Turn series finale recap: 'Washington's Spies'
“The Revolution never ends…” —Abraham Woodhull
There was a version of AMC’s Turn that ran several more seasons, chronicling the new country’s clumsy first steps, but while the Revolution never ends, the show is complete. After the excitement of Yorktown in the penultimate episode, the finale was basically a coda that settled accounts, literally and figuratively. What becomes of the war’s survivors on both sides of the Atlantic?
Not everyone makes it to independence. King George refuses to recognize the new reality after the humiliating loss at Yorktown, and while his advisers suggest a peace overture, the king is still marching to the symphony of war that plays only in his head. He fears the weight of history, the legacy that awaits him if he loses the American colonies. More men have to die before he’s persuaded otherwise, evidenced by the slaughter at the Battle of Groton Heights in Connecticut, where the victorious British officer accepts the sword from his defeated American opponent — and then skewers him with it. Benedict Arnold commanded those Brits — but did not approve this bloodbath — and while he castigates his men, Cicero grabs the opportunity to flee into the darkness. He doesn’t get far before he’s grabbed — by Akinbode. The former Queen’s Ranger fulfills his promise to Abigail, miraculously catching up with Arnold and Cicero, not south in Virginia, but north in Connecticut. Their reunion is rudely interrupted when they stumble into an American ambush. Akinbode’s Ranger uniform and Cicero’s specially made military valet coat dismiss any hopes of them convincing the patriots they’re friendly or freemen, and they are not only imprisoned, but a ransom note is quickly sent to Arnold to negotiate their release.
When Abigail receives the note demanding 50 pounds and shares it with Arnold, he’s hurriedly packing up his essentials to leave New York for England. And by essentials, I don’t mean Peggy and his newborn son. They will follow him to London later, after he’s safely away from Washington and the patriots who wish him ill will for his betrayal. On her own, Peggy is inclined to help Abigail, but Arnold is adamant that no coin be spent in the effort to recover his former valet.
Abigail is resourceful, and she approaches Edmund Hewlett with a bargain: help her leave the city and get through enemy lines to recover Cicero and Akinbode and she’ll disclose everything she knows about the Culper ring. Hewlett shocks her with the news that he already knows those secrets, though he assures her that he has no intention of arresting her. He’s planning one last trip to Setauket before he leaves for good. Abigail pleads with him to bring her too, so that she can connect with the Setauket members of the Culper ring and get word to Ben Tallmadge about her son. But Hewlett warns against such travel, for American victory has made life very dangerous for her race. Southern slave-catchers have frothed up from the South, keen on recovering former slaves who escaped behind British lines during the war and nabbing additional freedmen who don’t have the support to fight back. Rather than join him in Setauket, he urges her to jump on the first freedmen’s boat to Nova Scotia.
Abe, Mary, and Thomas Woodhull have already resettled in Setauket, but they’ve given up their rights to Whitehall. It was Abe’s deal with Hewlett: If the British spymaster dispatched John Simcoe, Abe would transfer ownership of the Woodhull family estate to him. As a result, Abe has settled — and settled — back in his old decrepit farmhouse. Times are tough. He has no money, no crops, and few friends willing to loan him either. After Hewlett arrives and they conclude their real estate transaction — Hewlett, in turn, quickly sells Whitehall to an overeager De Young — Abe hits him up for a loan. Hewlett regrettably rejects the request, claiming that he needs every cent for his future plans, but suggests that Abe go right to the top: Washington. Not only was George Washington the general of the victorious army, but he was also one of the wealthiest men, if not the wealthiest man, on the continent. Mary thinks that idea makes sense, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have suspicions about Hewlett. Did he really fulfill his end of the bargain and kill Simcoe? (Um, no.) “I assure you,” Hewlett says in perfect fine-print-speak, “the man you knew as John Graves Simcoe is dead and gone.” At least Hewlett kept his word to Abigail and brought her urgent message about Cicero, which Abe can deliver to Robert Townsend in New York and send up the chain of command.
But of course Simcoe is not dead and gone. He’s in England, recovering from Caleb’s shot and angling for another commission. General Clinton has embraced his own post-war vacation and brushed Simcoe’s persistent letters aside, but he can no longer ignore the matter when the Ranger limps onto his estate and interrupts his fox-hunt. (Col. Cooke is there, too, apparently, with his new wife: an actress from New York. I like to think it’s Philomena Cheer.) Simcoe is wired differently, Clinton understands: like his hounds who are relentless once they pick up the scent of their prey. But there are no rebels for Simcoe to fight in Spain or India, certainly not with his current injury. Taking mercy on Simcoe, Clinton suggests Canada. There are no battles to be won there, but there is a new country to be built. Did you feel any affection for Simcoe as he was steered toward post-Revolutionary greatness…or were you still hoping he’d drop his cane and fall down the steps?
Washington’s victory tour leads him through Philadelphia on his way to New York. In Philly, Selah Strong wins over a reluctant Anna by inviting her to help him craft legislation to get the states to compensate the veterans who fought the war. There might never be great passion between these characters, but if Anna has demonstrated anything in four seasons, it’s that she values and oftentimes insists on being treated as an equal in a man’s world. Selah’s recognition of Anna’s talents and their shared politics could serve as the solid foundation of their revitalized relationship.
Abe’s dire finances (and no doubt Mary’s harping) encourage him to plead his case for reimbursement (and bring Abigail’s message) to Washington in New York. He meets with Robert Townsend in the country first, telling his sometimes reluctant partner that he intends to argue his case as well. Townsend, living comfortably on his father’s farm, is less desperate financially. In fact, he’s more at peace with the deeds he’s committed, the lies he’s told, and if some financial hardship is the only price of his sins, he considers himself fortunate. They part on good terms, after a friendly game of checkers. (Recap continues on page 2)
In New York, the city is bustling as one army exits, another enters, loyal Tories and freed blacks flee en masse, and the rest of Manhattan quickly hides the Union Jack in their attics and starts waving the Stars and Stripes. Ben is part of Washington’s entourage, and Abe grabs his pal’s attention by yelling his Culper code number. It’s very awkward as Abe hands Ben a stack of receipts, invoicing the money he and Townsend are owed. Clearly, this is a crucial matter for Abe, but maybe he chose the wrong time to bring it up. Perhaps the money can wait, Abe allows, but Cicero and Akinbode can not.
Washington’s first stop in New York is Rivington’s, which lost its high-class clientele with the British exodus. Only Rivington himself is inside when Washington and his guards enter, but His Excellency is not there to have a drink. He knows Rivington — or at least he knows his work. “Rebel Rabble Routed at Monmouth,” says the general, reciting some of Rivington’s most notable alliterative propaganda headlines. “What are facts but opinions expressed as truths,” Rivington says in his defense, but with such little conviction that he may as well have said “Hashtag Fake News.” Washington isn’t there to settle any scores, though he’s well aware of Rivington’s other slanderous stories about his wife, Martha. He also remembers that Rivington once believed that “the liberty of the press represented the great security of freedom,” and he assures the printer that there will be no reprisals against the Royal Gazette or its owner, though he suggests a name change. “We shall need vigorous voices to hold pride in check, lest our young country go down the same road as the one we just defeated,” Washington says, granting Rivington his blessing to be the journalist he once aspired to be.
In London, Peggy and Arnold are awaiting his audience with the king. Peggy’s few friends are enamored with the gossip that she once had an affair with the tragic hero John André, and Arnold is focused on getting royal approval to return to the colonies with a fresh army and defeat the Americans. “I’m not done fighting and my legend is yet to be written. I will return to the colonies and I will win!” he barks at Robert Rogers.
Yes, that Robert Rogers. The rogue has hit hard times, but he’s never given up his obsession for revenge. He wants the king dead, and the night before Arnold’s audience, he confronts the turncoat in the dark and makes the case for redemption: be an American Guy Fawkes and assassinate the king. Rogers can’t realistically think that Arnold of all people is the right man to pull the trigger, but fast-forward to the next day, as a barking-mad king pisses on his flowers and interrupts Arnold’s request for troops by lionizing André, and you can almost imagine the proud officer snapping and putting a bullet in George’s temple. As a viewer, I thought Arnold was just as likely to put the bullet in his own head, for at that moment, you could almost see him recognize the future and his place in it — Brutus, Judas, Benedict Arnold. He will never know peace.
Back in Long Island, it’s hard to imagine that Abe isn’t getting paid when George Washington himself rides in to town. After all, the most famous man in North America wouldn’t make that trip after Ben passed along Abe’s invoices just to tell his top spy, “You’ll get nothing and like it.” But that doesn’t make it any less awkward when the Culpers sit for a private dinner at De Young’s (soon to be Selah Strong’s again, at least temporarily) and Abe interrupts a toast to basically ask for the money’s he owed. Washington intones sternly that the spies he knew, present company notwithstanding, “gave of their service selflessly,” but Abe will not be deterred. He doesn’t qualify for veterans’ pay and he needs the money now or his crop will be ruined. Washington requests privacy to discuss the matter, and once they bond over cabbage farming, he decides to give Abe the money due from his private account. Abe protests the gesture, but Washington insists, with a quote co-writers Craig Silverstein and Michael Taylor should take great pride in: “It was a very hard lesson, but I have learned well: that failure to settle accounts can turn friend to foe, whereas the payment of a debt is freedom felt by all.”
Abe sobs — with either gratitude or shame, and perhaps elements of both. It would’ve been a near-perfect ending.
Instead, we were treated to an old-man letter from Abe to Thomas, looking back on his life. I didn’t mind the voice-over epilogue, but it felt slightly gimmicky, a catch-all to conclude unresolved matters (Abe and Anna’s true love); to parse the contradictions that defined both heroes and villains (contrasting Simcoe with Washington’s stance on slavery, which kept Abigail apart from Cicero and Akinbode, at least for a time); and to tug on your heartstrings by dropping little Thomas’ battlefield death in the War of 1812.
Yes, the Revolution never ends. There will always be tyrants like King George, powerful figures whose ambition and/or ignorance threatens the peace. And there will always be the blueprint of freedom that includes the principles of checks and balances and a free press. That conflict still wages. The value of Turn was that it showed 21st century Americans how the patriots of the founding generation were just like us, for better and for worse. And that should give us hope.
Turn: Washington's Spies