‘You could argue that the British empire slowly built the man who would destroy them from the inside out.’ – Alexis Coe in Washington
This month The History Channel released a new miniseries about the life of America’s first President: George Washington. It was titled, quite simply: WASHINGTON. To be honest, I went into this series with low expectations. The History Channel screens some pretty questionable and often hilarious content (see: Ancient Aliens). Growing up, whenever I turned on this channel there was always some show about conspiracy theories involving the Illuminati or the Freemasons. So I was fairly shocked to discover that this miniseries was pretty darn good!
Thus far I’ve only seen Episode 1 (‘Loyal Subject’) which follows Washington’s early life and military career, but here are some thoughts about the pros and cons of the show – which may help you decide if you want to give it a watch too.
Okay, let’s focus on the positives first!
1 – They interview tons of big name historians, biographers and politicians
I was surprised to see lots of famous early American historians interviewed here (Annette Gordon-Reed! Joseph J. Ellis!), in addition to people like Bill Clinton and Colin Powell. The whole series is actually produced by Doris Kearns Goodwin. It is fascinating to see all of these big name politicians and historians reflecting on Washington, and they bring so much knowledge, gravitas and, frankly, legitimacy to the whole thing. These people are the experts in their fields and I’m inherently curious about what they have to say. Well done, History Channel.
2 – Production value of reenactments
The interview clips are interspersed with short re-enactments of Washington’s life, featuring actors in period costume. So it’s almost like a little biopic film mixed with historical commentary. That could have been quite a cheesy format, but I think the balance works pretty well and keeps the whole thing quite engaging.
These reenactment scenes can get surprisingly violent (we see a Native American guy scalping someone and later there is a hanging), which is something to be aware of. The acting is passable, but I was overall impressed with the costumes and the scale of these reenactments. I can’t wait to see more of them actually!
3 – It doesn’t sugarcoat his life too much
The series isn’t overly reverential. It delves into how, early on in his career, Washington made a lot of mistakes. He makes tactical blunders, signs documents he doesn’t understand because they are in French (lol!), and misrepresents some of his military deeds in newspapers of the time. He’s human and this show is quick to point that out.
It also discusses how he was a slave owner. I especially liked the discussion of this from Erica Armstrong Dunbar of Rutgers University. She said: ‘I believe he knew that slavery was wrong but it was also crucial to his financial success.’ YES. I’m so glad they included this quote from Dunbar because there’s a big misconception that people back then didn’t think slavery was wrong, because their morals were just so different from our own. But honestly – lots of them did know it was cruel and wrong, it was just the economic system that they lived under at the time and they didn’t seen an alternative. That’s a crucial thing for modern audiences to comprehend and I like that the show addressed it.
4 – There’s a focus on his character/personality
I took some notes for this post while I was watching the show and I wrote down: ‘he was tall and women were into it’. I also wrote: ‘self-control but with fire crackling inside.’ The historians interviewed talk about contemporary accounts of Washington (who was really tall for the time, like 6’2”) and by all accounts had a very restrained but commanding presence. He was also apparently very disciplined with his men and very quietly ambitious. It was his feelings of being snubbed by the British army early in his career that, the series argues, sets him on the path to becoming a Revolutionary. So we really get to know the guy a bit through the series: his temperament, his personal goals etc.
Now, for the cons:
1 – Not a great introduction to the entire Revolutionary War
Because of the limited scope of the show, they have to gloss over a lot of stuff. So everything apart from Washington’s life feels really rushed. We hop from the Boston Massacre to Lexington and Concord, with very little explanation for what those things are or how they impacted the colonies. So this isn’t the best thing to watch for a general introduction to the revolutionary war.
2 – The actor who plays Washington
I’m sorry to say that Nicholas Rowe, the actor who plays Washington in the reenactments, doesn’t really exhibit some of the gravitas and personal magnetism that the historians are saying that the real Washington had. There’s a somewhat unintentionally funny bit where the interviewees are quoting from period accounts of how charming Washington was, how he had a fire behind his eyes etc., and it cuts to Rowe dancing with some ladies with just a mildly engaged look on his face. He isn’t really bringing that gravitas to the table.
This stuff wouldn’t usually bother me – after all, this is a documentary and not a feature film! These scenes are just to dramatize what the interviewees are talking about. BUT since they go on and on about how much unusual gravitas Washington had, I think most actors would fail to live up to that build-up. Most people don’t have that kind of quiet charisma – that was part of what made Washington special! But Rowe overall does an okay job and I’m curious to see how he does as the older Washington.
All in all, I’d recommend the show so far! Definitely worth a watch if you’re interested in this time period, if only to see the all-star historians and biographers line-up. Also, at a time of such great political division in the USA, I do think it’s important to focus on our shared history, which is so unique.
Have you seen Washington? If so, I’d be very curious to hear your thoughts! I’m looking forward to Episodes 2 and 3.
PS Two pieces of poetry news!
Last week I was at StAnza Poetry Festival in St Andrews, introducing and chairing some poetry events. I’ve been volunteering for this festival for almost 9 years (!) and for several years have served as their in-house Festival blogger. This year, I was mainly introducing events, but they asked me to do one blog post as well. You can read my post, ‘Moonlight and Mermaids’, here if you’re interested in learning about StAnza (the biggest poetry festival in the UK), which takes place every year in a little Scottish town by the sea. The post also features some discussion of late 18th century gothic women poets.
Also, I have a poem in the Scottish Writers Centre’s new chapbook ‘Island and Sea’, published last week. If you happen to be Scotland-based (I know that some ‘Madeira Mondays’ readers are!), the chapbook is launching tomorrow (March 10th) at the Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA) in Glasgow. Several poets from the book will be reading on the night. I’m hoping to make it through to read. If that sounds like your cup of tea, here’s the event page!
(Today’s featured image is of, you guessed it, George Washington, by Charles Wilson Peale in 1772, accessed via the Wikimedia Commons. It is the earliest authenticated portrait of Washington.)
‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!