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'Turn' recap: 'Hard Boiled'

Abe plays checkers; John André plays chess.

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Antony Platt/AMC

Turn: Washington's Spies

TV Show
run date:
Current Status:
In Season

When it comes to espionage, a good rule of thumb might be not to put all your eggs in one basket. Wily British spymaster John André already seems to appreciate that maxim—but it’s a lesson that Abraham Woodhull has to learn the hard way.

Abe is pretty pleased with himself after tricking Major Hewlett into believing he’s a double agent determined to infiltrate the Sons of Liberty group, which is presumed to be responsible for his brother’s death. (Again, Hewlett: champion buffoon or Sun Tsu wizard? Discuss.) From Abe’s Cabbage Cave, the secret basement of his burned farmhouse, he’s forged himself a concealed stiletto blade and 18th-century Post-It pad to surreptitiously document the British military conditions and activity in Manhattan. Free of his military escort once he enters the city, Abe checks into a boarding house with the announced intention of studying the law. But this isn’t a Comfort Inn, and the customers in the kitchen are a squirrelly, motley crew. Abe’s clumsy attempt at small talk only attracts him unwanted attention, and the operator of the establishment, a man named Townsend, urges him to mind his porridge—though maybe that’s just because he didn’t appreciate Abe’s assisting his opponent in checkers. 

John André is staying in Philadelphia, but his accommodations are much grander than Abe’s. He’s staying at Benjamin Franklin’s abandoned house. The world-renowned Newton of Electricity is in Paris, lobbying for a Franco-American alliance, and his home became occupied after Congress and its rebel army fled the approaching British army in September 1777. André is the rare British soldier who can appreciate Franklin’s ingenuity for what it is, and he’s positively giddy demonstrating the many inventions to his disinterested superior. (I believe he’s General Henry Clinton, though it could be General William Howe.)

André has two major operations in the works. One is the turning of a crucial American officer who can help end the war. General Charles Lee seems like a willing accomplice, but André’s current measure of the man concludes that Lee was a poor investment. André now has his sights set on a much bigger fish: Benedict Arnold. Clinton scoffs. After all, Arnold might be the best field commander the Americans currently have, a hero who helped snatch victory from the jaws of defeat at Saratoga in early October—a triumph that gave the revolution credibility in the eyes of European powers. But André is convinced that Arnold’s virtues are rivaled by his flaws, and the failure of the Congress to recognize his battlefield bravery and achievements will fester long after his leg wound heals.

Did you notice the sexual intimacy between André and Clinton? The senior officer undoubtedly caressed André’s hand as he was handed his port glass, and the younger man acted as if it were a familiar gesture, perhaps one between “such friends as only the comradeship of war can make.” Being seductive is part of André’s job description, but this was the first time I recognized that that aspect of his personality had broader implications. To André, the art of war is a dance, and as he says, he’s apparently familiar with all sorts of music. 

Andre’s other operation is a special mission that involves the Queen’s Rangers—leaderless since he sacked the renegade Robert Rogers. André thinks he has just the man for the job of bringing the Rangers to heel: John Graves Simcoe. He might look like Stan Laurel, but Simcoe is a fascist brute, serving out his time writing undelivered love letters to Anna after his arrest during the Battle of Setauket. André arranges his release, and recruits him for the kind of blunt violence that he displayed previously—stabbing a patriot spy in the neck. “A detestable man,” André says to his servant, Abigail. “But sometimes such men can serve a purpose.”

NEXT: The courtship of Peggy Shippen