Like the American Revolution in its early months, Turn: Washington’s Spies suffered through dark days of uncertainty while AMC twice took its time to order a next season. But on April 25, when the show returns for season 3, the history gives way to tense action and drama that could lure on-the-fence viewers who only know the textbook basics of Benedict Arnold and his notorious attempt to stab George Washington and the revolution in the back.
Turn is the story of Abraham Woodhull (Jamie Bell) and the Culper spy ring, the New York-based rebels that fed Washington (Ian Kahn) intel from behind enemy lines. Abe was a reluctant recruit of his childhood friend, Ben Talmadge (Seth Numrich), who now serves under Washington; but in season 2, Abe became more daring, risking his life and the well-being of his wife and child in order to expand the ring. John André (JJ Feild) is the dashing British intelligence officer using his own talents for spycraft to dismantle the rebellion before more blood is spilled. His plan includes turning one of the American’s most accomplished field officers, Arnold (Owain Yeoman), whose appetite for glory and treasure exacerbates his fatal flaws. Both men love the same woman — Peggy Shippen (Ksenia Solo) — and her beauty and charm could be the key to the war.
The season finale of season 2 set the table for what should be a season of tense conflict and political subterfuge that mines one of American history’s most infamous tales: Arnold’s traitorous deal to hand the American fort at West Point over to the British for a price. “This is the season I’ve been trying to get to the whole time,” says showrunner Craig Silverstein, who introduced Arnold in season 2 and positioned him for his fall from grace. The next 10 episodes will accelerate towards the intrigue and confrontation at West Point, where the entire future of the United States hung in the balance. Who wins and who loses depends less on matters of military significance and more on the whims of the human heart and the purity of the soul.
The exclusive teaser for the new season invites a comparison to modern-day American politics — when the country seems to be split down the middle during an election season. “We’ve always thought the show was relevant to now,” says Silverstein. “Just the idea that if you think America is divided now — between parties and within parties — that is nothing compared to the cauldron of the Revolutionary War where you didn’t know from house to house where they stood politically. And if you said the wrong thing or did the wrong thing, you could get yourself arrested, you could get yourself shot. I just think it’s an appropriate heightened environment, to be watching a show about America and everyone calling each other traitors — and some people really are.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I don’t mean to tell you your business, but it wouldn’t surprise me if AMC jumped for your pitch when you said this is the story of Benedict Arnold’s betrayal at West Point. And what’s exciting is that season 3 feels like when we’re finally going to see that promise deliver. Is that where we are?
CRAIG SILVERSTEIN: Definitely. When I first pitched the show to AMC, I kind of framed it as The Departed set in the Revolutionary War, and by that, I meant this season. You’ve got a mole on either side. You’ve got Benedict Arnold and Robert Townsend embedded deeply in New York. There are two spy networks that kind of become aware of each other and are in a race to uncover who the mole is on either side. And it all leads up to this climactic defection. So I’m really glad that we made it this far, so I could tell this part of the story.
Where do we pick up? Abe was last seen in Robert Rogers’ grips in the spring or summer of 1778. Do we pick up right there, or is there a time jump?
We pick up that night. We pick up pretty much right after you see that. What happens is Abe basically adds another spinning plate to his already too many spinning plates. Even though he’s captured Abe, Rogers sort of alludes, in the last scene of season 2, that his goal and Abe’s goals are kind of aligned. Because Rogers is a man without a country now, who’s been betrayed by both sides and who wants his revenge. And he sees Abe and this spy network as his tool to exact his revenge. Abe, of course, would rather find a spare moment to get the drop on this guy and kill him, and get rid of Rogers. But as Abe will soon discover, and we already know, Rogers is way, way better than this than Abe. So a very odd-couple dynamic develops between these two guys, and Rogers is a wild card and becomes almost a crazy-uncle mentor figure — who might stab you in the back at any given moment. He moves the story in a lot of ways this season because he’s in it for himself and he’s kind of unleashed now, more than he ever was.
Season 2 ends, and I assume you get in the room with your writers and producers, looking at what you’ve done this year. I’m curious about your post-season self analysis and strategic outlook for the future: what worked best, what would you like to change?
One of the conclusions was that I felt that we found the show in season 2, and that season 2 was superior to season 1 in that it declared firmly that it was a thriller first. All the other aspects of the Revolutionary War and colonial life was filtered through that lens. There was even a cliffhanger, as you mentioned, from the end of season 2, so basically what we tried to do is use the momentum to propel us into 3.
You’ve talked before about the need to balance the history, and in fact, you even prefer a bottom-up look at this history rather than peppering the story with big famous Founding Father-type characters. That said, can we look forward to meeting some more people from the history books in season 3?
Yes. I look forward to a certain famous spouse and also Washington’s aide to camp, Alexander Hamilton.
Does he sing?
[Laughs] He doesn’t sing, although we do see the commander dancing. Washington shows off his dance moves, which we found he was good at. Hamilton is a bright guy and he knows about the Culper ring. He comes in quite late in the season, though, so I wouldn’t look for him too early. We see him through the filter of our spy story and take our cues from the history on how he felt about John André. But I don’t think Benedict Arnold’s a fan of his.
You’re also going to meet James Rivington, who owns Rivington’s Coffee House and Rivington’s Gazette. John Carroll Lynch [Fargo] plays Rivington, who was this larger-than-life colorful character. He’s kind of the tabloid king of New York. He’s the guy who’s basically Robert Townsend’s partner-slash-boss at Rivingtown’s Coffee House, which is really the 54 for British officers at that time. It was the place to see and be seen, and it was where Robert Townsend was working, So that’s how he got the purest, sweetest intel, from overhearing their conversations.
I agree with you when you said before that you kind of found your story in season 2, and to me, a big part of that was John André, whose story is only getting bigger, I presume. It’s kind of ironic perhaps that his character has broken out, but was that always your plan? Or has the show sort of found him in the same sort of way that the audience has?
I think that it was always the plan. When I pitched JJ Feild — because in the pilot, he only had one scene — we really had to have this meeting where I promised him, “Here’s all the stuff that’s going to happen should we go forward.” There’s a really amazing unhealthy love triangle that develops. I told him what happens to André in the story — and he knew because he had read — and I kind of laid out, like, “This is where we go and this is where it ends.” In season 2, I guess a bit of a surprise was how well the romance worked between André and Peggy. It adds a tragic dimension to everything that unfolds.
We don’t want John André to die! In so many ways, he’s such an admirable character.
Yeah, and it’s a great flip on what I think you would expect from the outset of a show, where you expect to meet the British and have them be the bad guys and you would cheer when one of them went down. So to have people weep instead, I think, would be great.
Speaking of villains that we root against, where is Simcoe?
In season 3, Simcoe is commended for his actions at the Battle of Monmouth and he is assigned by John André to go back to Long Island, because André has now had some time to sift through the intelligence that he got off of Ben Talmadge when they killed Sackett. He sees this Agent Culper who’s this lone man on Long Island, so he sends Simcoe back with the expressed instruction that, “Your target is this one man — find who it is, find this Samuel Culper.” And it’s Simcoe who says, “I think that might be an alias.” Simcoe is not the guy, if you’re Abe, that you want hunting you down. But there’s a bigger problem, which is this cold war that has flared up between Simcoe and Hewlett and is going to come to a boiling point. The town of Setauket is not big enough for the both of them, so someone’s going to have to go.
Stuck in between them is Anna, who’s not just a link in the love triangle but in a love square, I guess you would call it, if you count Abe. What are her loyalties at this point?
That’s one of the most intriguing questions of the season, and I think it plays out in really unexpected ways. There are incredible payoffs for what happens, and I think Heather Lind really, really outdid herself this season. She turns in an absolutely amazing performance, and she will definitely go places that I think the audience won’t expect. That love square has a great arc to it, and that’s one of the surprising things that developed — one of the things where if I was standing at the top of season 1 talking to you about it, I really couldn’t foresee this particular arc taking shape in this particular way.
A delicate part of the story is the father-son relationship between Abe and the Judge, because it’s probably intentionally unclear just how much the Judge knows or suspects about his rebellious son and how much he’s willfully blind because he doesn’t want to know. How does that unfold in season 3?
I don’t want to spoil where it goes, but if you’ve been waiting for push to come to shove in terms of that relationship, that happens in the first episode back. Things cross a line that can’t be walked back over again. So it starts with a bang. I think we really focus on that story and we pay that story off this year.
You said once before that if things go well, you’d like to take Turn not only to the end of the war, but even past the war, into the first baby steps of our country. Is that still your current plan?
I hope to. I think there’s a lot of interesting stuff with what happens in Europe and how it begins to effect a baby America, and the spy network’s role in that stuff. Sort of the last quarter of Alexander Rose’s book gets into a lot of great stuff and strange characters who were triple agents and some of the Masons get involved, and there’s kind of the slightly weirder wilderness of mirrors aspect of the spy game. So yeah, I would love to be able to get there.