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Benedict Arnold (Owain Yeoman) daring Ben Tallmadge (Seth Numrich) to shoot him (Turn: Washington’s Spies, Season 3, “Blade on the Feather”).

Much like the Culper Ring itself, most of Season 3 of Turn: Washington’s Spies was a hot mess until the final two episodes delivered a one-two punch that made up for the soggy storylines and left viewers breathless and wanting more.

Highlights

  • Although the focus on Benedict Arnold’s defection gives Owain Yeoman a chance to show his character’s vulnerability and self-doubt instead of chewing the scenery and sulking, the Best Acting award for this season goes to Ksenia Solo (Peggy Shippen).  Her face at the ball when she realizes that John Andre has betrayed her with another woman is a masterpiece of hiding grief under a public mask of amiability.
  • Much like Yellowbeard, my boy, Robert Rogers (Angus Macfadyen) is never more dangerous than when he’s dead–or in Rogers’ case, persona non grata to both sides. Angus Macfadyen has been given more chances to highlight his scene stealing skills and now, sporting an eyepatch, he looks more pirate-y than ever.
  • The Best New Addition to the Cast award goes to James Carroll Lynch as James Rivington. As the unctuous printer/gossip monger who is part owner of Townsend’s tavern, Lynch cuts a figure both comical and sinister.
  • The winner of the Most Surprising Character Turn has to be Burn Gorman as Major Hewlett. Hewlett’s transformation from incompetent British functionary to a romantic and even chivalric figure has made him much more sympathetic. With Andre gone, I hope that General Clinton will ask him to stay on in Philadelphia.
  • The Biggest Reveal of this season has to be how much Abe (Jamie Bell) and his father, Judge Woodhull (Kevin McNally), are alike. Both are close, secretive, and manipulative. It doesn’t make them nice people, but it does shed new light on their relationship.
  • Mary Woodhull (Meegan Warner) continues to earn more and more of my respect every season. This year, she–not any of the men including the crafty Robert Rogers–is the one who came closest to killing Simcoe.
  • And the winner of the Best Closing Line has to be Judge Woodhull who’s “Get out of my town, you pathetic amateur” is just stone-cold.

Lowlights

  • Topping the list of ridiculous plot elements this season has to be Ben’s doomed-from-the-get-go quickie romance with Loyalist widow, Sarah, followed by her tragical death that the audience saw coming a while back. Yes, Seth Numrich looked remarkably sexy in that episode, but this is the kind of melodramatic rubbish that Turn doesn’t need and yet the writers seem unable to resist.
  • When you’ve got a tigershark like Simcoe (Simon Roukin) by the tail, it’s a shame to let him chase it and yet that’s exactly what the writers have done to our favorite villain. Having established Simcoe’s villainy at the high end of the scale and having given him no redeeming qualities (I’m pretty sure that neatness of person doesn’t count), the writers really have no place to take the character.
  • Although more understandable from a plot standpoint, it’s still painful to see our suave spymaster, John Andre (JJ Feild) off his game. Andre pines for Peggy although that doesn’t stop him from dallying with actress Philomena (Amy Gumnick) to salve his wounds.
  • Where the heck is Selah Strong? With Anna back in Washington’s camp, I halfway expected some sort of awkward reunion between the two, but nothing. I can understand the actor not making an appearance, but at least give Anna and Ben a few lines to suggest his fate.

One of the things that I learned from Alexander Rose’s book was that Arnold, after he joined the British, turned spycatcher and began trying to root out the Revolutionary spies in New York. There was even a failed attempt by Washington’s forces to kidnap Arnold and extradite him to the American side for trial. If the producers grace us with a Season 4, I hope that we’ll get to see that part of the story played out.

 

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Having just finished binge-watching Season  2 of Turn: Washington’s Spies and can report that it is indeed an improvement over Season 1 although there are still a number of shake-your-head moments that make you wonder just what is being smoked in the writer’s room at AMC studios. First, the good news: the characters all become much more interesting although it’s not due as much to the stereotypes that were established in Season 1 being flipped on their heads as it is the circumstances the characters find themselves in becoming ever more sticky and complicated. The bad news is that Turn continues its baffling habit of concocting melodramatic and even bizarre storylines although the subject matter that it purports to be dramatizing has plenty of juicy bits that need no spicing up.

Highlights:

  • Due largely to Judge Woodhull taking a bullet in Season 1, Abe has now manned up and is acting more like an adult instead of the “loser son”.
  • Abe Woodhull finds out first hand why polygamy is a bad idea: it allows your women to gang up on you. Some of the most fun moments in the second season are when Mary and Anna join forces to dress Abe down.
  • Providence” is my favorite episode, both because it features the Turtle, an early submarine, and because Caleb Brewster shaves off his beard and becomes completely unrecognizable.
  • John Andre is heavily featured as he falls for Peggy Shippen and then, in a massively despicable move, pimps her out to Benedict Arnold so he can bring down the American rebels. And you thought Simcoe was a ruthless bastard.
  • Major Hewlett is revealed to be a Sensitive Science Guy and a real chemistry develops between him and Anna.
  • Anna stands up to Simcoe and forces him to back down (Go, Anna! Go, Anna!)
  • Simcoe screaming “Wrong way!” as British forces retreat from the battlefield in the season finale, an improvised move by actor Simon Loukin.
  • Owain Yeoman is a lot of fun as the square-jawed, but fatally flawed Gen. Benedict Arnold.

Lowlights:

  • Robert Rogers, one of my faves, is still in play, but winds up engaged in a odd side plot. Briefly, King George loses his head and Rogers has to retrieve it. The operation is a bust. (Yes, those are puns. No, I’m not ashamed ….:-). Honestly and for true, why the heck can’t Rogers turn privateer after being replaced by Simcoe? That would keep him in the game without chasing the MacGuffin all over the place.
  • Maj. Simcoe continues his reign of terror, eventually resorting to a campaign of assassination by his Rangers against his fellow Redcoats under Maj. Hewlett. Seriously, how is the guy able to keep his commission? I mean, c’mon, people, even British High Command can’t be that blind.
  • In what has to be the weirdest moment in television history, Washington has a mental breakdown at Valley Forge resulting hallucinations and an impromptu psychoanalysis session with his manservant, Billy. If the point here is, as I suppose, to show how the pressures of the job are affecting Washington emotionally, why not just make the conversation with his brother, Lawrence, a dream sequence which would be shorter and more to the point?

Turn: Washington’s Spies has been renewed for a third season and I am looking forward to seeing the results. I’m particular anxious to see what’s made of Benedict Arnold’s betrayal since the series clearly seems to be leading up to that.

 

 

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Turn Washington's Spies

After some initial skepticism, I settled in to watch Season 1 of AMC’s Turn: Washington’s Spies, a fictionalized (read “historical accuracy tossed overboard early on”) account of the Culper Espionage Ring who provided vital intelligence to George Washington during the American Revolutionary War. The characters are sadly stereotyped, but the plotting is fantastic–the pilot episode hooks you immediately, the story unfolds with many unexpected twists and turns–just when you think you know where the story is going, it surprises you, and the character’s backstories appear gradually as the series progresses.

While the storytelling is the series’ strong point, the characterizations are definitely its weak point. Four episodes in and we’ve already met:

  • the clean-cut reluctant hero (Jamie Bell as Abe Woodhull)
  • the father that doesn’t understand him (Kevin McNally as Judge Woodhull)
  • the women who have no apparent reason for their existence except to serve as romantic interests for the hero (Meegan Warner as Abe’s wife, Mary, and Heather Lind as Abe’s former squeeze, Anna Strong)
  • the haughty British commander (Burn Gorman as Major Hewlett, holding court in a desecrated church like a vampire overlord)
  • the psychotic British officer (Samuel Roukin as Capt. Simcoe, proving that being a grade-A psychopath is no barrier to promotion in the British army)
  • the devilishly charming British baddie (the delicious JJ Feild as Major John Andre, British Counterintelligence)

Even without their blue-and-buff uniforms, the American heroes can be readily discerned by their strong chins and dashing good looks.

So far, my favorite characters are:

  • Robert Rogers (Angus Macfadyen), leader of the Queen’s Rangers (a Loyalist commando group), despite the fact that I find his current quest for revenge completely unbelieveable
  • The aforementioned Major John Andre played with a combination of charm and ruthlessness by JJ Feild (Austenland, Northanger Abbey)
  • I also have my eye on Abigail (Idara Victor), Major Andre’s house slave, and Jordan (Aldis Hodge),  a slave who’s joined the British cause in hope of winning his liberty, both of whom are emerging as two of the more sympathetic characters in the series

Season 2 has received much higher marks and I look forward to checking it out and (hopefully) seeing better development of its characters.

 

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Rome Cast List

Missing your daily dose of British actors, political intrigue, and full frontal nudity now that Game of Thrones is on hiatus again? Then check out Rome, a totally awesome series that aired on HBO from 2005-2007, available on DVD and instant video.

This series, set during the collapse of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Empire, follows both the highborn (Julius Caesar, Mark Anthony, etc.) and the lowborn (two rank and file soldiers, Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus) as they deal with their changing personal and political situations.

Season One opens with Caesar’s defeat of the Gauls and then segues into his civil war with Pompey for control of the Empire. Meanwhile, comrades-in-arms Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus find peacetime as dangerous as wartime. Season Two takes place after Caesar’s death and focuses on the power struggle between Anthony and Octavian. Pullo and Vorenus once again find themselves caught up in major events.

At the heart of the series is the relationship between two very different men–Pullo and Vorenus. Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson) is a brawler whose hobbies are drinking, wenching, and finding trouble without really trying. Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) is his complete opposite–a straight arrow family man and good citizen.  As the story progresses, Vorenus’s rigid moral code ends up costing him his wife and family while Pullo discovers hidden depths of decency within himself. Throughout their personal ups and downs, the two men, initially rivals, come to depend on each other and eventually become best friends.

All of the leading actors (Ciaran Hinds as Julius Caesar, James Purefoy as Marc Anthony, etc.) give great performances, but for me the main stand out character was Atia of the Julii, Caesar’s niece, played by Polly Walker. Atia is a seductive manipulator who makes Cersei Lannister look like a Girl Scout den mother. She treats everyone including her own son and daughter as pawns on a chessboard in her quest for power and position. You start off hating her, but by the end of the series you can’t help but feeling a certain admiration and sympathy for her.

Another character who makes a mark on the viewer is Cleopatra played by Lyndsey Marshall. Cleopatra only appears four times in the entire two seasons, but Lyndsey Marshall makes them count, playing the Egyptian queen as a flirtatious, but intelligent political survivor who uses her personal charm to preserve her family and her country.

Of course, my very favorite character is the Newsreader, a sort of town crier who announces the latest events to the crowd in the Forum. He is played by veteran British character actor, Ian McNiece.

Because of its limited production budget, large scale, CGI-enhanced battles are mostly out of reach so the series creators’ cleverly present the aftermath of big events. For example, we aren’t shown Julius Caesar’s funeral scene. Instead, we cut to a scene of a shocked Brutus, now proclaimed a murderer by the mob, and a gloating Anthony. Likewise, we aren’t shown the Battle of Actium. Instead we catch up with the boat carrying Anthony and the survivors of his shattered army. In this manner, the series makes history we already know feel fresh and exciting.

Sadly, the wonderful soundtrack for this series is out of print. But to give you a taste, here’s Jeff Beals’ score for the opening credits:

 

 

 

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In my last post, I talked about the effects of war on Frank and Claire. In this one, I’m focusing on two characters who at first glance seem to be completely dissimilar–Jamie Fraser and Jack Randall.

In spite of their obvious differences, Jamie and Jack do have certain things in common. Both men come from lower rank aristocratic families, both are second sons, not expected to inherit, and both men have their lives changed by war.

It’s interesting to speculate about the fate of these two characters if the second Jacobite Uprising hadn’t happened. Jamie’s path seems clear. He would have inherited Lallybroch, married a nice girl, brought up a pack of kids, taken care of his tenants, worked the land, and otherwise lived the life of a Scottish noble.

Jack’s alternate path is less clear, in part because we know less about his early life. He might have still purchased a commission and gone into the military, but would he have stayed in or would he have been court martialed by now, perhaps ending his days as a mercenary or a “remittance man”–an embarassing relative who receives a stipend or remittance from his family on the condition that he go abroad and stay there? Hard to say.

Outlander 2014

In Jamie’s case, it’s easy to see what radicalized him and lead him to become a professional soldier and a revolutionary. That reason can be summed up in three words: Jonathan Wolverton Randall. Randall’s requisitioning vist to Lallybroch–nothing like government-approved looting to make the populace love you–ends with him flogging Jamie, attempting rape Jamie’s sister, Jenny, and having Jamie thrown into prison on trumped up charges.

Randall follows this up with even more conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentlemen. He propositions Jamie and, when Jamie refuses, has him flogged again, a flogging so protracted (and so clearly unnecessary) that one of his own men faints and the entire audience of townspeople is reduced to tears. Jamie escapes from prison and fights as a mercenary in France before returning to Scotland to clear his name which is when we meet him.

Let’s back up for a moment now and consider the man who gave his name to sadism–the Marquis de Sade himself. Today, the Marquis has undergone something of a rehabilitation–people think of him as a free-love libertine who enjoyed a little naughty mutual spanking with his fellow aristos. It’s more accurate to view him as what he was–a hardcore sexual predator who preyed upon the weak and the powerless (servants, beggars, prostitutes), never on his social equals. Even for 18th century France, his behavior was considered beyond the pale and he spent most of his life in various insane asylums.

The open question about Jack is was he always a sadist or–and this is the more frightening option–was he a regular guy who became a sadist because of his experiences in the military? The Marquis de Sade attributed his love of pain to the beatings that he received at boarding school. Did something similar happen to Jack?

Jack Shaving Corporal Hawkins

It’s easy to see why a military career would appeal to someone with Jack’s sadistic tendencies. Not only are there civilians to terrorize and prisoners to torment, it’s also easy to make the lives of the men you command a living hell and do it all under the guise of discipline as we see when he pins down his terrified aide-de-camp and comes within a hair of cutting the corporal’s throat.

The only moment that Jack appears halfway sympathetic is when he bursts in on the commanding officers’ dinner in “The Garrison Commander”. For about five seconds, we get to see him in a positive light–a competent mid-ranking officer, fresh from the trenches, dust of the road still on him, plagued with idiot superiors. Jack treats said superiors with barely concealed contempt and he’s right–they are a contemptible lot. Lord Thomas and the rest are a bunch of entitled good old boys, too busy throwing fancy dinner parties and sneering at the Scottish savages to get the job done. It’s up to the lower rank field officers–Captain Randall and Lt. Foster– to keep order and enforce the King’s Peace.

This illusion of competence doesn’t last long. Just a few scenes later, listening to Jack tell Claire about Jamie’s flogging, you get the sense that this man’s mind is unraveling. Are his commanding officers really blind to the fact that Jack is no longer fit for duty? Are they so short-handed that they can’t afford to ship Jack back home or has he made himself so disliked that they keep sending him out on patrol again and again in hopes that he’ll get himself killed?

 

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One of the themes of Outlander is war and what it does to people–perhaps not surprising since executive producer Ron Moore explored similar ideas in his re-booted Battlestar Galactica series. All four of our main characters (Claire, Jaime, Frank, and Jack) are shaped by what has and what is happening to them during the conflicts they’ve participated in.

Claire and Frank in Uniform

As our story opens, we meet two returning veterans, Frank and Claire, just six months after having mustered out of the British Army and still adjusting to each other and to civilian life. Frank, in some respects, has had a harder war than Claire. Frank worked for British Intelligence and, as a result, was involved in a lot of secret missions that he can’t talk about. Claire, at least, can discuss her service as a battlefield nurse openly. The whole reason they are in Inverness is Frank’s interest in genealogy, his escape from his wartime memories.

Their idyll is short-lived as Claire falls through time and winds up essentially fighting for her life behind enemy lines. In some ways, Claire has been thrust back into the military life that she left, traveling with a band of soldiers, patching up the wounded, seeing men fight and die. Claire doesn’t spend her time the way I would –curled in a ball and weeping uncontrollably–but it’s a mistake to think that the constant stress is not affecting her and her actions in the series.

She’s lonely, she’s miserable, she’s drinking too much, she’s irritable, and acting rashly. Through much of the first season, Claire does what a British soldier is supposed to do when captured–stay alive, resist her captors, and look for her chance to escape. When she finally makes that pivotal decision to stay with Jamie and not return home, she’s making a bigger decision than leaving her husband, she’s abandoning her duty as a British soldier and citizen.

I have to wonder what would have happened if she would have told Dougal the truth about her travel through the stones while they were at St. Ninian’s Spring. Dougal is pre-disposed to believe anything she says at this point since anyone who drinks from the spring is supposed to be unable to lie.  Would he have taken her back to Craig Na Duan, I wonder, or would he have tried to keep her with him?

The fact that Claire is a woman is the thing that saves her life. If, say, Frank had fallen through the stones, he probably would have had a much harder time to avoid being killed. After all, a woman is not considered a threat (a target, yes, but not a threat) whereas Frank really is a Sassenach spy, although admittedly an ex-one who has worked for a different king.

Frank in the Bar

While Claire is trying to survive the 18th century, back in the 20th century Frank is living out a film noir nightmare. His wife has vanished, the police have given up the search, and even his close friends admit the cause is hopeless. Frank winds up in a bar trying to drown his troubles in the bottom of a shot glass when a dame who’s trouble sits down next to him. That’s when things get even more gnoirly (that’s gnarly and noir together).

We’re never told what exactly Frank did when he was part of British military intelligence. The implication we’re given is that he was some kind of paper pusher, but Frank displays a set of street smarts we don’t expect from a desk jockey. The dame lures Frank down a dark alley where he’s jumped by a couple of thugs. Things look bleak for our boy until he pulls out his blackjack (and what’s a nice historian doing with that kind of street weapon in his trench coat pocket we’d like to know) and delivers an impressive and brutal beat down on his attackers.

To quote The Wolfman, “even a man who’s pure of heart and says his prayers at night may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the moon is full and bright.” Frank discovered just how close to the surface his own inner monster is. How often has it been unleashed before, we wonder? [Incidentally, just purely coincidence that Tobias Menzies will be playing a Lycan werewolf in the next Underworld movie and my thinking of this werewolf poem, but ya gotta admire the synchronicity].

 

 

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Just finished watching the first half of Season 1 of the Outlander series and am now waiting (impatiently) for the second half of the episodes to be released. Seriously, next to Black Jack Randall himself, the producers of this series are the biggest sadists ever. Who the heck does 16 episodes and then–after they’ve all aired, mind you—releases them to the public a dribble at time? Sassenach bastards!

Well, as I chew the scenery impatiently, I thought I might just give a little shout out to the supporting cast. Most of the media attention has been on the main characters, Claire (Caitriona Balfe) and Jaimie (Sam Heughan). However, as it often the case, it’s been the secondary characters that have caught my eye.

Lotte Verbeek Geillis

Lotte Verbeek as Geillis

When we first met Geillis Duncan, I was completely mesmerized by her eyes. I couldn’t think of what they reminded me of at first, but then it hit me. She has the eyes of a cat–a big, predatory cat. Lotte gives Geillis a very feline aspect in her movements as well and once we see her red shoes (which she probably got by feeding Dorothy a poison apple), we know for sure that she’s a witch.

Simon Meacock as Hugh Munro

Simon Meacock as Hugh Munro

As a mute, all of Hugh’s dialogue essentially consists of “ungh” interspersed with gestures, so it’s a credit to character actor Simon Meacock range of facial expressions that we get a glimpse of the lively, intelligent man behind the beggar’s coat. More Hugh Munro, please.

Dougal Mackenzie

Graham McTavish as Dougal McKenzie

If Jaimie is the Disney Prince of this series, then Dougal “MacDaddy” Mackenzie is the wicked uncle of the piece. Actually, that’s a much too simplistic description of Dougal’s complicated character, played with infinite finesse by Graham McTavish. Dougal is by turns both a hero and a villain and you can never tell which one will crop up next. And can we take a moment to appreciate just how many irons Dougal has in the fire? This guy has a wife at home, is carrying on a torrid affair with Geillis Duncan, hitting on Claire every chance he gets, and doing all of this while he’s raising money for the Jacobite rebellion at the same time.

Tobias Menzies Jack & Frank

Tobias Menzies as Jonathan Wolverton Randall/Frank Wolverton Randall

Honestly, where is this guy’s acting award? Tobias Menzies plays two related characters, neither of whom is entirely what they appear. On the surface, Claire’s husband, Frank, is just a mild-mannered historian, but during the war Frank worked for military intelligence and he still retains his special skills. On the surface, Black Jack Randall is a proper British officer, but the truth is that he’s a sadist who enjoys making examples out of anyone unlucky enough to fall into his clutches. Tobias is one of those actors who can tell you a lot by the look in his eyes and these dual roles are a lot of fun.

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