It is time to choose sides. The Battle of Concord in 1775 may be remembered as the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” but for many Americans in the late 1770s, the revolution incrementally pushed its way into the cities and countrysides. But after the Declaration of Independence, after Nathan Hale, after Saratoga, after Valley Forge, after Trenton and Monmouth, and after British reprisals in towns like Setauket, the time for half-measures, of calculated acquiescence, is past.
It’s also time for AMC viewers to choose: will they watch Turn or not? After two seasons of storytelling setup (and underwhelming ratings), Turn is poised to deliver the fireworks: the intrigue surrounding Benedict Arnold and his treason at West Point. All the chess pieces are finally in place: Gen. Washington’s Culper spy ring based in occupied New York; the love triangle between Philadelphia socialite Peggy Shippen, Arnold, and British spymaster John Andre; vengeful rogue Robert Rogers; and the Woodhull family civil war surrounding Culper linchpin Abraham Woodhull. This is the story showrunner Craig Silverstein promised — an 18th-century The Departed — and it’s make-or-break time. There is a version of Turn that goes on for several more seasons, but there is also one that ends at West Point after season 3. Everything is likely riding on the next 10 episodes.
Turn has always acted confidently. Despite an uncertain renewal, the series capped season 2 with a cliffhanger: Abe captured by Rogers and threatened with exposure or worse, while Ben Tallmadge and Washington attempted to discreetly handle the attempted coup within their own camp. The season premiere, “Valediction,” picks up almost immediately where the finale left off: Ben’s interrogation of Bradford and Hickey, the two turncoats in Washington’s camp assigned to assassinate the revolution’s one indispensable man. Ben plays good cop to Caleb’s bad cop as they pressure the two assassins to name other agents involved with the conspiracy. A death sentence of hanging awaits them, though the charge will not be treason, but counterfeiting. Ben makes it seem that such a charge is a favor so that their families will not suffer retaliation for their crimes. But Ben has nothing to gain from publicizing the assassination attempt as he and Washington need to convey a confident, invulnerable, and united front to the wavering public and their new French military allies.
Hickey wants the honor of dying for the Crown, but the smug Bradford thinks Ben is bluffing, that he’ll be spared the gallows and exchanged for an American spy…named Culper. The top-secret name hangs in the air, and Washington steps out of the shadows to challenge the prisoner’s boast. “The first man to tell me the true name of our agent Culper will be traded to safety on Saturday,” he says. “The other man will hang tomorrow.”
That’s called motivation, but Bradford and Hickey offer only blank looks. “They don’t know,” Washington correctly concludes.
On the gallows, the two traitors are sentenced to death for passing counterfeit bills, but Hickey interrupts proceedings to confess his true crime to the gathered crowd. “My aim was to kill Washington! Putnam! And any other officers I…”
The executioner cuts Hickey off mid-sentence, and his death by hanging is gruesome. His head literally snaps off. Bradford’s hanging is almost as cruel, and while Caleb is unmasked as the executioner and fights in the mud with one of his disapproving fellow soldiers, Washington nods for a guard to end Bradford’s suffering with a bullet. Was it mercy for Bradford? Or a simple desire to abbreviate a bungled operation before alienating more onlookers?
NEXT: A noose of a different kind
Abe finds himself in a noose of a different kind. After murdering the British courier Eastin to prevent Hewlett’s message from reaching Andre in the finale, he was pounced upon by Rogers. His absence from home has been noted by Mary, who approved his murderous deed; by Anna, who is in hand-wringing mode; and by the suspicious Judge as well. Just as his father begins to interrogate little Thomas, Abe bursts in the door with lies about buying provisions in town and getting the farm back in order. As Abe and Mary retreat upstairs for bed, the Judge even asks about his missing pistol, i.e. the murder weapon. Once in private, Mary is alarmed by the choke marks around Abe’s neck. He never mentions his difficulties with Rogers. But their shared secrets have clearly brought them closer together than ever.
In Philadelphia, Benedict Arnold is peacocking through the streets in a shiny new Phaeton spider carriage with his fashionable fiancée. If Peggy is not impressed by his ride, surely she’ll accelerate her plans for marriage once she sees the stately manor Arnold has acquired for them. But Arnold’s day is ruined, first when Joseph Reed and a gaggle of civilian leaders give him the stink-eye in public, and later, when Peggy rejects his overture to enter the house unaccompanied by a proper chaperone. Joseph Reed had been Washington’s trusted aide-de-camp at the beginning of the war, and though he lost his place within the General’s inner circle — in part because of the Lee imbroglio — he was an admired and upstanding member of the Continental Congress who led the civilian government in Philadelphia after the British abandoned the city. With Arnold stationed there as military commander, conflict between the two proud and ambitious men was inevitable.
After sending Peggy home (and securing the promise of an after-hours tour of the house), Arnold discovers exactly what Reed might be up to. All the furniture he “ordered” is still under sheets, in sharp contrast to his instructions. Turns out Arnold has seized the best of the confiscated property from fleeing Tories in lieu of the $10,000 the Congress has failed to pay him for three years of wartime service. You might be able to understand how Arnold justifies his actions; but one can also appreciate how this will certainly draw the unwanted attention of his many rivals and enemies.
In New York, John Simcoe surprises Abigail by showing up at John Andre’s door for his next war assignment. Though the Battle of Monmouth was a personal failure for Andre, Simcoe and the Queen’s Rangers only rose in the esteem of Gen. Clinton. Andre can barely look at Simcoe while quoting his commanding officer’s praise for the Rangers. But at least Simcoe is a useful tool for the most brutal and devious of tasks. His next assignment: head back to Setauket and locate Samuel Culper, the spy working with Benjamin Tallmadge. Simcoe might be a mere bulldog, but he is the first to recognize that Culper is likely an alias — a possible sign that Andre is not on his A-game.
In Setauket, Abe announces at breakfast that he plans to move his family out of the Judge’s house as soon as the old farm is ready. But this is mostly just a ruse to get back out there and arrange Eastin’s body just so. His preoccupation with Rogers and the corpse clouds his memory of the day of his mother’s death, a forgotten anniversary that finally turns the Judge’s heart against his son once and for all. While visiting his wife’s gravestone — recall it’s not her gravesite because the British army removed the headstones for defense fortifications — with Thomas later in the day, he washes his hands of his only surviving son. “Grant me the strength to do what I must,” he asks his deceased wife.
After spending time in prison, Abe is gangsta enough to think he can outsmart Rogers and plant him in a grave, too. But Rogers knows every trick, so when Abe returns to the farm with some food — and a sharp blade for when he turns his back — the experienced ranger appears like a ghost, easily disarms Abe’s, and pokes the knife against the cabbage farmer’s throat. “I can [kill you] and I will — just not yet,” he purrs. “You’re nothing to me but bait, boy. I’m going to use ya, like a squishy worm, to get close to my old friend, John Andre. And live bait is better than dead.”
But Abe plays his only card — the truth. If he’s going to be any use as bait to Rogers, Abe needs his help exhuming Eastin’s body so that he can fake a crime scene and make it seem like Andre rejected Hewlett’s offer to share Abe’s fake double-agent intelligence. “That’s some serpentine shite there, boy,” says Rogers, who gets all the best lines. “You and I are going to have a grand time together. Just grand!”
NEXT: Peggy schemes
Back at Whitehall, Mary is doing her part by enlisting Anna to distract Hewlett while she sneaks into his room and uses his encryption sheet in order to falsify Andre’s response. Flustered, Anna announces her intention to move back to Strong Manor, a suggestion that wounds Hewlett and he tells her so. His proclamation of love can hardly be a surprise, but Anna returns his declaration with a deadly “thank you” before awkwardly excusing herself.
We can spend an hour discussing Anna’s heart and whether or not she could possibly feel anything but pity and contempt for the gullible dolt who represents the party responsible for so much of her personal loss. But the show is invested in this relationship now, and the show’s website insists that Anna is committed to “embark on a third way, a risky course of action.” But the more weight that the drama piles on this star-crossed relationship, the less convincing it feels. Anna is a single woman in 1778 when single women felt the pressure for male protection — but part of me misses the Marion Ravenwood-like Anna I thought we were promised in season 1. (Remember how in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Karen Allen managed to balance her character’s complete devotion to Indiana Jones against a playful fondness for the rival archeologist, Rene Belloq? Her conviction never changed, but she wasn’t above admitting to herself that she and Rene could’ve had fun under different circumstances.)
At least Peggy Shippen has some Marion in her. When she hears more whispers that Arnold is using his position as commander of the city’s army to line his own pockets, she sends an anonymous note to Congress with accusations that he’s trafficking with the enemy. She’s no patriot; she just wants any way out of the relationship. Reed rudely serves Arnold with a warrant accusing the general of a nest of schemes that include corruption and impropriety. A copy of the charges has been sent to Washington himself! One probably shouldn’t get married when he’s fighting corruption charges. At least that’s what Peggy hopes.
But news of her engagement has finally reached Andre. Her unopened letter is a reading exercise for young Cicero, who failed to heed his mother’s advice and hide his curiosity for the written word. Andre isn’t bothered and sees an opportunity to teach the young man while simultaneously basking in his lovely’s written word. The wedding news hits him like a dagger, but he recovers, retreats to privacy, and pens a response requesting to meet her future husband.
Abigail slaps Cicero silly for being so clumsy, and goes so far as to hint that her spying days are over. After all, what she did for Anna and the American cause was in order to protect Cicero, but now that she has him safely with her in New York, her priorities — which were never patriotic — might have changed. Perhaps she’s waiting for Akinbode to return so they can head to Canada together — and who would blame her? If the British lose the war, most slaves and former slaves lose, too.
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In the sticks, Abe and Rogers are still feeling each other out while Abe preps the letter that needs to be planted on Eastin’s corpse. They don’t trust each other, but they might like each other. Rogers may have cast his lot with the Crown, but he’s an American at heart, quoting Jefferson’s Declaration: “All men are created equal. That’s the truth that His Majesty Farmer George can’t face,” he tells Abe, who can’t understand why Rogers just doesn’t run while he can. “Those commissioned officers who look down on me, spat on me, took credit for my scalps, cursed me with half pay, assert themselves above me. They refused to treat me like an equal. Just as Britain refuses America, I mean to teach them different, by the justice I deliver to John Andre. That will be my declaration before I leave these colonies: that they were never better than me.”
There are so many British officers who deserve Rogers’ blade tipped with these bitter sentiments. But not necessarily the middle-class Andre, and therein lies the looming tragedy.
Abe and Rogers finish their gruesome work just in the nick of time. The letter is planted on Eastin just as a trio of redcoats come across the body. Rogers retreats into the forest, and Abe presumably heads home to Whitehall where a surprise will no doubt await.
Because today is the day the Judge finally declares his paternal valediction. “I’ve come here after much deliberation to inform you that [Abe] is a criminal,” he tells Hewlett, “a traitor against the Crown and that he is and has been for some time…a spy for the Continental Army.”
I’m shocked, shocked, that there is gambling at this establishment!
Last year, I complained that the Judge wavered too much on the subject of his son’s patriot leanings: One moment he seemed obsessed with catching his son in a treasonous act; the next, he seemed so willfully blind to Abe’s behavior to almost suggest that he shared similar rebel sympathies. Presumably, that ambivalence is gone, and Hewlett will crack the whip. How will Anna react if she has to choose between the two most important men in her life?