Thomas Paine published the first pamphlet of what would become known as The American Crisis in the winter of 1776. But it was the following winter, when George Washington’s battered and hungry troops were encamped at frigid Valley Forge, that its opening words truly reflected the desperation of the patriot cause: “These are the times that try men’s souls…” That includes their commander-in-chief as well. In “Valley Forge,” which almost qualifies as a bottle-episode, Washington suffers a crisis of confidence, and he enlists his dedicated slave, Billy Lee, to help him untangle his moral dilemma less he go mad and be forced to resign his commission.
Nearly a month has passed since Abraham Woodhull was imprisoned by the British for spying in New York City; the same day that Major Hewlett was captured by Connecticut rebels and sentenced to death for his presumed involvement in the savage murder of an American captain—orchestrated, of course, by Simcoe. On New Year’s Eve, Washington is not feeling well. The deadline to endorse Hewlett’s execution or parole him is imminent—and Washington’s conscience is torn, since Benjamin Tallmadge made it known that only Hewlett can testify to Abe’s claims and procure his freedom. When Billy Lee tells him that the last northern courier is leaving within a few hours, something in Washington finally breaks. After taking a bite of his dinner, he winces, reaches into his mouth and pulls out a bloody tooth. Washington famously wore fake teeth but this is not a typical dental emergency. To his horror, in the next moment, he spits out all his teeth—except he doesn’t really. In fact, he imagined it all. But that is enough for him to seek the army quack’s attention. The doctor’s 18th-century methods are relatively primitive—percussion of the chest and torso rule out any of the fatal lung and circulatory illnesses that ravaged the army. But the doctor’s diagnosis is pretty much right on—acute melancholia—though he can’t be certain whether it’s caused by demonic possession or just deep moral conflict. Let’s say it’s the latter.
One hundred and fifty years later, psychologists like Sigmund Freud would have a lot more to say about Washington’s textbook nightmare of losing his teeth. The subconscious theme is often a symptom of impotence, both sexual and metaphorical, general insecurity and anxiety about self-image, and the angst of facing a difficult dilemma, especially one that entails a costly compromise. Washington might be able to check every one of those boxes in Turn, circa 1777.
Washington commands Lee to “spare [him] no quarter” as the two men boil some coffee and pull an all nighter, reading and re-reading the letters from Tallmadge and Connecticut about Abe and Hewlett, respectively, playing cards, and doing their best to get at the splinter in his psyche. Shall he pardon a brutal murderer in order to save a failed spy?
The two prisoners in question are in dire condition. Abe is holed up in Livingston’s sugar house, a nasty and notorious New York jail, and nearing his physical and mental breaking point. When a fellow inmate named Gareth comes bearing a gift of bread and asking sympathetic questions about Abe’s alleged crimes against the Crown, it doesn’t take a genius to be suspicious about his motives. To his credit, Abe is guarded, admitting only that he was “just one man in the city trying to do something right,” hardly an admission of anything. But Gareth quickly rats him out and wins Abe the wrong kind of attention. The jailer doesn’t buy Gareth’s testimony, but Abe’s days could be numbered. Only the promise of sharing a bed with Anna again is keeping him going, though that hope is punctured when the Judge finally comes to visit. True to form, they don’t have a warm reunion, especially after the Judge tells Abe that Simcoe is back and that Anna belongs to him now. Their conversation quickly devolves into fighting with the Judge concluding, “Perhaps this is the safest place for you, until this war is over.” Abe very theatrically gets in the last word: “As long as I have air in my lungs, I will never ever stop.” But is it possible that their argument was staged? Obviously, the content of their disagreement is sincere, but might the Judge have been playing it up in case the jailer and his solders were listening? I ask because it seemed like the Judge left something from his satchel behind for Abe, a paper or two. Is the Judge aware of an imminent rescue attempt by Ben and Caleb Brewster
NEXT: Even Founding Fathers get the blues
Hewlett’s condition is actually worse than Abe’s. He’s been stripped naked and forced to shiver in the elements in an outdoor jail. His initial interrogation was brutal and the American officer in charge, Lt. Chaffee, was clearly blinded by the savagery of Simcoe’s atrocity. Most anyone else would look at Hewlett and know within a few seconds that he’s not the man who cut out another man’s tongue and left his calling card in blood. Only a demon, “a monster of fury,” could commit such barbarity. It takes Hewlett some weeks alone in the cold for the pieces to finally click—that Simcoe framed him. Such clarity comes after his jailer gives him a knife and urges him to put it to good use by taking his own life or trying to escape, thus giving the Americans justification to kill him. Hewlett thinks long and hard about it, but in the end, he uses the knife only to severe his black, frostbitten toes. Hewlett has more grit than we thought.
It’s almost midnight at Valley Forge, and Washington’s fond recollections of his dead half-brother, Lawrence, prove to be a breakthrough. Lee, who was encouraged to speak his mind, points out the similarities between the general and Abe, in that both men felt like they assumed the life originally meant for their revered older brothers, who both died young. It’s not a comparison Washington is comfortable with, and when Lee later goes a step further and compares his master to Lawrence, he violently explodes and barely stops himself from choking his slave.
Washington retreats into the cold, follows a trail of bloody footprints, and encounters the apparition of his dead brother. He drops to his knees and pleads for counsel, confessing all his doubts. “I’m respected, feared, hated, and worshipped. But for what? I am not who they think I am.?
Wait… is Washington Dick Whitman?
The scene is evocative of a famous series of paintings that depict Washington praying privately at Valley Forge. Lawrence finally gives his brother the answer he needs: Essentially, “I am not you and you are not me.” This frees Washington up to cancel Hewlett’s execution.
Let’s hope whatever inner demons were haunting Washington were exorcised by his forest summit with his dead brother. Because Washington is behaving quite mad—like, King George mad—and it would really be a departure from the history books if the show went the demonic possession route.
The only problem with this episode, which was a wonderful acting showcase for Ian Kahn, as well as Burn Gorman, was the lack of suspense. Did anyone really think that Washington wasn’t going to pardon Hewlett? Fortunately, the writers made up for it in the final act. Just as Lt. Chaffee is reading Washington’s order to stay Hewlett’s execution, he’s run through by Simcoe’s bayonet. (Simcoe just loves his bayonets.) The Queen’s Rangers annihilate the Americans, and Simcoe calmly approaches the stockade to finish off Hewlett. He can’t help but taunt his romantic rival, and in those moments of gloating, Hewlett pulls out his knife, stabs Simcoe, and makes his escape.
The coming attractions tease a phony grave for Hewlett, and it’s unclear how he’ll elude Simcoe and return to Setauket with his remaining piggies. Perhaps he’ll stumble upon Ben and Caleb, who are taking the long way to Boston in order to rescue him?