a clean narrative logic, and it was no different in what was then America’s longest war.
In the same interrogation scene, contained deep in the engaging two-hour episode opening the fourth and final season (which premiered on AMC last Saturday and wraps up in 10 episodes), we catch sight of the infamous and signature American “turncoat” Benedict Arnold (Owain Yeoman, blessed with a handsome oiliness), aptly described by Brewster (a bearded scruff played by Daniel Henshall) as “a pompous, two-faced piece of shite.” Make no mistake: There is history to be absorbed in the course of the show, with plenty of caveats and soapy fabrications involved for entertainment’s sake.
Developed and coproduced by Craig Silverstein, Turn is based on Alexander Rose’s historical book Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring, about the strategically important “Culper Spy Ring.” TV’s Turn, officially represented with the “N” craftily turned backward, also tears asunder some of the historical fact factor, to spice up the story for our consumption. Anna Strong (Heather Lind) is a, well, strong figure in the covert spy ring, but drawn into an illicit affair with subversive catalyst, farmer Abraham Woodhull (Jamie Bell), contrary to known accounts. Other historical gray areas sneak into the extended series, in a plot machine occasionally resorting to potboiler tactics.