If you had to design an episode of America Unearthed that I am guaranteed not to care about, one exploring one of the least interesting mysteries of my least favorite time period is guaranteed to be it. I have never been terribly interested in the eighteenth century, and a minor footnote about which person served as one of Washington’s spies just doesn’t capture my interest. This was a quiet, talky episode of America Unearthed that rarely strayed beyond the historical record, offered no original investigation, and cast host Scott Wolter as a clueless naïf wandering around Long Island while contributing nothing except some connecting narration to a series of interviews with female historians, journalists, novelists, etc. The show never comments on the gender politics involved until a sentimental summation on the value of women at the end of the hour, but it is notable that the experts on the history of female spies are themselves all women.
The episode opens with another narrative discussion by Scott Wolter, this time with Wolter laying out a map of the American Revolution on a light table with little figurines of men and a silhouette representing “Agent 355,” a woman who served in George Washington’s spy ring and who exposed Benedict Arnold’s treason and uncovered a British plot to attack the colonial economy. Wolter claims that he will solve the mystery of Agent 355’s true identity before the end of the hour, though this is a boast that the show cannot back up. The show seems to be trying to save money on the traditional cinematic reenactments—a feeling confirmed by the overwhelming amount of stock photos and seated interviews that substitute for on-location adventures this week—and we cut to the opening credits before launching into segment one.
The first segment immediate takes a turn into the surreal when Wolter tells us that he has been in contact with former CIA operative Valerie Plame, who became famous 16 years ago when Richard Armitage and Scooter Libby helped blow her cover during the Bush Administration. In the intervening years, she became a spy novelist. After an antisemitic scandal in 2017, for which she apologized, and an attempt that same year to buy Twitter in order to kick Donald Trump off of it, last month she became a Democratic candidate for Congress in New Mexico. Plame claims in a staged phone call to be “familiar” with Wolter. As bizarre as her appearance on this show is, somehow it fits.
This leads to a discussion of the Culper Ring, Washington’s group of spies, and Plame tells Wolter that she has identified three suspects for 355’s identity. Wolter suspects that Plame, as a CIA operative, has access to secrets that aren’t “in the public record.” I doubt she has any government secrets about America before there was an American government.
Plame and Wolter discuss how Washington’s spy ring functioned. Plame is not a good actress, and her stilted line readings give the lie to the idea that this show is anything other than scripted.
The second segment involves Wolter investigating a coded message from Washington’s spy ring that mentions 355. Wolter and Plame discuss it by reading it against the well-known Culper Ring code. Thus, they see that the message said that the writer planned to meet with 355 (code for “lady”) to conduct espionage. The shock! Plame’s three candidates for 355 are Anna “Nancy” Strong, Elizabeth Burgin, and Peggy Shippen Arnold, the last being Benedict Arnold’s wife. Wolter delivers a scripted quip about Shippen playing Arnold, but his line reading is unnatural and it seems as though he did a few too many takes.
This leads to Wolter examining the life of Peggy Shippen Arnold, which he investigates through stock photos and a sit-down interview with Allison Pataki, a novelist and journalist whose main contribution is to promote her novel about Shippen Arnold’s life, The Traitor’s Wife. Wolter suggests that Shippen Arnold turned on her husband because she was “scorned,” though Pataki offers a more cerebral interpretation centered on her connections to patriots. Pataki, however, doubts that Shippen Arnold could have come and gone from New York as easily as 355.
We repeat the process again in discussing Nancy Strong, this time in a sit-down interview with a member of the Three Village Historical Society at Setauket on Long Island. In the AMC series TURN: Washington’s Spies, Strong was agent 355, though several historians argue she was too old to have been 355.
In the third segment, Wolter goes outside to look at the water, but most of the discussion involves a computer-generated map to show how Strong might have signaled American patriots with a system using laundry as signal flags. It’s about as interesting to me as the lanterns on the Old North Church steeple in Longfellow’s poem about Paul Revere, which is to say, not really all that compelling as a story unless the minutiae of Revolutionary War communication is a pet topic of yours. Given that America Unearthed spent three seasons exploring ancient and medieval history, I’m not entirely sure how much of the audience will be excited by this sedate episode.
In another waste of time, Wolter ventures down the hill to determine whether laundry hung on the shore could be seen by the naked eye from a cove a short distance away or whether a spyglass was needed to see the laundry. He determines that a spyglass can help but isn’t necessarily essential. “This little experiment we’ve done today has worked perfectly!” Wolter enthuses. Wolter then concludes that while Strong “could have” been 355 he does not have the evidence to prove it.
Back in Brooklyn, Wolter meets Karen Quinones, a Revolutionary War historian, who tells Wolter about Elizabeth Burgin, who helped American prisoners escape from the horrific conditions aboard British prison ships anchored across from Manhattan Island. For her service, Washington granted her rations after the British put a bounty on her head, she fled New York, and she was left with nothing. “This is mind-blowing! It really is!” Wolter exclaims, claiming that Washington really gave the rations in honor of her service as 355.
In the fifth segment, Wolter sits in his laboratory in Minnesota and then proceeds to recap everything we just heard to Plame, who appears via video conference. Since we just finished hearing all of this, the lengthy recap only serves to underscore how light the episode was on incident, excitement, or interest. Wolter concludes that Burgin is the best candidate for 355.
The recap continues in the sixth segment, and Plame says Wolter did “some amazing sleuthing.” No, he didn’t. He did nothing. He talked to people and then picked one of Plame’s own candidates that somebody told him was the best fit. The show chose not to acknowledge many of the traditional stories told about 355 that complicate the narrative, including claims that the real 355 died aboard a prison ship in sometime after 1780, or that she in a common-law marriage and gave birth to a son named Robert Townshend, Jr. after his father, neither of which comport with the lives of the women investigated here. The stories might not be true—though Plame’s old employer, the CIA, endorsed them—but ignoring the stories told about 355 while filling the hour with endless repeating and recapping of its few facts just shows how the narrative for an America Unearthed episode is constructed backward from a preferred conclusion to fill the allotted time in a way designed to keep viewers just entertained enough not to turn the channel. A better documentary would have been more systematic in its evaluation of evidence, more informative in its discussion of dissenting points of view, and much less repetitive.
The show ends with Wolter offering a paean to the contributions of women throughout American history in a way that was simultaneously a little patronizing and more than a little groan-inducing. After flashing on screen images of famous women from Harriet Tubman to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Wolter offers a summation on the importance of recognizing women’s contributions. “To them, I say ‘Thank you!’” he says. I am sure they are just thrilled that you appreciate them.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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