'Turn' react: It's Jamie Bell's show after all
It was the third episode of Turn, AMC’s Revolutionary War spy thriller, but it sure felt more like a season premiere. Abraham Woodhull (Jamie Bell) had been a somewhat lackluster protagonist in the first two episodes, a farmer victimized by bad luck who has the added misfortune of consistently being the second or third smartest person in every room he’s in. This is the guy who’s going to help turn the tide for General Washington’s Continental Army by spying on the redcoats in New York? This is the guy who’s going to make history interesting for TV audiences who watch Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire? Not bloody likely. But the writers finally put Abe in position to “be a man…not just a petulant boy,” as his father barked at him at one point, and maybe, just maybe, Abe and Jamie Bell have got the goods.
At the end of the second episode, Abe had decided spying was too risky for his family — and Anna Strong — so he’s trying to fly straight by working for his father, the savvy magistrate who has business connections with the Brits in New York. The redcoats and Americans loyal to the King are flooding into Manhattan, where the British fleet is anchored, and there’s a shortage of food, especially after some of the city was torched following Washington’s retreat. Judge Woodhull is bringing hogs to market, and Abe is now to be his business representative, with a Loyalist pin on his breast to boot. Their contact in the Royal Commissary Department is happy to dine with them, but he plays hardball with the Woodhulls over price. Just as the deal is falling apart, Abe proves his worth by pointing out how some creative accounting and a blind eye from a well-compensated British quartermaster might be able to keep everyone fat and happy. “I fear you have a gloomy view of human nature, young man,” intones the officer, before smiling and agreeing to the compromise.
Business may have worked out, but the trip to New York couldn’t help but ignite the patriot sympathies that Abe was trying so hard to suppress. Captured American troops are being paraded through the streets, street-corner Punch and Judy shows depict Washington’s humiliating defeat, and you can sense Abe thinking, “What the hell am I doing here haggling with the enemy over the price of bacon?”
Or cauliflower, for that matter. The Brits confiscated Selah Strong’s cauliflower crop after his arrest and the judge has no qualms about profiting from the man’s misfortune. But that’s more than Abe can swallow, and the issue sparks an ugly exchange that finally exposes the family history that haunts Abe. His wife, Mary, had been strategically paired with his older brother, Thomas, but when the elder sibling died, the judge urged Abe to honor his family’s commitment to the match. He did, breaking off his secret engagement with Anna to marry his dead brother’s fiancée. Two lingering questions: How did Thomas die? Illness? Mule kick to the head? Or…was he possibly involved with the rebellion? (Mary later said, “It was tragic how he died….”) And of greater intrigue, who’s baby Thomas’ real father? Was Mary pregnant with Thomas’ child when he died, leaving Abe to step in and become a surrogate father, as well as a surrogate husband? “Thank you for noting that Thomas is mine,” Abe tells his father on the carriage ride to New York, an odd thing to say unless it wasn’t technically true.
Back in Setauket, Mary and Anna have a woman-to-woman chat that fills in the gaps about Abe’s conflicted heart. Mary suspects that Abe is cheating on her, since the amiable British soldier who is quartered in the Woodhull home — the one Mary is a little too attentive to — mentioned to her that her husband is a frequent guest at the Strong pub. She confronts Anna, not to threaten her or force her to cease any extramarital affair, but to demand that she at least have the decency to be discreet about it. Nice marriage you think you have there, Mary.
Last we saw Ben and Caleb, they were in hot water for torturing Captain Simcoe, the limiest limey that ever set foot in the colonies. (Seriously, actor Samuel Roukin makes Tim Curry seem like he was born and raised in Texas.) General Scott is carting them back to Fort Lee in New Jersey for possible court martial, but as they learn from some retreating Virginians, Fort Lee has been overrun and Washington is rumored to be captured or dead. When the Pennsylvania volunteers riding with Ben and Scott recalibrate their options in this new reality, they decide it would be better for them to capture their officers, bring them to New York, and exchange them and Simcoe to the British for a full pardon. Scott is wounded in the mutiny, and it’s scuttled only when Ben goes all Dirty Harry on them. In the aftermath, Scott orders the two surviving Pennsylvanians executed — but Ben won’t or can’t pull the trigger. I suppose it’s won’t, because last week, Ben was moments away from putting a bullet in Simcoe’s brain. Scott, on the other hand, is from a military world where enemy officers are treated with every reasonable courtesy, while poor, terrified, backwoods volunteers have to be made an example. He shoots a shaking kid in the face from point-blank range without a second thought.
Back in British-occupied New York, Abe visits King’s College (Columbia) — where presumably he learned to quote Henry VI but never followed through to become a lawyer — to cool down after his spat with his father. The Union Jack flies over the school, and Abe, mentally, finally seems to get off the political fence and get in the fight. Near campus, he sees an opportunity: two Hessian soldiers cooking some sauerkraut. Being Setauket’s most famous cabbage farmer, he makes some friendly small talk, and offers to sell them some of his crop next time he’s in town. Sadly, they have orders to march soon. Maybe Abe can send the imaginary cabbage to their next base of operations, some place in New Jersey called Trenton. For the historically handicapped, Trenton is a little town not too far from the American encampment in Pennsylvania. George Washington — who isn’t dead or captured — might find such information extremely useful. An early Christmas gift, almost.
One week after I was prepared to hand the show to the half-Hawkeye, half-Quint rogue, Robert Rogers, the wily Ranger was a no-show. Caleb, the other intriguing backwoods character, likewise had little to do, other than be the chauvinist that lets Anna define herself as Turn‘s Joan Harris, a sexy gal who has to fight for respect from the boys. It will be interesting to see if Jamie Bell can maintain his character’s momentum once Rogers and Caleb are raised back up to equal footing.
Actually, Caleb had to make a daring seafaring escape at the end of the episode. It wasn’t exactly the most ingenious getaway. Though maybe I was distracted by the sloppy CG maritime effects.
Are you as smitten with Turn‘s opening credits as I am? Did you know that “Hush” is sung by Joy Williams from the Civil Wars and Matt Berninger from The National?
Best exchange of the night, at least for this Garden State-bred recapper: “This is mutiny. This — this is madness!” “This is New Jersey!”
Huge implications for the Culper ring at the end of the episode, when Anna lies to Abe and says that Capt. Simcoe is dead. She obviously was trying to lure him back into the fold, but there will certainly be blow-back from that not-so-little fib.
Turn: Washington's Spies