A tale of two hangings
Credit: Antony Platt/AMC

It’s all over but the shouting. John André is captured near West Point and knows he’ll be executed for plotting with Benedict Arnold. Abraham Woodhull is a show trial away from the gallows in Setauket after a delighted Capt. Simcoe finally catches him committing treason against the Crown. But how one dies still has meaning, hence the opening flashback to October 1776 when a defiant Nathan Hale was hanged as a spy by the British after the chaotic American retreat across New York. “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country,” were Hale’s famous last words, and his death is a scar on the heart of his Yale classmate, Benjamin Tallmadge.

Arnold’s defection was a devastating blow to George Washington, who was truly blindsided by the betrayal. Though he recognized Arnold’s flaws, he’d always admired the hero of Saratoga for his battlefield bravado and relied on him as a fellow man of action who would ultimately play a crucial role in their final victory. Now, the entire American military stratagem has been undermined, and it was only dumb luck — and a little Robert Rogers — that West Point (and perhaps Washington and the patriot cause) was saved. With Arnold resting comfortably in André’s posh quarters in New York, there’s no way Washington can suppress news of this scandal, as Lafayette reluctantly tells him. Washington’s inner circle has been cracked, and the New York papers will know about it, the powerful French will know about it, and a backbiting Congress will also know about it.

Washington took this matter extremely personally, judging by his taking the lead in André’s interrogation. This is after Peggy Shippen stages a bravado performance, feigning a bout of womanly hysterics that might have fooled an 18th-century gentleman. Arnold’s initial letter to Washington insists Peggy is completely innocent of his scheme, and André lies that Arnold had made contact with the British through black-market smugglers. André seems to be fielding every question with aplomb, but there is a slight semblance of suspicion behind Washington’s measured politeness. Even his sympathetic mentions of Peggy seem designed to test André’s reaction. The British spymaster doesn’t noticeably slip up, swiftly changing the subject to request the delivery of a fresh military uniform, so that when he’s convicted, he’ll be executed as a noble officer (firing squad) rather than a loathsome spy (hanging). This is a big deal in 1780, and an especially serious matter to Ben and those who knew and remember Nathan Hale. Washington tells André he will consider the request, though His Excellency is already seeking a deal that would spare the enemy spy’s life in exchange for the Judas he’d rather hang from a tree.

In New York, Arnold is discovering he’s not to be welcomed with open arms. Nobody loves a traitor, even one you paid for. “He’s a rat…who didn’t get the cheese,” says war profiteer Col. Jonathon Cooke, verbalizing what every redcoat is thinking. Arnold is eager to prove his worth, if not in espionage then on the battlefield. He knows West Point’s weaknesses, he brags: Give me a rank and some soldiers and I’ll deliver what I promised. General Clinton can barely stand Arnold’s bloviating, snapping at him that he’d swap him for André in a heartbeat if such a deal wouldn’t prevent future defectors from coming forward. Bottom line: The British are stuck with Arnold, and André is doomed. So Arnold does what he always does: he lashes out. In an unsanctioned letter to Washington, he promises he’ll retaliate in kind against 40 American POWs if Washington follows through with his threat to execute André as a spy.

At least André has military protocol and the rules of war to determine his date with the hangman. In Setauket, Abe is at the mercy of the bloodthirsty Simcoe, whose only delay is the time it takes to throw the rope over the branch of a tree. There’s no doubt of Abe’s guilt, of course, but his execution is a lynching. Judge Woodhull arrives in time to plead for law and order, and Simcoe relents, if only to witness the comic cruelty of a father forced to prosecute his own son. If there’s any doubt about the outcome of the verdict, it’s negated by the sound of the gallows being constructed during the proceedings. Abe elects to defend himself, but he clearly doesn’t recognize the authority of the court. He refuses to speak up for himself or cross-examine the witnesses. Nevertheless, the Judge will not be rushed in his prosecution, to Simcoe’s growing irritation. This court will be conducted by the book — even if it has to take forever, which might be the Judge’s whole point. Only when Simcoe takes the stand does Abe assert himself, asking the witness whether he ordered the attempted murder of the Judge. Later, when Mary takes the stand, she interrupts the Judge’s line of questioning to blurt out that her father-in-law himself is responsible for the enemies list Simcoe used to target potential traitors, part of a corrupt scheme to benefit the army at the expense of unfavored locals. Neither revelation speaks to the crime at hand, but in the court of public opinion — that is, the gallery — there are growing murmurs.

Simcoe urges the Judge to bring the matter to a close, but it’s Abe who gets the last word and clinches his own guilty verdict. “I killed him,” he says, interrupting his father’s lengthy closing statement. Of course, he’s not referring to a British soldier, but his own brother, Thomas. Everything Abe has become since we met him in season 1 comes spilling out: how he started the violent Liberty Riots in New York that his older brother died trying to suppress, how he tried to redeem himself by filling Thomas’ shoes as a son and husband, and how one lie led to another until he didn’t know who he really was any longer. “As for these crimes that I’m accused of committing, my only regret is I didn’t commit them sooner,” he says in closing. That counts as pleading guilty in Simcoe’s book, and the kangaroo court is adjourned as the prisoner is escorted outside for a swift sentence.

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André’s trial is slightly more legitimate, but the outcome is just as much a formality. Alexander Hamilton defends André at his military tribunal, and in fact, the brilliant American couldn’t resist being impressed by the doomed Englishman, whose modest background and all-around talents mirrored his own biography. (Hamilton’s letter to John Laurens paints a touching portrait of André as prisoner and the ambivalence many of the Americans felt towards his death sentence.) But there is no doubt, and the only question remaining is the method of execution, a detail omitted out of the court’s verdict and left to Washington to determine.

Ben fiercely argues for hanging as justice for Hale’s murder, but Washington is considering the bigger picture. Hanging André could have blowback, and not just Arnold’s threats to slay American prisoners. Ben’s righteousness eventually irks Washington, and he finally exposes the secret about the death of Nathan Hale. His famous last words, quoted from Joseph Addison’s popular 18th-century play Cato, are an American fairy tale. “He didn’t write them and he never said them — we did,” Washington says. “[Like André], he wished to be seen as a soldier — not a spy. We altered what he said, and thus converted a failed mission into an act of martyrdom.” The song is true: who lives, who dies, who tells your story?

NEXT: Ben escorts André to his fate

Abigail and Cicero arrive in Washington’s camp with André’s military uniform, and she crumbles slightly when she sees the kind man who enabled her freedom and reunited her with her son. In the world of Turn, it’s hard not to blame Abigail just a little, even as she sided with the “good guys.” She actively undermined André, most recently disposing of his final letter to Clinton with the intelligence that Abe was Culper. Abigail earned those tears, and the show’s complicated decision to make her one of the spy ring’s crucial agents can be second-guessed and historically analyzed ad nauseam. That Anna persuaded Ben and a reluctant Washington to emancipate Abigail and Cicero for their service is a convenient resolution to a subplot that could’ve been much more complex. Some white soldiers stare at them warily as they enter the American camp, which will have to stand as the show’s scant evidence that tens of thousands of Americans still needed to die before slavery was legally outlawed in this land of the free. But there’s never been any doubt about which century Turn was written.

At Rivington’s in New York, Samuel Townsend drops by unannounced, and the elderly man has clearly recovered from the shock of Abe and Caleb’s duplicity and is hopeful his son is similarly realigned with the patriot cause. “It’s about something greater than them and us,” says Samuel. “We have sacrificed enough,” Robert retorts. “[God] knows that.”

Samuel isn’t the only stranger in the tavern; De Young from Setauket arrives and quickly rushes to the side of his benefactor, Col. Cooke. Many times, we’ve heard Cooke lobby superior officers to take their time in winning the war. If victory is inevitable, his thinking goes, then why not prolong it as long as it’s profitable for him and his business partners. De Young is one of them, and so is Judge Woodhull — and if they’re losing money out on Long island, he’s losing money. Suddenly, the Judge’s legal strategy in his case against Abe makes some sense, if his real goal was to delay until the cavalry arrives.

But Simcoe strings up Abe, and Judge and the crowd can only watch as he dangles, gasping for air. The Judge has been a corrupt bastard, but he finally responds to the words Abe spat at him last week: “This town looks to you as a leader, not to me. So lead them. Speak up. Do the right thing.” As it turns out, the Judge had been doing the right thing, in his own self-serving way. By specifically giving Simcoe names of locals affiliated with Cooke’s schemes, he was sending the town bully on a goose chase that ultimately would blow up in his face. But is Cooke too late? The Judge rushes to his choking son and shouts to the others for help in lifting Abe to alleviate the tension of the noose. Despite threats from Simcoe, the townsfolk come to Abe’s side…just as Cooke arrives and blasts Simcoe for turning loyal Tories into terrorists by his careless actions. “I underestimated you, magistrate,” Simcoe says to the victorious Judge, who gets the last word: “Get out of my town, you pathetic amateur.”

I saved André’s heartbreaking execution for last, because his tragic fall had become Turn‘s central drama this season. His final carriage ride with Ben and the very formal staging of his own hanging (in sharp contrast to Abe’s) was both elegant and poignant and very artfully done. In the carriage, Ben and André exchange compliments, and when the Brit tries to pry one last secret out of his rival — the identity of Culper Junior — Ben disengages and answers by comparing André to his friend, Nathan Hale. There is only one conclusion for André to make: He will be hanged as a lowly spy and won’t be given the “honor” of a firing squad. So be it. But he didn’t commit his crime for king and country, as Hale did. “I did it for a woman,” he says, correcting Ben. “That is the loss I regret — more so than my own life.”

At the gallows, André plays his part. He literally marches to the platform. He puts the noose around his own neck. He puts his own blindfold on. He pushes it up to say his last words: “I pray that you all bear me witness, that I meet my fate like a brave man.” And then he sees Peggy, and they lock eyes. Kudos for that last fleeting moment, JJ Feild.

Ben saw André’s look of recognition as well, and it’s all clear once he sees Mrs. Arnold is in attendance. André did it for a woman, but not just any woman: a legendary beauty whose radiant eyes André etched in the corner on every portrait he drew. Afterwards, Ben confronts Peggy and presents her with the evidence — André’s final drawings. “His thoughts were with you, in the end,” he says with compassion, before suggesting she join her husband in New York at the earliest opportunity. “Why?” is the only response she can muster.

Why indeed. Red is not Arnold’s color, and though he’s been made an officer in the King’s army, his new rank of brigadier general is a demotion. Whispers follow him when he enters Rivington’s intent on purchasing some newspaper space to publish an open letter to the American people, and he retreats to the bar for a free drink with Robert. “No one will ever know the true measure of my sacrifice,” he fumes, touching on the same topic of sacrifice Robert had discussed with his father. “It is difficult to measure sacrifice,” Robert says, in his much more thoughtful air. “Often it seems to me that it is a road with no end.”

Arnold can’t quite fathom any deeper meaning than coin when it comes to such matters, rebuking the barkeep: “Of course, there’s an end: the end is death.”

Maybe Robert is disgusted by this crude customer, who sold his soul so cheaply. Or maybe he agrees with him. Because if death is the only end, then Nathan Hale and Cato were correct when they expressed the sentiment: “What pity is it that we can die but once to serve our country!”

Robert strolls over to Rivington and pledges his allegiance to the Culper ring — and our collective hopes for a fourth season of Turn — by asking to take out an advert. But does the show have more life after West Point and the drama of John André’s love triangle with Peggy Shippen and Benedict Arnold? André is dead. Major Hewlett and Capt. Simcoe might be gone for good, and Robert Rogers walked into the wilderness after exacting his revenge. Jamie Bell is 10/1 to be the next James Bond.

As a fan, more Revolution-era intrigue is welcome, but the show was also very careful to tie up most all of the loose ends after four seasons (Abe and the Judge’s reconciliation, Simcoe’s comeuppance, Abe’s confession of guilt over his brother’s death). Showrunner Craig Silverstein has several more seasons mapped out, with the Battle of Yorktown still a year away and the possibility of the Culper ring playing an even larger role in the post-war republic. Perhaps we just need a little John Paul Jones pep talk: “I have not yet begun to fight.”

Episode Recaps

Turn: Washington's Spies
This AMC drama explores a ring of spies in pre-Revolutionary War America.
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