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'Turn' recap: 'Providence'

Benedict Arnold is ripe for the picking, and Major Hewlett hobbles home.

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Antony Platt/AMC

Turn: Washington's Spies

TV Show
run date:
Current Status:
In Season

The die is cast.

Even since Benjamin Tallmadge mentioned the name of Benedict Arnold in season 1 of Turn: Washington’s Spies, amateur Revolution-era historians have been waiting for the picture to come into focus—how one of George Washington’s most valued commanders became the most notorious traitor in American history. There are two more episodes to go this season—and perhaps more before Arnold ultimately chooses his path—but anyone who knows what awaits in Arnold’s biography can point to “Providence” as the episode that sealed his fate.

The Americans are still at Valley Forge, but Washington is planning a gamble: attack New York City in the winter of early 1778. Washington never got over the sting of losing New York to the British in a route, and he yearned to redeem himself against the professionally-trained enemy on a legitimate field of battle, rather than the skirmishes, hit-and-runs, and midnight escapes that had allowed his army to survive thus far. Relying on Abe’s intelligence about British troop levels in New York—a mere 3,500—he’s aiming for a bold strike that he tells his war council could be the decisive battle of the war. His rival Charles Lee is reluctant, but Arnold is champing at the bit; this is the kind of bold maneuver that won him glory at Saratoga—and also got him shot in the leg.

But before such an attack can get any farther than the plotting stages, the entire political landscape changes: Benjamin Franklin and John Adams secured an alliance with France, the only nation that could possibly tip the scales in North America. When Lafayette delivers the good news, Washington’s astonishment was touching and extremely revealing. As we saw last week in “Valley Forge,” Washington was hanging by a thin thread, and this was the break he needed just to keep going, personally.

Lafayette was a crucial figure in Washington’s inner circle during the war—another of the surrogate sons that he was fond of collecting—but his introduction in Turn was underplayed to the degree that it’s still unclear whether he’ll be a semi-major character or just someone like Selah Strong, who pops up here or there. What I did like about the brief encounter was his warm European embrace of Washington, a man who hated to be touched and clearly flinched at the greeting. But even Washington is willing to adjust for the cause: during the camp’s celebration of the French alliance, he warmly returns the favor as Arnold and his bum leg are reduced to the periphery. 

There is more than hope with this good news; there is an opportunity that isn’t as reckless as taking New York City. In fact, the promise of a French fleet knocks down several dominoes, beginning with Philadelphia. British forces there are now vulnerable and the troops are being transferred to New York to bolster those defenses, allowing Washington’s army, just miles away in Valley Forge, to reclaim the capital city. Arnold’s ambition of a field command is thwarted, and his only consolation is a promotion that leaves him in charge of Philadelphia. It burns him to no end that he’s being sidelined, especially since his heroism at Saratoga was a chief reason that France chose to bet on the United States. But his protests to Washington fall on deaf ears—after all, Washington noticed that Arnold could barely get on and off his horse. The angrier he gets in his meeting with Washington, the more his fatal flaws emerge. Saratoga was his victory, he sees enemies and conspiracy behind every decision, and he craves a field command to attain glory. “This has nothing to do with glory,” Washington chides. Arnold can’t help himself: “Says the glorified.”

So Arnold is being spurned while the war moves forward. What, oh what will he do with himself in Philadelphia once John André and his brethren trudge back across to New Jersey towards New York? If only there was some breathtaking beauty whose lover has taken a particular interest in Arnold’s future. Peggy Shippen has fallen hard for André, and she’s willing to defy her richy-rich father to elope with him to New York. But her latest letter from Arnold bears fruit for André when he correctly deciphers Arnold’s new assignment. He insists Peggy stay behind in the capital, in order to arrange an introduction, and who knows what else… André inevitably is going to face a choice between the woman he loves or the mission, but right now, he’s under the delusion that he can only have one if he first gets the other. Turning Arnold could make him the savior of the colonies for the Crown, he thinks, giving him the land and wealth that would win Mr. Shippen’s approval. “This could be a blessing in disguise,” he says. “Make me a man you can marry and your father will give me your hand.”

Arnold is walking right into André’s hands, almost exactly as the British spymaster once predicted he would. His pride is wounded and he’s about to find comfort with the one woman who can close the deal for her… husband? It wasn’t a church wedding, but Peggy and André agreed to vows. She would be anything for him. For Arnold, it’s all over but the shouting.

NEXT: Caleb sneaks in to New York