I am always on the lookout for good historical dramas. A while back, I discovered AMC’s Turn. I watched the first season or two, but at the time, the rest of it wasn’t on Netflix and I was a bit too cheap to purchase it. However, over the last few weekends, I binge watched the rest of it shamelessly.
If you haven’t heard of it, Turn is a spy thriller TV series set during the Revolutionary War about the Culper spy ring – a network that, at various times throughout the war, provided enormously consequential intelligence to the Continental Army. When I first started watching, I didn’t even realize that it had a basis in reality – although to say it’s based on real events may be taking it a bit too far. There is a fair amount that needed to be invented because even though it’s been nearly 250 years, it was still, you know, spy stuff. The existence of the ring was only disclosed in the 1930s, and there is still a lot that isn’t known – including the identity of one of its key agents: a woman named Agent 355. (In Turn, this identity is given to a freed slave named Abigail.)
This TV series is by no means perfect. There were a number of things about it that made me shake my head and roll my eyes, but it was engaging enough to keep my attention. When I reached the end, however, I found myself blown away with the last five minutes of the series. You know how historically based movies will often have a bit at the end that tells you what happened to the “characters” (a.k.a. real people) after the events of the film? I find those moments are often a bit sappy, a bit predictable, and more than a bit cherry picked. Well, the writers (or directors/producers) of Turn took a different approach that brought me near tears and got my head spinning.
In the last few minutes of Turn, the main character and main agent of this spy ring, Culper himself (in real life, a cabbage farmer named Abraham Woodhull) narrates a letter to his son in which he discusses contradictions and complexities, as illustrated by the lives of the people we followed throughout the series. The heroic actions taken by men that he fought against. The remarkable contributions later made by people who did horrific things. The horrific things done by people who started as heroes.
One thing that Woodhull repeats twice in his [fictional] letter to his son is that the “revolution never ends.” This is shattering, as he then reveals that his son was killed by the British during the War of 1812. He continues:
The revolution never ends. It was hallowed as a triumph of the righteous over the wicked. But the battle lines were never clearly drawn. The real war, the war between good and evil, is fought within ourselves.
This letter, that quietly ended a four-season series that didn’t exactly always aim so high, and that told the story of events and people of more than 200 years ago, still somehow spoke directly to the heart of where our country is at in this moment.
We are facing the contradiction of what our country has achieved, with how much we have progressed while acknowledging how terribly far we have to go.
We are facing the contradiction of the unparalleled things that men like Washington, Jefferson, and a multitude of others did for our country, with the hypocrisy we so clearly see in them.
We are facing the contradiction of having a system of government that many of us would claim to be proud of, with our refusal to actually trust it.
And we are facing the contradiction of believing in the promises of our constitution, promises of liberty and equality, with our eyes wide open, knowing how frequently these promises have been denied, postponed, removed, or manipulated.
Like every generation since its founding, we are facing the contradiction of the promise of America with the reality of America.
These contradictions are frustrating and confusing.
How can we celebrate Jefferson, for example, when we can see such hypocrisy in his life, and when we look at Sally Hemings? At the same time, how can we not applaud the aspiration, idealism, and hope in the Declaration of Independence?
How can we be proud of this country when we see nothing but polarization, dishonesty, and tribalism (whether via sexism, racism, etc.)? At the same time, how can we fail to appreciate the optimism and determination that is so central to the American spirit?
Of course, contradictions are everywhere in our lives, in big ways and small. We all live with a thousand little hypocrisies and inconsistencies which are no easier to accept than the big ones.
I don’t think there’s an easy or simple answer, but I do know that pretending these contradictions don’t exist doesn’t do any good. We have to find a road to walk in between. I’m reminded of an aside from The Handmaid’s Tale:
We lived in the gaps between the stories.
That’s where the truth in contradiction lies. In the middle. In the gaps.
Contradiction is uncomfortable. And it can be easier to pick one story to tell ourselves so that we don’t have to deal with that discomfort. So that we don’t have to do the work of finding the middle ground. But when we only choose one story and ignore the ones that contradict it, we end up lying to ourselves. And we may find we get to a point where we don’t recognize the truth at all anymore.
Because the truth is Washington was not a Saint any more than he was the Devil. America is both aspirational and deficient. Remarkable and ordinary. And when we evaluate ourselves, we may find we are both kind and inconsiderate. Trustworthy and dishonest. Compassionate and selfish.
Both of these things can be true. And before we can process these contradictions, we have to first acknowledge that they exist.
Contradictions are not easy to live with. They are reminders of where we have fallen short. Where we have failed. But I think they can also be a roadmap. They point out where we can do better and they can show us the things we truly value. And maybe that will make it a little easier to deal with.
All of that from a spy story. Who’d have thought, eh?