Arya Stark may have had a dramatic reaction to the horrors of war on “Game of Thrones” last night, but she was not the only woman to take decisive action in the 9 p.m. hour of an increasingly packed Sunday television schedule. While HBO was returning to Westeros, AMC launched “Turn,” a new drama about the Culper Ring, a spy ring that worked out of New York City, Long Island and Connecticut during the Revolutionary War. When I spoke to Heather Lind, who plays Ring member Anna Strong, in January, she made a pitch for the show that could easily describe its fantastical competitor.
“I love history, but you don’t hear women’s perspectives that much,” she told me. “And I think when they do, they’re sort of skewed through the prism of male experience.”
In the historical record, Strong, a Long Island resident, is most famous for her clothesline: She used combinations of petticoats and handkerchiefs to signal other members of the ring. The pilot episode of “Turn” starts before Strong developed that system, though. She begins the series as a tavern-keeper who is living in close quarters with British soldiers, washing their clothes even as they harass her and imprison her husband. Lind argues that “Turn” is a unique opportunity to examine the ways war influences domestic life — and the ways underlooked and underestimated people, including women and people of color, can play critical roles in these conflicts.
“There were no locks on her doors. She was literally housing the enemy alone,” Lind said of Strong, saying she tried to imagine that terror and the hope the Culper Ring gave her character. “She had to be a little more astute, a little more observant of how people were moving around her, where people were in the house. . . . How do you sleep in a house full of enemy soldiers with weapons, [who were] drunk, often?”
But those same constraints that made women so vulnerable were also the things that made Strong a valuable spy, Lind said.
“The rules of society allowed her to have access to places that men couldn’t necessarily have,” Lind said, noting that women could frequently venture into restricted areas, taking men with them as socially required escorts. “To clean somebody’s room, and look in their drawers. . . . Because women weren’t sort of assumed to be very involved, I think to myself, the conversations they had in my tavern, I was just invisible to them, and I could listen to them.”
Lind singled out slaves, who she said play a more significant role as “Turn” progresses, as another class of people who are forced to be attentive to small shifts in the social environment. As a result, she suggested that marginalized people were more attuned to changes in political allegiance and eager to seize the opportunities available to them in wartime.
“People who have less political power and status have to exercise that kind of secrecy in their daily life so much,” Lind argued. As for her character, “She has access, and she has ideas, and she’s creative and curious. I think the agency she gets in this is exciting to her. . . . She can serve someone ale and ruin their lives the next minute.”
But the point of a show like “Turn,” Lind suggested, is not simply to illustrate that people who normally live in domestic spaces can be useful in war. Instead, she wants to call attention to the ways in which war is domestic.
“I remember reading a play when I was in college about women’s experiences during World War II. And when they were just trying to raise children, and the blitz is happening,” she said. “I want to hear about what that was like. How do you garden? How do you get the right food for your family? Because that’s what wars are about. I think wars are about trade, they’re about money and power.”