THAT “LITTLE FISH TOWN,” called Setauket, or so it was known to anyone who wondered what it was. A little fish town in the middle of the bottom of nowhere. Setauket was settled in 1655 by land-hungry New Englanders. Ancient churches, village greens. It still retains that doomed, Salem witch trial feel. This is why it makes the perfect setting for AMC’s TURN: Washington’s Spies.
That the “Setauket” of TURN was assembled in Virginia is no matter. The series captures its tart, backwater taste perfectly. When Abraham Woodhull’s frustrated wife moves to her father-in-law’s house, and Abe gets wasted on homemade beer and shoots his musket into the winter air and then has a confusing romantic encounter with Anna Smith Strong — that’s the futility of Setauket right there. Never have I identified with a main character like I identify with the proud and painfully independent Woodhull. So I am proud to see Setauket portrayed as it revealed itself to me in my own youth.
Nothing has changed in the little fish town in the past 200 years.
Yet so much has changed. When my daughter saw the opening scenes of the series, she said, “But Setauket doesn’t look like that.” When I was going to school we had a local history book that ended in 1955, when the area was still agrarian. It looked a great deal like the Setauket you see in TURN. Then something happened. The State University of New York at Stony Brook was founded in 1962. A rash of development spread from abandoned farmstead to abandoned farmstead, placing Best Buys and Targets and Home Depots on land where people used to grow cabbage. It’s still going on, as condominiums choke the remaining patches of unused land out of memory. Sadly it’s not just Setauket. When the camera panned in on virgin forest and then revealed the location as “Northern New Jersey,” I had to laugh. Really. Call it graveyard humor.
One of the centerpieces of the colonial-royal conflict was the idea of land ownership. “This is not your land, this is the King’s land,” says the villainous British officer Simcoe in one of the earlier episodes. “They are fighting for their King, we are fighting for our homes,” says the patriot spymaster Benjamin Tallmadge in another scene. Yet what’s become of all of this contentious real estate? Nail salons, gas stations. Housing estates with quaint-sounding names. They call it progress, but progress toward what? They call it development, but development toward what?
These are just some of the many ideas I have while watching this excellent show. My only regret is that it wasn’t made when I was 10 or 11 years old and we were learning about the Setauket spies in elementary school. If I had obtained it on DVD then, if they had had DVDs then, I would have never have left my house. My friends would have been the actors on the screen. I would have dressed up like them, and affected their peculiar transatlantic accents toting a toy musket bought at Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride. There’s something telling about either my fragile childhood mental state or the place in which I grew up that I found the idea of living under foreign military occupation absolutely thrilling. British troops in Setauket? Couldn’t be better. I’m sure it was terrible, but at least something was actually going on then. Anything to kill the boredom in that little fish town.