The Culper ring turns on itself, as Washington dances in Philadelphia
“You think I would trust any of you? You can’t even trust each other.” —Robert Townsend
Did you see that coming? I’m referring to Oyster Bay, and the flashback that threatens to shatter the heart of the Culper ring from within. In my recaps, I had long anticipated that the sacking of the Townsend farm would prove pivotal in Robert joining the patriot cause, so I had been disappointed when the show glossed over the actual event at the end of last season. Little did I know that the Turn team was biding its time, quite ingeniously.
The Townsend barn is still burning when “Many Mickles Make a Muckle” opens, flashing back to the morning after the Queen’s Rangers ransacked the place. Robert arrived to console his beaten father, Samuel, and the attack pushed the son off the political fence. His mind has been made up for him. “They chose for me when they came into this house and dealt violence,” he told his father, who would have rejoiced at that news if his pride hadn’t been so battered. “They will pay. God as my witness, they will pay.”
Samuel’s recollection of the night of mischief is painful to relive: the animals slaughtered, the barn torched, and himself clubbed by an overenthusiastic brigand. Those damn Queen’s Rangers! Oh, if only it were Capt. Simcoe’s unit. Instead, though, the man leading the raiding party, the same man who saved Samuel from an even more savage beating is… Caleb Brewster. And Samuel got a semi-clear look at his face.
So were there clues that the Americans staged the Townsend raid? I know of one. In “Benediction,” Caleb and his crew of flunkies attempted to set an ambush for Simcoe at the home of a former childhood nemesis in Rocky Point. After tying up the man (Beekman) and his wife, and waiting for Simcoe to walk into their trap, one of Caleb’s men clearly savored the opportunity to kill some time with the missus, earning a reprimand from Caleb: “Can’t have you going off like last time.” And yes, it’s revealed in the flashback, it was the same man who clubbed Samuel in Oyster Bay even after Caleb had instructed them not to harm the old man. Last time had been the Townsend fiasco.
So Caleb carried out the attack, making it look like a band of the Rangers. But Caleb rarely acts on his own — and only Abe Woodhull had been communicating with the Towsends at the time of the incident. Later, Caleb is forced to come clean to Ben Tallmadge and Anna Strong because he can’t obey General Washington’s urgent order to become the new Oyster Bay courier due to the risk of being identified by Samuel. He and Abe had hatched the scheme back when the latter was in prison and Caleb infiltrated the city courtesy of the Turtle submarine. Townsend needed just a push, Abe believed, and Caleb provided it and then some.
Washington is peeved at Tallmadge. Sure, the Culper ring relayed crucial information regarding John André’s counterfeiting operation, but it arrived too late to prevent the phony money from making its way into circulation. As a result, the American government is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Washington wants Culper cut out of the chain, thus getting the news from New York to Washington’s headquarters in about half the time. It’s difficult to argue with this logic (but Jamie Bell is the star of the show, right?) And if Caleb can’t show his face around Oyster Bay to retrieve intelligence from the Quaker, Anna Strong will.
Somewhere between Setauket and Oyster Bay, Robert Rogers is being hunted like a dog. The one-eyed guerrilla master — who’s starting to resemble Dickens’ Magwitch from Great Expectations — is en route to Oyster Bay to learn more about the mysterious woman who has André down in the mouth. Simcoe and the actual Rangers are on his scent, thanks to Abe’s half-truths, and Simcoe, still believing Rogers to be Culper, swears that today will be the famed tracker’s last. But Rogers is savvy and even more dangerous when cornered. He tricks one of his former Rangers and plants a tomahawk into his face. But who will get to Oyster Bay first? Rogers? Anna and Caleb? Or Ben, who quickly beelines for the Townsend farm while the Rangers canvas the whole countryside looking for Rogers?
In Philadelphia and New York, respectively, Peggy Shippen and André are basically negotiating the deal of a lifetime, with each of their difficult clients digging in their heels. Benedict Arnold is having second thoughts about selling out the Americans, especially since the Brits seem uninterested in handing him a battlefield command and seem only to care about information about Washington’s camp, the West Point battery specifications, and the secret identity of Culper. Peggy tries to keep him on point, and for all her gentle ego stroking, she has to be careful; Arnold might be putty in her hand, but he’s not a complete dolt when it comes to the British intelligence officer who has his fiancée on speed dial. “I don’t trust him,” he shouts at her angrily, before adding with a sneer. “I don’t care how many times he ate at your father’s table.”
On the opposite side, General Clinton in New York has little respect for Arnold, and sends the message through André that Arnold better deliver less he be branded one of history’s great traitors — like Washington. A-ha-ha.
Arnold has a better plan, a way to fix everything so he doesn’t need the British. Washington is coming to Philadelphia to lobby Congress to declare bankruptcy, and Arnold will throw a party in his honor and convince his boss to settle the court martial matter once and for all, man to man. This might work better if Arnold had the diplomatic tact of, say, Joseph Reed. But when Washington arrives with Tallmadge and his valet/slave Billy Lee, Arnold is a bundle of nerves. No one ever taught him to talk less, smile more. He can’t help himself, accosting Washington as soon as he arrives and then almost immediately interrupting the general’s tender reunion with his wife, Martha.
Washington and Martha are a formidable team. There are several reasons that Washington was appointed commander in chief of the Continental Army, and being the richest man in the colonies didn’t hurt. Most of that money came from Martha, and you can see that the two are not unaccustomed to such galas. Not only do they dance, but Washington even smiles (with his teeth showing, no less) as part of the show. Martha is a saint to make small talk (Spanish fly, really George?) with the “upstanding young ladies,” and she also recognizes every player in the room, including her husband: “The problem is,” she says gently, “you wish to be liked.”
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Their only equal in the room is Peggy, who was raised to thrive in this competitive social environment. She almost makes up for Arnold’s shortcomings, openly flirting with the pure-of-heart Ben. She literally bats her eyelashes at him, and you can tell that Ben would be singing Abraham Woodhull and Robert Townsend’s names and other American secrets to her if she gave him another 15 minutes of the full Peggy Shippen treatment.
Arnold finally gets his audience alone with Washington, and “George” comes through for his friend. Despite a stern warning from “that little weevil” Reed to stay out of the investigation, Washington says he’ll do his best to arrange a fair and speedy court martial trial. Smiles all around, and no traces of Arnold’s dark temper, the one that nearly bit off Tallmadge’s head when he dared flatter the host for his expensive lacquer-finished dance floor. In the final shot, while the two power couples dance as a quartet, Billy Lee returns from his fashion adjustment, speaking to Ben of mickels and muckles. “Things right in front of our eyes that get missed,” he says… and something maybe clicks in Ben’s head.
Things definitely click in Samuel’s head, when his quiet Thanksgiving dinner with his son is crashed by several surprise guests. Technically, Abe was invited, but he’s not there to celebrate the holiday — he wants to evacuate Samuel before the Rangers can return. (Though he really fears Rogers’ arrival.) Anna shows up next to announce her new role as conduit, making for an awkward reunion with Abe. He’s out, she tells him in private, though he can’t help but suspect that her news is somehow related to their frayed relationship.
Their spat allows Rogers to pop in the front door practically unnoticed, except by Caleb, who comes bursting through the door with his gun raised. Rogers puts a gun to Anna’s head, and they all sit around nice-like to wait for Robert. Abe suddenly sounds like the type of man who ordered the barn’s burning. “If you hurt her, you die,” he warns, before adding. “Once [the British] capture you and torture you, you’ll give away this ring, and I cannot let this happen.” There is literally a clock ticking, giving Samuel nothing but time to remember why Caleb looks so familiar.
Robert arrives to the strange dinner scene, and Rogers announces his demands just as the light finally goes off in his father’s head. “You’re him,” he says to Caleb. “It’s you. You’re the Ranger.” Abe can’t be bothered to deny the charge that he ordered the attack. “Yes, it’s true. I told him to,” he says flatly. “You never chose. I chose for you. You couldn’t do it yourself.”
Robert is shocked, and to spite his Culper partner, he gives Rogers the name he thinks he’s after: Philomena Cheer, the actress. Rogers met her, but he’s also met Peggy Shippen. Is he confusing one for the other? And does Townsend know that he’s mistaken in naming Philomena as the cause of André’s current bout of melancholy? How might such confusion, magnified by the fact that Philomena is currently styling her hair to resemble Peggy, contribute to the plot of the crucial next episodes?
Abe’s tough talk has erased any fondness Rogers ever had for him, and the wily vet concludes his business by rising to shoot an unarmed Abe in the face. Only Robert stops it with his unloaded pistol, though his life-saving gesture is probably more associated with his Quaker faith than any loyalty for Abe at this point. Rogers makes his escape, Robert evicts the Setauket trio as no friends of his, and Simcoe finally arrives to investigate. He finds Woodhull’s pistol left behind, with “AW” branded into its handle — evidence of Rogers following his reported burglary of the Woodhull cabbage farm. The Townsends point Simcoe west, but he has a hunch that his target is doubling back to Setauket. He’s correct, at least, in that the true Culper is heading in that direction.
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By rowboat, no less. Caleb, Anna, and Abe paddle home sadly, the ring in ruins. “I know what failure looks like, Caleb,” Abe says. “The ring is done. And so am I.”
But there’s hope, if not in the links of the Culper ring, then in the faith of a good woman. “No one could’ve done what you did — for as long as you have,” Anna tells Abe. If this is their final goodbye, it was a better one then the painful last words of her Dear Abe letter.
In Philadelphia, Peggy’s facade is punctured by Freddy’s letter about André’s embrace of another woman, news reluctantly shared by her drunk socialite friend. Will her anxious heart persuade her to seek a meeting with her love in Manhattan? Might West Point turn out to be a convenient meeting place? Ben sees his former mentor, Arnold, in a new light, and perhaps even harbors some uncomfortable suspicions. Washington, meanwhile, is in need of some financial assistance, but perhaps his answer is on the 10 dollar bill. The Culper ring has been fractured, perhaps forever. How will Abe and Caleb persuade Robert to stay in the fold? Or is that now Anna’s job?