“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?[pagebreak]
In Philadelphia, John André is having much better luck in his mission to turn Benedict Arnold. First, his poisonous letter about Arnold’s primary loyalty to coin over country is on its way to be circulated by mischievous General Lee. “I am the ventriloquist,” he tells General Howe. But even his romantic passions seem to be playing to his favor. His flirtations with Peggy Shippen are bearing fruit, and her expressions of admiration convince her father that a proposal is imminent. Mr. Shippen (Mark Rolston, who will always be Shawshank’s Bogs Diamond to me), invites André for tea and coarsely interviews him about his family history and financial holdings in order to ascertain if he’s a suitable match, wealthwise. It’s a humiliating encounter, for everyone but the pompous Mr. Shippen, and after the middle-class André puts the rich slave-trader in his place, Peggy chases him down outside to express her regret. Later, in the garden, André lashes out at her, and she retaliates in kind, with sharp arrows that hit their respective marks. But of course, they kiss. This isn’t part of the job for André—though it probably has been in the past with other women—but he might some day have to choose between his heart and his king. Or… perhaps the smitten Peggy will allow him both even after Arnold finds his way back to her…
Arnold’s recuperation is slow, but it’s his deteriorating wits that might be worse than his wounded leg. When Ben checks in on him, he finds him rather worse for wear. At least Arnold recognizes that he erred in speaking to Washington so belligerently during their last heated encounter. But Arnold and Ben see eye-to-eye about something: Washington needs to be protected from his “camp full of Judases and Machiavellis.” Oh, Benedict: I half expect to hear a cock crow every time you utter such declarations tainted with fate.
But Arnold’s paranoia overlaps with Ben’s concern for Washington, cementing the bond that began with Ben’s hero worship and solidified by the general’s fondness for Ben’s dead brother. With Washington giving Ben the cold shoulder, perhaps he begins to see Arnold as a substitute patron, a big brother in lieu of a father figure. Why else would Ben relay the wicked gossip about Arnold, essentially doing André’s dirty work for him? Arnold wants Ben as his new aide-de-camp and gives Ben an ultimatum: “You can be a spy or you can be a soldier—but you can’t be both.” After witnessing Ben in action lately, I’d recommend the latter.
In the New Jersey woods, Caleb and Robert Rogers are racing to locate Capt. Rider, the American pirate-turned-privateer who looted the British ship carrying the secret documents stuffed in the bust of King George. Caleb gets there first, but Rider sees right through his negotiating ploy and realizes he has stumbled upon something special, something valuable. Like any good pirate, he’s not so eager to sell the bust until he sees what price it can bring on the open market. But the clock is ticking, and Caleb tries to convey that the second interested buyer isn’t likely to meet a higher price. Zing, pop! Hatchets and bullets fly through the air as Rogers and his soldiers attack. Rider runs into Roger’s knife a half-dozen times, giving Caleb a chance to smash the bust and escape with the secret papers. The King made it seem like the information within was vital, a potential game-changer. If Caleb brings it to Ben, it’s certain to get him back in the game with Washington.
Abe’s trip to New York to recruit Townsend caused one casualty, but as it turns out, it was the Judge’s fault. Suspicious about his son’s missions to the city, he sent an indebted farmer named Henry Browning to shadow Abe’s every move. When Abe took notice and feared the worse, he chased him into the night down the wrong street in the wrong neighborhood. A gang of thieves fell upon them both and stabbed poor Browning, killing him—but not before he admitted to Abe who’d sent him. When Abe returns to Setauket, he angrily confronts his father over the tail. Copernicus Hewlett plays peacemaker and urges the three of them—now that there are no longer any secrets between them—to discuss Abe’s latest discoveries into the Sons of Liberty rebels. Abe eyeballs his father and comes up with a giant big F.U.— naming the late Henry Browning as the rabble-rouser he’s uncovered in the city. The Judge now knows exactly what Abe is up to, and Townsend’s assessment of Abe has been proven 100 percent correct.
Turn is about Washington’s spies, but the show’s secret weapon continues to be J.J. Feild’s John André. Benedict Arnold’s fall from grace might still turn out to be the spine of this season and the future of the show, but it’s André’s character, his mystery, and his charisma that has enriched the first four episodes and become the centerpiece of the drama. The ultimate tragedy might not be Arnold’s betrayal, but the sad fate that awaits the man who can’t help but seduce everyone he meets.