Sometimes a show’s greatest value is in serving as a lesson to others: worth dissecting if only to see which elements prevented the whole from coming together. And AMC has been knee-deep in narrative forensics arguably since the one-two punch of Mad Men and Breaking Bad, trying to recreate the alchemical formula that made those dramas both high-quality and highly popular.
Turn seems from the first to have aimed for the former rather than the latter. The Revolutionary War setting offered both period-piece curiosity and timely political parallels; the cast drew from movie talent and promising newcomers. And yet Turn’s most compelling mystery is why, throughout its 10-episode season, all that promise failed to ignite—especially in the wake of a finale that felt like a cap on a better season than what preceded it.
Turn’s most engaging story is the community of Setauket itself, currently overrun with British regulars in a slow-burn stalemate that’s provided fertile ground for the show’s political parallels. Those aren’t always subtle (last week had Burn Gorman’s Major Hewlett taking away everyone’s perfectly innocent, hardworking American guns), but overall the season had traded nicely on the claustrophobia of government by occupying military force—spearheaded by officers who often pushed the community to create its own scapegoats and pit factions against one another to distract from the common enemy, which is certainly a timely echo, and pulls together smartly in the finale’s battle. There’s even excuses made for the power abuser in its ranks—Samuel Roukin’s Captain Simcoe, who started out as a campy creep obsessed with tavern owner and spy Anna Strong and has risen steadily to animated-movie levels of villainy as plots required, though Roukin’s dedication to his thousand-yard stare of catalytic evil has never wavered. Thank goodness for Burn Gorman, who snapped into focus as a character just in time to silence Simcoe (at which point the plots instantly seemed more organically motivated).
Across the board, really, little fault can be laid at the feet of its cast, who are game for what they’ve been given. Jamie Bell has ably proved himself, giving Abraham Woodhull a depth and gravity spiked with glimpses of dry humor that suggest the complicated history behind his ambivalence about participating in espionage against the government in power, but with enough banked anger to suggest a misstep any moment. (When it comes, it’s great—a moment there’s no coming back from or smoothing over—and Bell’s perfectly broken in its wake.) Kevin McNally demonstrates why he’s been working for decades in giving depth to Woodhull’s loyalist father, and relative newcomer Meegan Warner had a touching steeliness as Woodhull’s wife Mary, trying to make the most of a polite but strained arranged marriage. And when some of the rest of the cast inevitably seem adrift (what has JJ Feild to do with himself besides hit on ladies, deliver genteel insults, and archly sidle out of view?), it’s not so much a failure to rise to the material as a failure of the material.
Awkwardly, one of the biggest failings of Turn has been the actual espionage. With the bulk of the spycraft in a sequestered subplot that progressed by inches with characters tangential to any hometown stakes, there was minimal interest to the goings-on in Washington’s ranks—particularly unfortunate given that the finale’s standoff offered a great round-robin tension of shorthand among the childhood friends that could get lost in the subplot shuffle. The occasional trivia is interesting (secrets via boiled eggs, who knew?), but the actual spycraft tends to be gripping only when Woodhull’s cultivating a source on the fly and hoping for the best—a salesman of false trust you accidentally repay in secrets. That came beautifully to bear in the season finale, and a season of skating by turned into a well-earned last-minute twist for something even Abe Woodhull couldn’t talk his way out of; once again, better the closer to home it is.
Not exactly, though. The descent of Abe’s marriage and lingering feelings for Anna Strong began as a complicated, tentative connection, and was the show’s most nuanced selling point. In the last few episodes, though, it’s become a standard-issue love triangle that’s done nothing but sideline Anna’s spying in favor of romance (the waterside cuddling this week was almost hilariously dreadful), and seemed to sideline Mary completely, as she moved vaguely into town more to clear subplots than from any illuminating characterization of hers. Things on the domestic front got so contrived that Mary only discovered Abe’s spying when their toddler happens to beeline to the secret floorboard. Her moment of redemption tonight was deeply satisfying as a scene, and bodes well for next season—more interesting by far to have her in on the secrets—but that Mary has been absent from so many episodes that it was a surprise to see her again.
Unfortunately, these cumulative disconnects between the potential and the actual have been the show’s greatest unifier. While moments succeed handily on a scene-by-scene basis, it feels like the 10-episode run was either too much or too little space for Turn to tell its story. The final moments of “The Battle of Setauket” are purposefully symbolic, as Abe Woodhull watches his whole homestead burning—a neat mirror of the series’ opening moments of his calm life among rural plenty. If Turn gets another season, hopefully the story that emerges from those ashes will keep that focus, and become the series it’s got the chance to be.
- There have been several characters whose promise never emerged, particularly Abigail, currently sneaking information out of New York from a position of great risk and little reward. Unfortunately, she was only introduced halfway into the season, when Anna Strong no longer owned her, which feels like either a pacing problem or an effort to avoid asking the audience to reconcile a sympathetic character with participation in an odious system. Turn could probably have benefited from presenting characters with archaic, faulty ideas as both products of their time and personally culpable; without some historical admissions, it feels like whitewashing the facts of the setting. Hopefully next season will address this a little more.
- Burn Gorman may have had to wait 10 episodes to get any real characterization, but he had that spyglass-lifting flourish locked and loaded.
- Babywatch: Perhaps the season’s most bittersweet inconsistency, but the baby looked deep into Jamie Belle’s eyes this episode, and for that we can all be thankful.