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TURN “Private Woodhull” Review

By on July 10, 2017

Jamie Bell as Abraham Woodhull. Photo © AMC

By Chris B.

“Dead men walking.”

This is what Abe pronounces the men who ambushed him and murdered his father.  He is able to say this, quite pointedly, to Benedict Arnold as he signs up for the Loyal American Legion, seeking revenge.

Abe’s new bunkmate in the Legion thinks that because the senior officers don’t trust Arnold, their unit will never see battle, netting them “eight pence a day for a lot of sentry duty and drilling.”  As they practice, the Queen’s Rangers arrive so that Arnold and Simcoe can jointly address the men.  Arnold claims what all invading forces have, labeling themselves not “conquerers” but “rescuers”; Simcoe, though, vows that they will “bring the colonies to the brink of destruction.”

While he and his new buddy empty out the privies, Abe learns about the officers’ frequent trips from their regular station to the north, down to the hookers and cons of the so-called Holy Ground, opposite Trinity Chuch, “home to all that’s unholy.”  Colonel Simcoe may be among them, a fact he files away as he’s called to coffee with Colonel Cook at Rivington’s, where a stunned Robert Townsend gets his first view of Woodhull in his red uniform.

The Colonel is equally surprised, not wanting Abe to make hasty action he’ll regret, but Abe counters him:  “I’d regret not doing something, sir.  General Arnold has promised me satisfaction.”  Cook is unimpressed, wryly quipping, “He’s one to keep his word.”  Cook offers to transfer him to intelligence duties right there in the Battery, but Abe declines as having “no interest in that kind of work.”  Then Cook, invites him to a gathering at Kennedy House, easily extracting him from his duty to stand post that evening as he can “tell Arnold that Clinton outranks him.”  He’d never miss a chance to turn the knife in Arnold’s vanity.

Abe is displaced easily from his soldiering at Colonel Cook’s insistence, wanting him back in Setauket to take up his father’s reigns.  Arnold succumbs to his wishes without much of a fight, but when Cook refuses to use the “Long Island connection” to procure hay for his legion’s horses, Arnold moves in on a conversation with Clinton, confirming Abe’s position within the provincial forces as “the best of America.”  Cook is furious, but Arnold assures he’ll be personally responsible for Private Woodhull’s safety.

Irony abounds.

In the meantime, Abigail is horrified by Cicero’s decision to be General Arnold’s “body man,” asserting, “Where he goes, I go.”  Abigail flatly tells him she does not want her son to work for him, but Cicero defies her and proclaims himself “ a man now.”

Abe is called to what he thinks is a secret meeting with Townsend, who’s arrived at the Kennedy House party to convey his partner’s regrets.  However, the man in the cloak room is Cicero, who offers to help Abe spy on Arnold, given his new post as the General’s valet.  Cicero reports that Arnold’s leg still bothers him so he occasionally uses a cane to help him, and every night Benedict takes a midnight walk in his garden and visits his outhouse; this information Abe passes along to Robert to, in turn, convey to Tallmadge.

As Abe and Cicero converse, Peggy overhears bits of their conversation and observes the two speaking.  She seems disturbed, but when she emerges and approaches her husband, she does not report what she’s seen, just abruptly pronounces herself unwell and departs the party.

A final layer of complication is added when we discover that Simcoe is not stalking and planning Abe’s death, but that of the new head of Intelligence for the Royal Army, a man Woodhull is introduced to by Arnold, though they know each other well:  Major Edmund Hewlett.

The web weaving just got infinitely more tangled.

The Cost of Freedom

Selah Strong arrives in the New Windsor camp by fine carriage.  Ben pleads the army’s case to him:  “The men who received you—they joined two years ago; they’ve not been paid.”  Selah claims that he is sponsoring a bill to get veterans half-pay for life, but Ben assures him that is not enough:  “The men need money now, not promises for later.  If they’re not paid soon, then the army won’t be defending Congress; we’ll be defending Congress from the army!”

Selah urges Washington to come to Philadelphia to speak to Congress, but the General refuses.  Anna chooses to show her husband how the General restored order in camp—the grave markers for Randall and the other mutineers who “weren’t marching on Philadelphia to sack the city, but to demand what was owed them…I pray their graves will speak to Congress through you.”

Selah asserts to Ben that Congress should not be forced to beg for funds from the states and should collect customs duties from them, noting in a twist that, “There will be no representation without taxation.”

According to Selah, the war is about the states’ ability to make their own choices, but avoiding financial obligations is not a choice that anyone can make.  Ben Franklin was right; then, as now, “Nothing is certain but death and taxes.”  In this underfunded war, the Patriots have found the perfect storm of both.

A Wife’s Duty

One casualty of war that this series shows in painful detail is that of the relationships between husbands and wives.  The women of the colonies fight stringently for and with their men, and both parties suffer the frustrating, thorny consequences of what they must do.  This is something Mary Woodhull and Anna Strong know all too well.

Caleb secures Mary and Thomas from Setauket, Anna and Ben welcoming them to the New Windsor encampment.  She is now Mary Smith from Suffolk County as a means to separate her from her husband’s officially Tory name.  She is quickly put to work on the drudgery of mending uniforms.

Eventually, Mary marches into Ben’s tent demanding to know information about Abe’s mission.  “Has he joined Arnold yet?  Found a way to kill Simcoe?”  Ben is shocked by her knowledge of the plan, but Mary is on fire:  “I’m his wife!  Who do you think delayed the soldiers while you were burning the hay?  I have been helping my husband, and thus your cause, for some time now, and I deserve to know the truth.”  Ben stands firm, insisting that she obey the chain of command while at camp; all Ben cares about is keeping Abe safe, so he claims that Mary has no right to know the specifics of his mission, any more  than the enemy does.

Caleb tries to calm Mary, assuring her that Abe has always been able to take care of himself.  He tells her a story of an incident from their childhood in which Abe had been swept out to sea in the undertow of the bay, but instead of drowning, he’d conserved his energy to swim to the opposite shore.  “The only thing he feared is that we would be foolish enough to try to rescue him.”

But Mary’s having none of it.  She blames Caleb for Abe’s dangerous plight since he was foolish enough to be nabbed in the first place, “and unlike that fish story you just told me, Abe was courageous enough to try to rescue you.”

Despite all he’s endured, Caleb appears repentant and chastened under the heat of her ire.

Selah Strong comes to camp with a firm handshake and quite the dapper appearance, which Anna notes with some surprise in their awkward reunion:  “Philadelphia agrees with you.”  Selah defers her praise, making more self-deprecating remarks:  If only Philadelphia could agree with itself, but as long as Congress meets there, I don’t hold my breath.”

He is grateful for her letter, for letting him know that she is safe and for informing him of the army’s situation:  “There is no witness I heed more than my wife.”

Selah keeps his distance from her, reigning in his own wants and emotions to better focus on those of his wife and her clear importance to the war effort.  Before he leaves, he carefully thanks Anna again:  “Your letter opened my eyes…in more ways than one.  It reminded me of your courage, your compassion.  I cannot return to Philadelphia without asking you to come with me…What is important to you?…I do wish an answer when you are ready.”  

He asks permission to write to her.  She blinks rapidly, “Of course.  You are my husband.”

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