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Turn season 3 finale recap: Trial and Execution

A tale of two hangings

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Antony Platt/AMC

Turn: Washington's Spies

TV Show
run date:
Current Status:
In Season

It’s all over but the shouting. John André is captured near West Point and knows he’ll be executed for plotting with Benedict Arnold. Abraham Woodhull is a show trial away from the gallows in Setauket after a delighted Capt. Simcoe finally catches him committing treason against the Crown. But how one dies still has meaning, hence the opening flashback to October 1776 when a defiant Nathan Hale was hanged as a spy by the British after the chaotic American retreat across New York. “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country,” were Hale’s famous last words, and his death is a scar on the heart of his Yale classmate, Benjamin Tallmadge.

Arnold’s defection was a devastating blow to George Washington, who was truly blindsided by the betrayal. Though he recognized Arnold’s flaws, he’d always admired the hero of Saratoga for his battlefield bravado and relied on him as a fellow man of action who would ultimately play a crucial role in their final victory. Now, the entire American military stratagem has been undermined, and it was only dumb luck — and a little Robert Rogers — that West Point (and perhaps Washington and the patriot cause) was saved. With Arnold resting comfortably in André’s posh quarters in New York, there’s no way Washington can suppress news of this scandal, as Lafayette reluctantly tells him. Washington’s inner circle has been cracked, and the New York papers will know about it, the powerful French will know about it, and a backbiting Congress will also know about it.

Washington took this matter extremely personally, judging by his taking the lead in André’s interrogation. This is after Peggy Shippen stages a bravado performance, feigning a bout of womanly hysterics that might have fooled an 18th-century gentleman. Arnold’s initial letter to Washington insists Peggy is completely innocent of his scheme, and André lies that Arnold had made contact with the British through black-market smugglers. André seems to be fielding every question with aplomb, but there is a slight semblance of suspicion behind Washington’s measured politeness. Even his sympathetic mentions of Peggy seem designed to test André’s reaction. The British spymaster doesn’t noticeably slip up, swiftly changing the subject to request the delivery of a fresh military uniform, so that when he’s convicted, he’ll be executed as a noble officer (firing squad) rather than a loathsome spy (hanging). This is a big deal in 1780, and an especially serious matter to Ben and those who knew and remember Nathan Hale. Washington tells André he will consider the request, though His Excellency is already seeking a deal that would spare the enemy spy’s life in exchange for the Judas he’d rather hang from a tree.

In New York, Arnold is discovering he’s not to be welcomed with open arms. Nobody loves a traitor, even one you paid for. “He’s a rat…who didn’t get the cheese,” says war profiteer Col. Jonathon Cooke, verbalizing what every redcoat is thinking. Arnold is eager to prove his worth, if not in espionage then on the battlefield. He knows West Point’s weaknesses, he brags: Give me a rank and some soldiers and I’ll deliver what I promised. General Clinton can barely stand Arnold’s bloviating, snapping at him that he’d swap him for André in a heartbeat if such a deal wouldn’t prevent future defectors from coming forward. Bottom line: The British are stuck with Arnold, and André is doomed. So Arnold does what he always does: he lashes out. In an unsanctioned letter to Washington, he promises he’ll retaliate in kind against 40 American POWs if Washington follows through with his threat to execute André as a spy.

At least André has military protocol and the rules of war to determine his date with the hangman. In Setauket, Abe is at the mercy of the bloodthirsty Simcoe, whose only delay is the time it takes to throw the rope over the branch of a tree. There’s no doubt of Abe’s guilt, of course, but his execution is a lynching. Judge Woodhull arrives in time to plead for law and order, and Simcoe relents, if only to witness the comic cruelty of a father forced to prosecute his own son. If there’s any doubt about the outcome of the verdict, it’s negated by the sound of the gallows being constructed during the proceedings. Abe elects to defend himself, but he clearly doesn’t recognize the authority of the court. He refuses to speak up for himself or cross-examine the witnesses. Nevertheless, the Judge will not be rushed in his prosecution, to Simcoe’s growing irritation. This court will be conducted by the book — even if it has to take forever, which might be the Judge’s whole point. Only when Simcoe takes the stand does Abe assert himself, asking the witness whether he ordered the attempted murder of the Judge. Later, when Mary takes the stand, she interrupts the Judge’s line of questioning to blurt out that her father-in-law himself is responsible for the enemies list Simcoe used to target potential traitors, part of a corrupt scheme to benefit the army at the expense of unfavored locals. Neither revelation speaks to the crime at hand, but in the court of public opinion — that is, the gallery — there are growing murmurs.  

Simcoe urges the Judge to bring the matter to a close, but it’s Abe who gets the last word and clinches his own guilty verdict. “I killed him,” he says, interrupting his father’s lengthy closing statement. Of course, he’s not referring to a British soldier, but his own brother, Thomas. Everything Abe has become since we met him in season 1 comes spilling out: how he started the violent Liberty Riots in New York that his older brother died trying to suppress, how he tried to redeem himself by filling Thomas’ shoes as a son and husband, and how one lie led to another until he didn’t know who he really was any longer. “As for these crimes that I’m accused of committing, my only regret is I didn’t commit them sooner,” he says in closing. That counts as pleading guilty in Simcoe’s book, and the kangaroo court is adjourned as the prisoner is escorted outside for a swift sentence.  

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André’s trial is slightly more legitimate, but the outcome is just as much a formality. Alexander Hamilton defends André at his military tribunal, and in fact, the brilliant American couldn’t resist being impressed by the doomed Englishman, whose modest background and all-around talents mirrored his own biography. (Hamilton’s letter to John Laurens paints a touching portrait of André as prisoner and the ambivalence many of the Americans felt towards his death sentence.) But there is no doubt, and the only question remaining is the method of execution, a detail omitted out of the court’s verdict and left to Washington to determine.

Ben fiercely argues for hanging as justice for Hale’s murder, but Washington is considering the bigger picture. Hanging André could have blowback, and not just Arnold’s threats to slay American prisoners. Ben’s righteousness eventually irks Washington, and he finally exposes the secret about the death of Nathan Hale. His famous last words, quoted from Joseph Addison’s popular 18th-century play Cato, are an American fairy tale. “He didn’t write them and he never said them — we did,” Washington says. “[Like André], he wished to be seen as a soldier — not a spy. We altered what he said, and thus converted a failed mission into an act of martyrdom.” The song is true: who lives, who dies, who tells your story?

NEXT: Ben escorts André to his fate