A few episodes back, when Abraham Woodhull was attempting to recruit Robert Townsend into the Culper Ring, the symbolic mano a mano game of strategy was checkers. In the season’s penultimate episode, “The Prodigal,” chess figured into the plot, as Anna aides Hewlett in his feud with Simcoe with a clever move that changes the balance of power ever so slightly. But it remains to be seen whether Hewlett has the game to top Simcoe, especially since his adversary is a mad dog perfectly capable of overturning the board at any point and sticking a sharpened rook into his rival’s neck.
Simcoe is a man of blood, Hewlett is a man of reason, and their season-long clash of wills (and hearts) is nearing a final conclusion. Simcoe seems determined to press the matter, beginning with his almost certain involvement in the hanging of one of Hewlett’s soldiers. “I just hope his despair isn’t contagious,” he mocked Hewlett at the gallows, with the man’s dead body still swaying. “There are so few of you as it is.”
“He seems to treat violence like a game, and now he is trying to goad me into open war,” Hewlett confides to Anna, the primary reason for the deadly game in the first place. Both men covet her, and she actually reciprocates Hewlett’s feelings to a certain degree, though it’s more fondness than romantic passion. Simcoe’s passion is a burning cauldron of emotions that requires just one wrong word or stare to bubble over. As he tells his second, Akinbode, who predictably fell for Anna’s gambit to accompany Cicero to New York, says: “I hate and I love. Why I do so, perhaps you ask, I know not. But I feel it, and I am in torment.” It’s a quote from the ancient Roman poet Catullus, who pined for the beautiful Lesbia.
I give Hewlett some credit for merely surviving this long, but Simcoe may have overplayed his hand. During their parley, which Hewlett called to cool things down, but which Simcoe is using to amp things up, the blood-thirsty Ranger purposely insulted the major in every possible way, comparing him to a licentious French whore in quite graphic terms. He admits to all the major crimes that were blamed on the Setauket locals… including poisoning Hewlet’s beloved horse, Persepolis. Simcoe might be Kaiser Soze, always willing to do the horrible thing that most men wouldn’t even consider. But Hewlett is Mental Gellar, and his murdered steed might be the bagged lunch in the communal fridge—the one thing that sets him off and makes him slightly dangerous. Sometimes, the only thing you can do with a mad dog is take him behind the shed and give him the Old Yeller treatment.
Hewlett’s return at least secured Abe’s freedom. But prison left its mark on Abe; he’s someone who can walk the walk now. “Thank you for your hospitality, Mr. Yates,” he says cryptically to his crooked jailer, before following with the veiled threat, “I won’t forget you.” There was something unsettling about Abe’s stare that followed, and Yates couldn’t laugh it off.
Abe hurries to Townsend’s boarding house, but there is no sign of the reluctant spy. He’s sold the place to a MacDougal, leaving behind only Abe’s unpaid bill. Abe treks out to Oyster Bay to find the Townsends and discovered that Simcoe and his Rangers had, in fact, provided the gentle push that the younger Townsend required to act—they stole his father’s horses and burned his stable. Though Samuel is bruised, I feel as if the nudge was almost too gentle. I wasn’t rooting for Samuel’s death, but Robert had put up such resistance to Abe’s plans that I feel like a bigger blow was warranted. He only joined the rebel cause because some rude soldiers stole his dad’s horses and torched the barn? Okay, sure. But did he really not realize that the occupying forces were doing this to other colonists in and around the city before it finally hit his home?
Robert left some invisible message on the back of Abe’s bill with the help of Caleb’s magic liquids. Turns out, he sold the boarding house, but purchased an even more convenient strategic establishment—a bar or coffee house?—that quickly yielded some crucial intelligence: there is a plot to assassinate Washington.
But that’s information that Abe won’t learn until after he gets back to his spy cave and applies the reagent. First, the prodigal son returns home to his family, where Mary cries tears of joy, the Judge eyes him suspiciously, and Hewlett has to hold Anna back from rushing to Abe’s side. Later, in bed, Abe tells Mary that he just wants things to go back to the way they were, that he learned from prison and is finished with the spy business. Mary knows better, but for once, she doesn’t harp on it. Maybe she’s growing more comfortable with looking the other way.
NEXT: “No… one’s… slick as Arnold, no one’s quick as Arnold, no one’s head’s as incredible thick as Arnold”[pagebreak]
In Philadelphia, Benedict Arnold is also a prodigal son of sorts, taking control of the capital after the British retreat towards New York. He makes another timely and dramatic entrance, saving the Shippens from an angry mob of patriots who recognize their fine carriage and have notions of riding the wealthy Tories out of town on a rail. As payment for his good deed, Arnold secures a private audience with Peggy and he wastes no time, demonstrating a blunt and self-centered courting style that immediately contrasts with John André, who danced circles around Peggy and left her effectively dazed and confused. Arnold’s approach is more shock and awe. I half expected him to break into song, like Gaston from Beauty and the Beast, as he boasted of his battlefield exploits and promised Peggy a house even grander than Washington’s. What a bore. No wonder he was reviled by most of his peers. Peggy deflects his improper proposal of marriage, but Arnold does not know the word retreat.
At Valley Forge, an offensive operation is in the planning stages. Unfortunately, Benjamin Tallmadge is not part of that inner circle; he’s still being ostracized by Washington. One of Ben’s rivals, Charles Lee’s second, Major Bradford, recommends to the war council that Washington chase the British across New Jersey and attack their rear, backing the “bastards” up against the French fleet that is expected to sail into New York.
Two quick asides about this exchange and the scene leading up to it: First, note the military drilling and the improved condition of the uniformed American troops. Once the army survived the winter intact at Valley Forge, it began to blossom under the guidance of Baron von Steuben, a Prussian-born officer who trained the troops and provided a modicum of battlefield discipline that would soon be put to the test.
Then, during Bradford’s briefing, Washington quickly chastised him for a mild profanity: “Gentleman do not curse—at least in this army!” Washington, we know, spent his entire adult life learning to suppress his volcanic temper and behave like a gentleman. But the imminent Battle of Monmouth in June 1787, in particular General Lee’s performance there, might test that personal discipline.
Lee urges Washington to adopt Bradford’s plan for attack, a reversal of his previous more-cautious position. The backstabbing toady, who might still have designs on selling out the entire Continental Army to André when the time is right, seems to convince Washington that he’s sincere in his apology and his gung-ho spirit. Washington puts Lee in command of half the army, a development that causes his suspicious slave, Billy Lee, to betray his master’s confidence to Ben. Ben immediately volunteers his dragoons to ride with Lee, under Bradford’s command, in order to keep a close eye on the untrustworthy general. But give Washington some credit; he might not be as taken in by Lee’s public change of heart as Billy fears. Washington had a way of letting his rivals have just enough rope to hang themselves.
Back in Setauket, Abe proves that prison may have hardened him and taught him some life lessons, but he’s still a rank amateur as a spy. He arranges to meet Anna at the spy cave, and makes his way there at night holding a lantern—making it easier for Simcoe’s Rangers to follow him. Just as he and Anna decipher Townsend’s note, which details the threat against Washington, they are discovered by MacInnis and Tanner. Once again, Abe is caught red-handed with an incriminating note. Once again, he is hammered in the face with the butt of a British gun. Then, making matters worse, he leads the two Rangers right to an unsuspecting Caleb. Perhaps Abe felt like he had no choice, but couldn’t he have led his captors to another part of isolated woods before he or Anna unsheathed his concealed blade and mounted a last-ditch attack? Instead, Abe gets Caleb hog-tied, and Anna is about to be treated much worse. But she has Abe’s knife, and just as Tanner is about to sexually assault her, she slashes him repeatedly in his most vulnerable piece of flesh. The shock of her attack distracts MacInnis and allows Abe momentarily to get the upper hand. There’s an impaling, a gun-shot to the head, and a narrow escape for our three heroes.
But someone saw it all happen. Someone is watching from the shadows as they load the dead bodies into Caleb’s boat to be buried at sea. I don’t imagine it was Simcoe, because he would not have stood by passively. Perhaps it was one of Hewlett’s men, who were also assigned to keep a close watch on Abe. Perhaps it was Cicero and Akinbode, who may have been on their way to New York. Or perhaps it was Robeson, the black-market dealer who helped a wounded Hewlett across the sound.
The season finale will include the Battle of Monmouth, and, presumably, the identity of the traitors plotting to kill Washington. But I also think it should claim a scalp. We’ve gone almost 10 episodes, and all of the major characters are still alive. It’s time for the show to sacrifice someone in dramatic fashion. Hewlett? Simcoe?… Anna? Caleb? After all, you can’t win a chess game without giving up a few pawns, or even some of your best pieces.