There’s a certain psychology to television renewals that makes them invaluable to networks hoping to add fuel to a dying fire. The order of an additional season suggests momentum even in the absence of any other evidence. It suggests that one of several phenomena is taking place: people are watching, critics are buzzing, quality storytelling is happening, and you’re not there to see it. Such is the case with AMC’s decision to renew Turn, which is reupped along with its other middling period drama, Halt And Catch Fire. Neither show coalesced in the first year, but were both granted a second year to change their fates in the face of what feels like widespread ambivalence.
Turn—the network now prefers the more descriptive Turn: Washington’s Spies—is all about that kind of psychological gamesmanship. Victories in wars, even one as massive and consequential as the Revolutionary War, can often be won merely by creating the illusion of momentum and tide-turning milestones. Turn’s two-hour premiere doesn’t live up to the illusion created by AMC’s renewal, but by its second hour, the show gets closer than it did in its often meandering first season.
AMC was shrewd in packaging “Thoughts Of A Free Man” and “Hard Boiled” together, as “Thoughts” is the sort of table setting slog that could put off loyalists and neophytes alike. It’s also a perfect distillation about what didn’t work about the show in its first season. Picking up in 1777, the episode rejoins Abe Woodhull following the events of “The Battle Of Setauket,” in which our hero finally completes his moral slide with the murder of the babyfaced Ensign Baker. Mary now knows Abe is involved with the Culper Ring, the kind of revelation that typically kicks a spy tale into high gear. Not so with “Thoughts,” which continues to be a historical spy story that plays more to history buffs than to fans of tightly wound tales of suspense. The official lengthening of the title doesn’t do Turn justice, and only serves to remind the audience that they’re supposed to be watching a show about spies even though it never manages to feel like one.
The setting is not the issue—some of the best spy dramas are period pieces—but the way that setting is put to use. “Thoughts” kicks off which a delightfully wacky and brutal cold open with a crazed King George on the warpath, then devolves quickly into a period-set character drama that occasionally hints at intrigue it never achieves. Abe has new focus and resolve now that Mary is in on the Culper Ring, but “Thoughts” assumes interest in Abe and Mary’s relationship that the show hasn’t earned. Mary is definitely more useful as a character now than she was in season one. But she tries to have Abe tailed to keep him out of trouble, and her meddling doesn’t come off as the actions of a concerned wife as much as a narrative convenience to create more obstacles for Abe as he starts making a play for New York.
There’s far more to like about “Hard Boiled,” which seems like an overt effort to fold in more centuries-old spycraft, one of the show’s most potent draws but one it didn’t take full advantage of last season. The episode takes its title from one of Abe’s latest maneuver, in which he attempts to pass information by painting it onto a hard boiled egg, an invisible ink technique that dates back to the first century. Abe is interrupted before he can fully execute the plan, telling the nosy innkeeper he’s holding an egg over a candle with tongs because he likes them warm. After all, who doesn’t? It’s a fun scene, and fun is something Turn manages pretty infrequently for a show about spies, the exception being any scenery-chewing appearance from Samuel Roukin as Simcoe.
Turn could become a far more fun show in its second season thanks to the appearance of Owain Yeoman as Benedict Arnold, a character that best represents Turn’s opportunity to turn foregone conclusions into riveting television. The show has also gotten better at pulling its minor characters into the action, like Abigail, who gets even deeper into the spy trade during the two-hour premiere. The show still looks fantastic, but no more so than any adequately funded period drama, so that isn’t enough to warrant an endorsement. Turn didn’t do enough in its premiere to earn ten episodes’ worth of attention, but “Hard Boiled” stoked enough curiosity to warrant a mid-season follow-up.
- The show does feel more briskly paced. Even at its most boring, “Thoughts” was nimbler than season one’s low points.
- Next week’s episode could be a treat, if only because of its title: “False Flag.”