'Turn' premiere recap: 'Thoughts of a Free Man'
Abe rededicates himself, and Benedict Arnold has Washington's back
When rebellion initially bubbled to the surface in 1776, and the iron grip of Mother England squeezed its American colonies to keep them in line, many Americans retained ambivalent sentiments about the whole notion of independence—especially in Abraham Woodhull’s New York, where occupying British troops lent reconciliation a certain inevitability. But in the first season of Turn: Washington’s Spies, Woodhull evolved from passive rebel sympathizer to chief agitator, a murderer and the linchpin of George Washington’s intelligence network. AMC is hoping that viewers follow a similar trajectory and commit to the cause, now that the show’s stakes have been raised and Abe can finally act more like James Bond than Hamlet.
Abe isn’t exactly a Revolutionary 007, but Turn has a few villains that would make Ian Fleming proud—except for being Brits, of course. We already know Hewlett, John André, and the sadistic Simcoe, and the season 2 premiere introduced the unhinged King George. In London, while sitting for the esteemed American sculptress Patience Wright, the monarch—whose sanity would eventually be called into question by historians—compares the American colonies to babes in the nest, who might yearn for freedom but ultimately need a mother to feed them. An ironic metaphor, since it turns out that the Crown is struggling to pay its own bills, leading the king to foam at the mouth and throw a tantrum—but not before Wright can pocket a page of his top-secret memo to send back to the Americans.
In real life, Wright may or may not have been an American spy in the British court, but sending intelligence inside plaster busts is a pretty ingenious operation. The real artist was never caught, never executed, but at least the doomed character gets to deliver the defiant words after she’s accused of secreting the intelligence to her contacts in America: “No, not America… it is bound for the United States.” U-S-A! U-S-A!!
But let’s not plan a Fourth of July barbecue just yet. In fact, if you were betting on American independence in the fall of 1777, you would’ve received longshot odds. The patriotic fervor of ’76 pulled the colonies into a war against superior forces, New York quickly fell, Congress fled Philadelphia, and General George Washington is a convenient scapegoat getting pilloried by armchair generals great and small. Benjamin Tallmadge can’t stand to hear his boss maligned in the camp and by journalistic gutter snipes. When he meets with Washington to brief him on the latest (lack of) intelligence, he’s incensed by the high-ranking rivals who are lobbying Congress to replace G-Dub. One of them, General Charles Lee, might already be in John André’s pocket. Washington scolds Ben for failing to do his job—which is intelligence, not protecting the general’s reputation—and orders him to get the Culper ring back online or to recommend a replacement.
Back in Setauket, Abe’s murder of Ensign Baker and Mary’s executive decision to torch their farm and blame the crimes on marauding rebels has changed the equation. First, they’re reluctant co-conspirators now, though Mary’s total loyalty to her husband is undermined by her loyalty to the Brits. Second, they’re living with his father, the judge, which means they are sharing quarters with Major Hewlett. At least Mary has become a capable liar, telling her knitting circle the horrible story of how brave, outnumbered Baker stood up to the savage bandits. What’s interesting is that the women might have better poker faces than Mary. Some might suspect that she’s lying and resent her. Perhaps others suspect that she’s lying but actually approve of Abe’s actions. When you’re sewing in the house of the British commander, you must by loyal or at least pretend to be.
NEXT: A marital dispute
What complicates Mary’s feelings, though, is that Abe’s patriotism represents dual betrayals. One is politically inconvenient; the other—his love for Anna—is unforgivable. So when Hewlett inexplicably invites Anna to the Woodhull party to celebrate the occupation of Philadelphia, and Mary catches her husband with her rival in the closet, she retaliates by trying to scuttle Abe’s ruse to use his resumed law studies as cover for gathering intelligence in the city. She makes a scene and successfully saddles him with a British escort, courtesy of Hewlett, since he’s a vulnerable target for patriot ruffians. Afterward, their scene in the bedroom lays their cards on the table on both entangled matters. “[Baker’s] death meant everything,” says Abe. “It changed everything. I had tried, at every step, to do right. To protect my family. To stand for my principles. To stay out of the fight and true to myself. And Baker is the bloody proof that I cannot do both. Now if I stop now, his death will mean nothing.”
He goes even further, and spouts some republican Common Sense: “[Baker] should never have been in our house. Just as Hewlett should not be now. We do not need their laws, their taxes, or their protection. And I will not stop my mission for Washington until the last king’s men has set sail back to England.”
Mary protests that the British are the only thing standing between the colonies and revitalized French aggression. (Recall that the French and Indian War was just 15 years earlier.) But when she proclaims her love and dedication to their marital bond, he demurs. “Mary… I don’t feel the same.” “I know,” she answers. “It’s not as bad as I feared.”
Why can’t we just arrange Mary with Hewlett and officially ‘ship Abe and Anna? I don’t think it’s any more far-fetched than the premiere’s introduction of Hewlett as Anna’s latest romantic admirer. In truth, I’m struggling with Hewlett, in general. Whereas Andre is always three moves ahead, Hewlett always seems two steps behind. In several cases, he seems bamboozled by Abe—who himself spent the first season being the third or fourth smartest man in every room. But then he seems to overcompensate by siccing overly suspicious escorts on Abe on his trips to the city. So I can’t tell if he is an idiot or a genius. Of possible concern, I’m not sure the show’s writers have decided either.
Meanwhile, Washington is putting on a happy face to entertain the sympathetic French military attaché, Thevenau De Francy. Pity that the table conversation—courtesy of General Lee and his minions—is how impotent Washington is as commander-in-chief following his failure at Brandywine Creek and the fall of Philadelphia. Impotent is the loaded word—Ben got in a scrap with officers who questioned Washington’s manhood, underscored by his failure to produce an heir. That’s a low blow in any century.
Washington, though, stubbornly refuses to defend himself, even as effete General Lee gleefully reads the latest indictments against his boss. Enter Benedict Arnold, who strides into the dining room like he rode directly from the battlefield. He offers a spirited defense of Washington and presents himself as a man who has no patience for politicians and their military lackeys. Washington himself can’t hide his admiration for the hero of Saratoga, and Ben practically asks for an autograph. It’s a shame his name is Benedict Arnold, but finding out how the notorious traitor falls from grace will certainly be one of the most interesting threads of season 2. His first impression certainly placed him on a high-enough pedestal so that he has a long way to fall.
Back in England, sacked Queen’s Ranger Robert Rogers, dressed in tightly-tailored courtly clothes, finally gets his audience with the king. Standing nervously before the king, he’s almost like Luca Brasi at the wedding in The Godfather—though in this case, the Don is more Fredo than Vito. Rogers wants permission to explore the Northwest Passage, but the Crown has a more pressing assignment for this highly skilled “killing gentleman”: Retrieve the documents Patience Wright stole that are en route for Brooklyn and make sure they never fall into the hands of the French. They make him an offer he can’t refuse. His debts are wiped clean and his request to explore has their blessing. So what exactly had Wright uncovered that the King will give practically anything to keep out of enemy hands? Was it financial information? Military secrets? Or the king’s psychiatric evaluation?
Turn: Washington's Spies