“You are a boy playing a man playing a spy, and each one a liar. The son of Tory magistrate who risks his life and others to rebel against his father.” —Robert Townsend
Abraham Woodhull is the only surviving son of a prominent Long Island official, the husband to a respectable woman, and a political conspirator in league with his lover and their rebel friends. But it took Townsend, the inconspicuous New York City boardinghouse owner who Abe had met only twice, to peg him for exactly what he is and what makes him so: daddy issues.
Abe’s confidence as an intelligence agent is outpacing his actual skills. To wit, he and Benjamin Tallmadge are still muffing up simple dead drops in the woods, a sure way to get captured by the British. Ben’s own amateur attempts at espionage have failed to impress his boss. General Washington is demanding actual results—not just evidence of internal intrigue and treason from his most decorated officers. When Ben surprises Abe at the drop site at night, and follows his friend to his root cellar to plot their next move, he can’t conceal his desperation. He needs something to give Washington and get back in the general’s good graces. Abe thinks he has something better: Townsend, a mole in the nest of unsuspecting British soldiers.
At that moment, I was bewildered by Abe’s strong conviction that Townsend was sympathetic to the revolution. After all, his last encounter with Townsend ended quite abruptly on an unfriendly note, with the boardinghouse keeper thwarting Abe’s spying efforts and banning him from his establishment. But Abe was apparently encouraged by the fact that Townsend didn’t turn him in to the redcoats, and his subsequent research revealed that Townsend’s father has Whiggish leanings to the patriot cause. So he marches right back in to Townsend’s establishment on the Bowery and presses him to… turn.
But Townsend is two steps ahead of Abe, and not just in their high-stakes checkers game. (He’s a savvy New Yorker!) He knows Abe’s history, he knows his family’s reputation, he even knows about his murdered brother and his subsequent marriage of convenience. Finally, a guy who looks and acts like a natural spy—one I would actually trust not to get me killed. Townsend initially dismisses Abe’s overtures, but then—after a British soldier interrupts their private conversation and Abe gets in one final parting shot—he inexplicably reverses course and opens the door a crack for future collaboration.
Maybe Abe’s recruitment pitch—“I used to be just like you, and it sickens me now”—struck a nerve, but Townsend’s sudden receptiveness felt slightly untrue. Was he merely testing Abe initially, getting all his cards on the table in order to see if he’s the real deal? Is he still on the political fence, like a lot of New Yorkers were, and contemplating playing both sides to his benefit? The history books have the answers, but Turn has played loose with certain facts in the past in order to tell a good story. But I hope Abe’s mere whisper isn’t the nudge that pushes Townsend into action. I respect him already as a character and I think his initial reluctance requires something greater to make him a central cog in the Culper ring. Perhaps Simcoe and his Rangers will venture to Townsend’s hometown of Oyster Bay for their next tongue-cutting expedition.
NEXT: Is it okay to root for the doomed British spy?