‘Turn’: If You’re a Patriot Spy, You’re a Tart

The Culper Spy Ring used a code book to communicate. (Public Domain Image)
This is a list of names and words assigned code numbers for use in the Culper Spy Ring under George Washington during the American Revolutionary War. (Public Domain Image)

Ever watch an historical military movie or television production and the book nerd in the group is entirely turned off to the experience by a single incorrect guidon? “Gettysburg” comes to mind. Wristwatch tan lines, paved roads, contrails in the distance—whatever. But that guidon… That guidon represents precision. If you can’t get the details of the troop movements correct, then you shouldn’t be making a movie about the most significant battle of the Civil War. Despite such errors, what movies and television series about our country’s history do, is spark interest. Inaccuracies can be discussed. Anyone who’s slogged through original sources—General James Longstreet’s tome comes to mind—get their moment to shine. It is important to get things right. It’s also important to simply expose an uneducated population to our shared history to emotionally grab them and thrust them toward learning more on their own. “Turn: Washington’s Spies” is a Revolutionary War expert’s “Gettysburg,” but the messaging goes deeper than historical inaccuracies.

If you haven’t binge-watched “Turn” by now, you’ll want to catch the opening, if nothing else, just to see Robert’s Rangers, now reactivated as the Queen’s Rangers, on a violent tear against the Colonists. Major Robert Rogers, played by Scotsman Angus MacFadyen, was actually born in Massachusetts and moved to and eventually married in New Hampshire. He codified the 28 “Rules of Rangering,” a combination of his own tactics along with Native American military practices long in use in the colonies—or so the legend goes, anyhow. Military adaptation of the methods were considered revolutionary at the time. At the height of the French and Indian War (officially declared in 1756 and lasting until 1763) the Rangers, attached to the British Army, were expanded to a corps of between nine and a dozen companies, numbering up to 1,400 men. Outfitted in green coats, tan or green pants with leather leggings and moccasins, the Rangers focused on reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering missions. They turned the tide in favor of the British during what amounted to an extension of the Seven Years War on the new colony’s soil.

Rogers makes appearances throughout the Netflix series, some accurately portrayed, some not. He was getting up there in age during the American Revolution, and although most of the Rangers became patriots, Rogers attempted to play both sides in the hopes of the greatest financial gain. Fortunately for the Colonists, Washington didn’t trust Rogers, who carried high debt, which left him susceptible to compromise. Payment in the intelligence business is a topic that “Washington’s Spies, The Story of America’s First Spy Ring” author Alexander Rose explores at length. Civilian spies, motivated by love of cause, volunteered their services with only the hope of expense reimbursement. Military intelligence personnel were already paid. It was the greedy and unscrupulous intelligence purveyors who gave spycraft a bad name, or rather added to the disdain of what was considered a deceitful and thereby lowly endeavor.

The treatment of Anna Strong’s character is more concerning, mostly because it’s easy to overlook or explain away. Men should be aware of messaging not only against Americans in general, but against American women in particular. The executive producer of “Turn,” Craig Silverstein—of whose life little is known from a cursory online search—needed to create what amounted to four seasons of “Turn” with 10 episodes each. Since spying is as much about building relationships as anything else, he flung real-life personages together in highly imaginary ways. The resulting message, for women anyway, is fraught with psychological manipulation, and not in light of the proprieties of the era or of any moral underpinnings in the writing. Guerrilla warfare most often entails each member of the community contributing whatever he or she can to the effort. “Turn” uses two women to illustrate drastically different approaches open to women then and even now, I imagine. Work within cultural norms and succeed; venture outside and pay the price.

Abraham Woodhull, played by Jamie Bell, is a farmer and leading member of what would become the Culper Spy Ring. In real life, he came from a patriot family and was single during the war. In “Turn,” he’s a patriot in a loyalist family, and he’s married to his brother’s widow, Mary, played by Meegan Warner. War inevitably brings life-threatening harshness that each person must navigate in accordance with his or her own conscience. The residents of rural  Setauket on Long Island were plagued with quartering British soldiers, rampant inflation, and unchecked privateering that devolved into piracy. “Turn” mostly focuses on the harshness of the Red Coats in their midst.

Mary, who loves her husband, goes from a loyalist who does everything she can to stop Abraham’s forays into spying, to aiding him for the sake of their son, to a patriot who actively participates in the process. She knows her husband doesn’t love her, but she earns his grudging respect, and at least a quiet admiration and love by series end. The message being, if a woman works within her marriage, she can, if all goes well, take part in a great adventure and be tolerated.

Meanwhile, Anna Strong, played by Heather Lind, who may or may not have been Agent 355 in real life, was certainly a Setauket resident. She more than likely at least handled signaling duties and accompanied Woodhull into New York for face-to-face intelligence meetings. She was 10 years his senior and married with 10 children. There is no evidence to suggest they were anything other than friends. That, unfortunately, does not make for good drama.

In “Turn,” Woodhull and Strong were engaged to be married and Woodhull broke it off. We don’t learn until much later in the series that it was due to guilt he felt in relation to his brother’s death and that he should marry his widow. Strong is not over it. Woodhull apparently isn’t either since they have an affair. There is much to be said for having a partner that is on the same side as you during a war. As Woodhull gets more violent, we see Strong being drawn into a relationship with a gentler British Major Edmund (real name Richard) Hewlett. She’s the fire and passion of the spy ring, pushing the men when they became hesitant, and now the messaging is that she either can’t handle it when things, by necessity, become gritty, or that she fired up Woodhull without recognizing how ugly war can get.

We see Strong using her fairer-sex advantages to keep British Lieutenant John Simcoe off the scent of Woodhull and the others. Early on, she abandons her husband to be with Woodhull, and though she is portrayed as having a significant role in the ring to the point of meeting Washington, there’s also subtext to her character that is unmistakable. She remains in camp, which means only one thing: camp follower. The other women, either prostitutes or following their husbands to cook, launder, and provide marital relations, assume Strong is involved with spy ring leader Major Benjamin Tallmadge, played by Seth Numrich, and both she and Tallmadge let is go since it provides good cover.

In the end, she ends up back with her husband, Selah Strong, played by Robert Beitzel, who after capture and imprisonment aboard a British naval vessel has become a congressional delegate—all true. Anna gets to edit his letters and he seems to appreciate her input. So, in Anna’s case, true heartbreak drove her to be associated in truth or by rumor with four men other than her husband. Even Lieutenant  Caleb Brewster, played by Daniel Henshall, is not left out of the picture. When we first see him and Anna together he mentions spending time with a learned woman in Connecticut. It’s so early in the series that viewers might not pick up on the fact that he’s referring to someone other than Anna. Message: If you play at being a patriot you will be broken-hearted, your reputation will be sullied, and in the end, you may survive, but your happiness will be measured. Put another way, patriot women are sluts.

So, how in today’s hyper-liberal, anti-American film production industry does a series like “Turn” even get made? That seems to be how. Hey, we’ll make this TV series about how General George Washington utilized a group of childhood friends from the same hometown to gather and deliver information from within enemy territory at genuine risk of life, but we’re going to do what we want with the historical facts and we’re going to emotionally shred and shame any women who attempts this avenue of guerrilla warfare, to the point where even a meeting with General Washington will seem hollow victory.

It drives me nuts that all these romantic revolving-door capers need to be included in a story about mostly men conducting war and gathering intelligence. That being said, today’s American woman can still enjoy watching “Turn,” without falling for the propaganda. You can still follow God and leave an ungodly spouse in peace who doesn’t love you or mistreats you. You can still love your country and be a patriot without losing your honor or your reputation. The real Anna Strong, as far as we know, wasn’t sleeping around but was doing her part for the Revolution while caring for her children while her husband was away—a true unsung hero.

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