The first season of AMC’s Turn wasn’t exactly the shot heard ’round the world. Facing a slate of popular Sunday-night competition like Game of Thrones and The Good Wife, Craig Silverstein’s Revolutionary War drama had to fight for respect—something it ultimately won with a riveting finale that helped secure a second season. Jamie Bell stars as Abraham Woodhull, a Long Island cabbage farmer initially straddling the fence as the American uprising turns into a full-fledged war. His father (Kevin McNally) and wife (Meegan Warner) are staunch Tory loyalists; his childhood friends, including the love of his life (Heather Lind), are committed to independence. Abe is stuck in the middle—which turns out to be the perfect place to be when George Washington (Ian Kahn) needs spies in British-held New York City. [See an interactive character map here.]
In season 1, Abe gradually became the centerpiece of the Culper spy ring, funneling intelligence to Washington about Hessian troop movements to Trenton, as well as British plans for the invasion of Philadelphia. At home in Setauket—where the British garrison is based—he tried to protect his family while simultaneously carrying on a passionate affair. In the finale, Abe finally crossed the Rubicon when he murdered a British soldier in cold blood to protect his secrets. It was a shocking but welcome development, as Abe had spent much of the season wafflling on his commitment to the cause. No more.
Silverstein can’t wait to write for Abe, now that he’s free. “I felt like a lot of Jamie Bell in season 1 was kind of like a tiger in a cage, and Abe was holding him back in his reluctance,” he says. “I think Jamie has an ability to kind of shift—right in front of you—between being an everyman to a real leading-man hero, and then back again. I think there’s something in his spirit that you just root for, and an Abe engaging on all cylinders, doing what he wants to do, will be fun for Jamie to play.”
Beginning on Aug. 2, the entire first season of Turn will air again, following new episodes of Hell on Wheels. Season 2, which is in the early planning stages, begins filming in the fall with a target airdate of spring 2015, shortly after the first season debuts on Netflix. Silverstein talked to EW about the show’s first season and what fans can expect in the future. Happy July 4, patriots.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Congratulations on getting picked up for a second season. But AMC made you sweat a bit. Did waiting so long to be renewed feel like your own personal Valley Forge?
CRAIG SILVERSTEIN: I was a little worried when I saw they renewed Better Call Saul for a second season before it had aired. I thought, “Are they trying to put the good news first?” But then it was only like a day or so later that they picked us up. So I would say I was confident the whole time, except for maybe that one day.
Some AMC shows became immediate hits. Others, like Breaking Bad, started slowly and built. Obviously, that would be a nice path to follow for your show—but in general, what was your reaction to the response to the show as it was airing week to week?
I think the response became more positive as it went on, and was responsible for the very nice ratings jump that we got in the finale. A lot of people tuned in to see that one. It was a significant jump up, which I think must’ve been a factor in our renewal because it shows that there was an upward slope and a build. Obviously, there was giant shadow cast by the juggernaut that is Game of Thrones. That was just the reality of our time slot, which I think will change. But it is a show built to grow. Sometimes in this crowded landscape, with so many good shows, the audience needs to know that a show is there and survived, and then they give it a bit of respect and start to watch it. Certainly that’s how I approached Breaking Bad. So I do hope that’s the trajectory for Turn.
What I appreciated so much about your show was that it tackled the honest history that our Revolution was a true civil war, rather than the glorious all-for-one crusade that we celebrate every July 4. Many colonists were on the fence, and I thought Abe’s arc perfectly captured that in season 1. But was it difficult to keep Abe’s inner conflict on simmer until the season finale?
It is hard, because ambivalence in this story and this time period is not something people are used to seeing. And that’s why a lot of people quickly gobbed on to Ben Tallmadge right way, because he’s so motivated. But I just thought it was an important to show that it was a civil war.
A lot of times, Abe came off as being in over his head. He’s not necessarily the smartest guy in the room, but he’s in a position to do something important. Do you feel pressure to elevate him in some way to be on more equal standing with characters like John André or Robert Rogers?
I don’t feel the pressure to make him James Bond all of a sudden. I think that because he is motivated now, even though he has new obstacles, like Mary, I think that that’s going to help elevate him in a certain way.
In the finale, Abe’s relationship with Mary is forever changed after he murders Baker and she helps him cover it up. How can we expect that recalibration to play out on screen?
I would imagine a very tense version of Downton Abbey, with Mary and Abe now living in Whitehall along with [Abe’s father] Richard and Major Hewlett—all in the same house. One of the ironies that we like about Abe’s arc and his character is that the more he lies, the more he spies, the closer he becomes to certain people in his life that he’s lying to, like his father. And Mary has sort of a a chip in the game and is using it to get what she wants. So our plans for Mary for this second season key off the same theme of power, and what it does to people who get it.
Have the scripts or outlines for season 2 been sitting on your desktop for more than a year, just waiting to press “Print” when you got the renewal? Or are you starting from scratch, in a room with your writers, saying, “Okay, where do we go?”
Yup, that’s what we’re doing. We’re starting in a room, going, “Where do we go?” It’s more, “How do we go?” Because we know generally, in some broad sense, where we’re going in season 2, in dealing with Philadelphia and Benedict Arnold and Peggy Shippen—who sort of becomes this Lady MacBeth—and then how to marry that in with our story of the Culpers. Because they become pretty closely linked at a certain point. One of the other things that we’re intrigued about broadening out in season 2 is to show that it was also a global war—not just in the way that the French ended up coming in and were absolutely critical for us, but how the British were fighting on all fronts, and to them, the colonial rebellion was just one of the many little problems that were going on. And how all these things sort of helped us out.
Arnold was named-dropped several times in the last few episodes of season 1, as he was at that time still one of the American’s most celebrated battlefield heroes. Everyone knows that won’t last, and his relationship with John André is a large part of that history. Have you cast your Benedict Arnold yet?
He hasn’t been cast yet. We’re still talking about his arc as a character and we need a better sense of how many episodes he plays in. And approaching this role and the casting of it is as difficult as [casting] George Washington. You’re essentially adding a series regular into a show with quite a large cast already. We’re starting to gather ideas about that and who exactly that could be.
I thought it was fascinating when I read that you initially considered killing off Simcoe in the series premiere, which is contrary to the historical record. Are you open to the idea of rewriting history, at least for some characters, just to keep people guessing?
We are. My favorite thing, the thing that makes me the most excited but also the most comfortable is filling in gaps where we’re free to invent. Like, André and Peggy Shippen were engaged to be married briefly and then moved apart, and then later she hooked up with Benedict Arnold. One thing we’re going to say is that they never stopped seeing each other. There’s nothing really to disprove that, but it’s not also historically definite, you know. What I feel less comfortable doing is doing something for extreme shock value, like killing Washington. Now you’re in an alternate timeline. So somewhere between those poles, you know. Simcoe is a character who is very well known in Canada, but not so well known in the United States, which is why I thought, as a brutal guy and an obstacle to Abe in the pilot, he could’ve died. But Samuel Roukin made him so interesting that we kept him. And then reading about his history made us realize we’re glad to keep him to see where he goes.
Another ideal opportunity for what you’re talking about are the two freed slaves, Abigail and Jordan, whose histories likely weren’t accurately recorded. Where do you see them going?
Abigail remains with John André, and he is head of British intelligence. So there’s an argument to be made that Abigail is actually the most valuable asset in the war at this moment. And so the question of how that plays out and how it plays against what she actually needs and wants out of the situation is going to be interesting. As far as Jordan goes, his character is a way to tell some tales of Northern slavery and the path that certain slaves took through the war that are real twisty, surprising adventures. We’re hoping we can get Aldis Hodge back as much as possible, but he’s a regular on that new Chris Carter show, so I think it’s all about schedules.
With all due respect to the other major characters, I think the two that really popped in season 1 were André and Robert Rogers. André’s future seems obvious, but what of Rogers?
Rogers is the closest thing that we have to a character like Omar in The Wire. He’s been betrayed, in his own mind, by all sides, and he’s unpredictable. That’s his power, and his curse. We’ve got some plans for Rogers that coincide with what happened to him historically. You know, he lost control of the Queen’s Rangers for a time, but he had an audience with an incredibly powerful person who put him back in the theater of war. People can look that up to see what happened, but I’d rather not spoil it right now.
You’ve talked about your preference for telling the story of the Revolution from the ground up, as opposed to a top-down approach through the eyes of major historical figures, like Washington, Jefferson, and Adams. But there is the promise of more George Washington in season 2. Does that mean we should expect to meet some of his famous military staff as well, people like Alexander Hamilton and Lafayette?
Hamilton, yeah. Absolutely. We want to do all of that. The only thing standing in our way is literally the limited amount of time in 10 episodes we do to tell all that. And our budget for our ever-enormous cast. We may have to kill some people to make room.
You mentioned the action shifting to Philadelphia for season 2. You film in Virginia, around Richmond, right? How do make Philly feel and look different than Manhattan?
Philadelphia was the city. It was much bigger than New York at the time. It was the seat of Congress, before they hightailed it out of there, so it’s a big deal. It’s going to be different than Manhattan, which is still suffering after the fire. Our dream would be to try to figure out how to shoot in nearby Colonial Williamsburg or areas around that, which I think doubled for Philly in HBO’s John Adams. We need something like that that has architecture of a slightly grander scale to portray places like Independence Hall.
Is there a target date for when fans will see season 2 on AMC?
That I don’t know. The target date in my mind is later this fall, when we have to start shooting. That’s the big date that I’m worried about right now.
With shows like Mad Men, people obsess with dates and where seasons pick up. For Turn, do you expect to return right where we left off, or will there be a time jump?
We’re hashing that out right now. I can tell you that it will be in 1777, for sure. But if there’s a time jump, and how big of a time jump it is, is literally what we’re trying to narrow down right now.
I suppose in theory, the show can run until the Royal Navy leaves New York in 1783, but how many seasons do you have in you to tell the story you want to tell?
We did mention [to AMC] that the war went that long, although one of the other realities is that just because they left after the Battle of Yorktown doesn’t mean the fighting stops. And it doesn’t mean that America was, “add water, get nation.” It was a very unstable cauldron and it needed its spies in the direct aftermath of really becoming free. There’s a version of Turn where 1783 comes a little bit earlier than you might expect in the storytelling of seasons and that the post-war international chaos is something that might be [covered]. The end of the Culper ring might not be the end of the war, is what I’ll say to that.