Benedict Arnold and John Simcoe team up to crack the Culper Ring
“When the consequence of today rears its head, then we’ll know what we learned.” —Judge Woodhull
When Turn premiered on AMC in 2014, the Revolutionary War spy-versus-spy series dramatized the civil war between Patriots and Tories. But what made the show most interesting was how it brought to the surface the vast middle: the population that was personally conflicted about the breach with the Crown and whose loyalties yo-yoed back and forth. But by late 1780, when the fourth and final season of Turn picks up, the political middle has shrunk. Too much has happened on the battlefields and in the small hamlets to maintain neutrality, to straddle the political fence. Too much blood has been spilled, and the war has burned everyone, one way or another. It is a time for choosing sides and for action, and once committed — in thought and in deed — there’s no going back.
No one knows that more than Benedict Arnold, the American hero-turned-traitor who’s trying to salvage what’s left of his reputation with his new masters on the British side by using his knowledge of the enemy’s intelligence network to capture spies. He casts a wide net in Long Island and New York, where he makes a high-profile arrest of noted tailor Hercules Mulligan at Rivington’s Tavern.
Arnold’s crackdown sends tremors up the Culper Ring’s chain of command, all the way to Gen. George Washington at his New Windsor, N.Y., headquarters. Losing Arnold isn’t just a personal betrayal; it is a strategic and intelligence fiasco. Only Washington really knows just how much he confided in Arnold, and now that loose cannon is aimed at his network. Alexander Hamilton suggests an assassination, but Washington wants Arnold kidnapped and made an example of. After being backstabbed by Arnold, Washington isn’t sure whom to trust — even his spymaster, Benjamin Tallmadge, is not beyond suspicion. When Ben sheepishly produces a letter from Arnold inviting him to join him in the British Army (evidence that Arnold hasn’t cracked the secrets of the Culper Ring, Ben insists), Washington can barely suppress his suspicions: Et tu, Brute?
Within his military camp, Anna Strong has carved out a role for herself, selling kettles and wares to the troops and their families. She’s still part of the spy ring, unofficially, and she and Ben spend enough time together in closed tents to keep the camp shrews gossiping. Inside, Ben shares a letter from her husband, Selah, who assumes Anna is still in Setauket. Anna’s enthusiasm for telling Selah the truth of her whereabouts, or, heaven forbid, reuniting with him, would likely hurt his feelings. Later, she’ll quarrel with Ben, and Caleb Brewster will joke, “Careful you two: Keep fighting like that, and people will say you’re in love.”
Are they? Will they be? Anna’s forbidden extramarital affair with Abe Woodhull was the pulse of the first season. Then, Anna was shackled with a flaccid romance with Major Hewlett that never quite felt credible from her side of the equation. Is Ben her next beau? I hope not. It’s a man’s world, yes, but Anna doesn’t need a man to be compelling.
Back in Setauket, Abe is proving once again that, when it comes to espionage, it’s better to be lucky than good. Caleb is approaching Abe’s home from the woods, and when he signals his presence with a bird whistle, Abe literally yells, “Is that Caleb Brewster?” and sprints towards the concealed Culper courier. Moments later, he yells to his father (and for anyone else to hear) that Caleb has arrived. Even though Abe resides in the countryside, where the nearest neighbor might be a mile away, Abe has been surveilled and ambushed there before. (See: Robert Rogers.) Yet he doesn’t seem to have learned his lesson. I’d be more sympathetic if there weren’t a crucial scene in the show’s second hour where three Redcoats just happen to ride by Abe’s house in the midst of a Patriot plot. Spymaster John André is dead, but rank amateur Abe Woodhull survives.
Back at Whitehall, Caleb urges Abe and his family to flee immediately, since the Culpers might be the next target of Arnold’s crackdown. But Abe is confident that the British aren’t yet on to him, based on the recent arrests of other suspects on the island, including a poor sap from Coram. Plus, there’s 300 tons of hay at the local British fort, scheduled to be shipped to New York to sustain the King’s men for the winter. It’s too much for some Patriots to steal, but they could definitely burn it. Mary suggests a special banquet to distract the British officers, delaying the shipment and allowing Caleb enough time to return with troops to complete the assault.
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In British-held New York, the war business is still very good. But Arnold and Peggy Shippen probably wish they were still back in Philadelphia. They’re barely noticed at a British officer’s party; Arnold is so unpopular that he has to stalk Col. Cooke while he “takes a slash,” and then gets left holding the filled chamber pot.
At least Peggy is reunited with old friends Freddy and Rebecca. Of course they point out that Philomena Cheer is also in attendance (seemingly without child, by the way), and Peggy makes a point of confronting her doppelgänger (and former rival for André’s affections), smacking her with precision insults wrapped in a cordial smile and graceful delivery.
Watching in the wings is John Simcoe, sipping red wine. He’s even more of a social leper than the Arnolds are, but he’s not a man who craves social acceptance. In fact, after his eviction from Setauket, he’s not even permitted in Rivington’s. The next day or so, he’s blocked from entering the tavern and only gains admittance when Robert Townsend reluctantly vouches for him. Arnold is already there, too, questioning Townsend about Mulligan’s loyalties. It’s the perfect opportunity for the show’s two villains to meet, and perhaps unite. Simcoe presents himself as a great admirer of Arnold’s field tactics, but while Arnold can barely remember Townsend’s name while he interviews him, Simcoe stares at the bartender like he can read his soul. Townsend is so rattled by the experience that he retreats to his private quarters and destroys his spy materials.
Abigail is also finished with the spy game. At least that’s what she says. She tells Anna that she’s heading back to New York — where at least she and her son Cicero will be safe until they decide whether to make a break for Canada. The British might be the villains of Turn, but it was the Americans who perpetuated slavery (and would continue to do so for another 85 years). Under British control, New York City became a refuge for freed blacks and escaped slaves during the Revolution, and understandably so. As a black house servant working at Arnold’s Manhattan residence tells Akinbode when he comes looking for Abigail, “Old Man Washington is not letting no Negros go [once the war is over], pass or no pass.”
It must be awkward for Arnold and painful for his wife to be living in André’s old New York residence. After his final meeting with André, which led to his execution, Arnold knows for a fact that Peggy and André had a significant romance. Living in his home, surrounded by his belongings, must cause her heartbreak and sting his manly pride. Perhaps that’s why he’s yet to review the Major’s intelligence files on the Culper Ring.
One other reminder of André that stubbornly won’t go away is Philomena. After Peggy rudely dispatched her at the party, Philomena answers with some game of her own. She approaches Peggy in public, begging forgiveness for her awkward behavior last time they met. But once she’s in close, she twists the knife, explaining that even though she’s just a mere actress, André seemed to prefer her rare skills: “After much applause and many encores, John testified that in portraying you, I in fact outshined the original. Perhaps that’s because I played you as the woman you might become, rather than the fumbling child he knew. Apart from that, you’re absolutely right. You could never do what I do. Good day.”
(I said, good day, ma’am!)
Ouch. The punches all landed, but if Philomena thinks that Peggy is a mere fumbling child, she’s about to learn the hard way. Peggy recruits Freddy to testify to Arnold that Philomena is a patriot spy, and a few nights later, Peggy goes out for a moonlight stroll to watch a crew of Redcoats put her rival in chains.
Later at night, when Peggy thinks she’s alone, she studies André’s notebooks, full of his drawings and his notes about the Culper Ring. Arnold walks in on her, but he doesn’t seem bothered by the notion she’s reading her ex-lover’s journal. He’s as thick and clueless as Gaston had he ever won the hand of Belle. But when she shoves the book under his nose, he sees a familiar name: Tallmadge. And even Arnold can put two and two together and come up with the name of the whaleboat courier: Brewster.
Back in Setauket, the Woodulls’ plan is working smoothly, but the Judge has his own game to play. He might be fighting the good fight now, but his family’s wealth is still his top priority. He’s playing both sides — the Crown and the local farmers — and when both parties show up at Whitehall and tensions grow, he plays the peacemaker and appeals to reason: Let’s meet tomorrow and talk this out. Who can resist the Judge when he makes so much sense? So the next morning, while both sides are negotiating and airing grievances, Ben, Caleb and Patriot troops assault a mostly unmanned fort and torch the British hay. Huzzah!
Abe can hardly conceal his glee and his admiration for his father, but the Judge knows there will be hell to pay. Even sooner than he thinks, it turns out. Caleb is ambushed by one of his frequent riverside trading partners and handed over to the British in exchange for the Coram man swept up in the recent purge.
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Caleb is dragged to Bridewell Prison just in time to see Mulligan talking his way out of an interrogation. His father is an admiral in the British Navy, he claims, and that’s likely enough to get him released. Caleb has no such strings to be pulled, especially since Simcoe is taking such a personal interest in his case. Arnold conducts the interview, but while he may be a battlefield legend, he’s a zero as an investigator. Even in chains, Caleb doesn’t hesitate to insult his captor, calling him a “two-faced, pompous piece of shite” who sold out his country for a pile of silver. Flustered, Arnold hands the job over to Simcoe, who has some complicated history with Caleb. Once upon a time, the tables were turned, and Caleb didn’t hesitate from brutalizing a captured Simcoe. Mercy will not be forthcoming.
Caleb’s predicament is precarious enough to send Ben himself through enemy lines to meet the Woodhulls in Setauket with the bad news about their friend. He hopes the Woodhulls will sneak him into Manhattan and then evacuate as soon as possible. But Abe has a clever idea: kidnap a loyal Tory instead — like himself — and trick the British into making a trade for Caleb. Abe is convinced that being kidnapped by Patriots will only reinforce his fake cover as a loyalist. (But did any of the British soldiers attend the recent trial where Abe was caught red-handed raiding the British garrison and then admitted in court, “As for these crimes that I’m accused of committing, my only regret is I didn’t commit them sooner”? Why has Abe been forgiven so quickly by the redcoats, and why would Abe think his kidnapping would not arouse some suspicion?)
The Judge insists that he be kidnapped in the plot instead, because he’s a more valuable target, and the group compromises by planning the abduction of both Woodhulls. What can go wrong?
Back at Washington’s base, morale and living conditions are low since Congress has failed to pay the soldiers. Fights are breaking out, discipline is breaking down, and the desperate families and hangers-on who’ve set up dwellings on the outskirts of the camp — to Washington’s chagrin — are presenting additional stress. Thank goodness Martha Washington is present to relieve His Excellency’s anxiety and tension. In what might be a historical first, Martha Washington, the future First Lady of the United States, lovingly offers to pet the Little General as the couple cuddles in bed. Yowza!
But Martha can lend a hand in greater ways than that. If Congress refuses to hear Washington’s pleas, perhaps there’s a better method to get out the message. Martha volunteers to speak to the wives of crucial congressmen, like Thomas Jefferson and Joseph Reed. Perhaps she’ll pen a letter, something like “The Sentiments of an American Woman,” to raise awareness and money . [Note: The letter would get written, most likely by Reed’s wife, Esther, and it helped raise funds for the war effort.]
Back at Bridewell, Simcoe’s interrogation of Caleb is going as well as one would expect — if they’d witnessed Simcoe stab a patriot spy in the neck at dinner or impale another suspect on the hearth or threaten to behead another innocent suspect who refused to tell him what he wanted to know. The problem for Caleb is that he and Simcoe are cut from similar cloth. He’ll never break, no matter the torture, no matter the knife wounds, no matter the salt in his wounds, no matter the branding. But his cockiness costs him. When Simcoe casually name-checks Robert Rogers as the leader of the spy ring, Caleb laughs — perhaps too hard. Simcoe picks up on it and correctly pieces together that it has been Abe all along who’s been the mole in Setauket. Was it a stretch to put that puzzle together based on a chuckle? Yes it was. But does it accelerate the level of danger that is starting to swirl around the Setauket friends as the show nears its finish line? Absolutely.
Caleb’s valiant resistance wins a modicum of Simcoe’s respect. The sadistic bastard even shares some personal history that helps explain the character’s behavior. Contrary to Caleb’s assumption [and actual history], Turn’s Simcoe was born in India and never set foot in England. After an uprising, his father, a doctor, was jailed in a notorious prison, the Black Hole of Calcutta — an experience that led the younger Simcoe to conclude that mercy was for the weak.
Only the prisoner swap will save Caleb, and Ben, Abe, and the Judge are doing everything they can to muck it up. First, Abe decides to send the ransom note in advance. Then, they arrange the kidnapping at Abe’s farmhouse, where nobody ever rides by. Except this time, just as the Patriots are cuffing the Woodhulls, three Redcoats ride by, including Captain Wakefield. Shots are fired, and all three British soldiers are killed. The prisoner swap will proceed, because corrupt Col. Cooke wants his business partner (Judge Woodhull) back in place to make the deliveries run on time, but Simcoe knows Abe is the Culper. And Setauket needs another British military leader. It can’t be Simcoe, so soon after his banishment. But might it bring Hewlett back to our shores?