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TURN Review: Two Trials, One Execution in the Season 3 Finale

By on June 29, 2016

Kevin McNally as Richard Woodhull | Photo Credit: Antony Platt/AMC

By Chris B.

Could there be a colder open than a flashback of Nathan Hale’s hanging in 1776?  “One Life to Lose” could very well be the soap-opera nickname for this spectacular and deadly season finale of Turn: Washington’s Spies.  It features two trials, and with sacrifice as its overarching theme, makes good on the centuries-old spoiler alert for the beloved John Andre.

With the rope tossed over the branch of a tree, Simcoe calmly holds the red and flailing Abe with his toes just beyond the reach of the grass while negotiating the exercise of justice with Richard Woodhull.  The magistrate insists Abe be given due process of law before a sentence is handed down.  It is now the elder Woodhull’s duty to prosecute his son, but he insists, “I stand only for the law, nothing more.”  This gives Abe a small window of safety, and it allows Simcoe to make the most of the obvious verdict by constructing a gallows on the hill:  “We’re going to do this properly.”

At West Point, Peggy Arnold puts on the performance of her life:  she rips clothes from drawers, roughs up her hair, and begins shrieking about phantoms stealing her husband.  She succeeds in convincing the men that she’s lost in girly hysterics, thereby eluding any culpability in her husband’s betrayal of America.

John Andre debriefs himself to General Washington of his dealings with Benedict Arnold, careful to indicate that Arnold did not involve his wife in his affairs.  The admiration that Washington has for Andre is clear as he shoos Ben away when Tallmadge wants to press the prisoner for more information about agents and contacts, grousing, “Not today,” as if such an act would be unseemly.  Andre requests a fresh uniform so he might stand trial with the honor of an officer; further, since he fully expects the tribunal to find him guilty, he requests his execution be by firing squad, not hanging:  “One is a fate befitting an officer, and the other is meant for a spy.  I am an officer, dedicated to service and stained with no action that can give me cause for remorse.  I wish the mode of my death to reflect this.”  The General agrees to consider his request.

In York City, Arnold gets a chilly reception by General Clinton, who installs his tacky defector in Andre’s lodgings until he can figure out what he wants to do with him.  A messenger brings a dispatch from Washington regarding the plans for Andre’s trial as a spy, as well as the proposed alternative:  an exchange of Andre for Arnold.  Before the man leaves with Andre’s mail, Clinton asks if there are any letters for him in the stack.  Could the one naming the true identity of Samuel Culper be among them?  The look exchanged between Abigail and Cicero answers that; Cicero slips away to his room, slides a paper from beneath his mattress, and plops it in the fire.  On one front, at least, Abraham has been saved.

In York City, Rivington’s tavern is bustling as James talks to the Colonel Cook of how Arnold’s defection must mean the ship of the rebellion is sinking fast “if the rats are leaving it.”  Their conversation is interrupted by the sudden arrival of De Young, Setauket’s tavern owner, who whispers frantically to the Colonel, causing the latter to jump to his feet and rush away without another word.

This suspicious interaction peaks the interest of Samuel Townsend, who has just arrived to determine why no word of Culper business has come from his son in quite some time.  Robert seethes, “You truly are a glutton for punishment.”  Evidently, the softening he’d showed when observing the better side of Caleb and Abe had not quite convinced Robert to rejoin the fight.  His father, though, picks up their theme:  “For the cause, we shall freely give up our bodies for sacrifice.  This is not about them; it is about something greater than them, and us.”  But Robert still feels spurned; he asserts, “We have sacrificed enough,” and dismisses his father in favor of the offer of rum.  If “Quakers Going Rogue” were an episode of The Jerry Springer Show, Robert Townsend would be sitting stage center.

One Life

The trial of Abe begins with Richard’s opening remarks, in which he names his alleged crimes as “attempted theft of army property, conspiracy to commit insurrection, and the assault of an officer.”  Abe, caring not if he has a fool for a client, represents himself and offers silence in lieu of an answering plea.  Richard forges on, calling the wronged farmers who had spoken with Abe in the tavern after their property was demolished in the witch hunt for Rogers.  The third witness is a contrite Simcoe who speaks tamely of Abe’s attack upon him, “He was vicious…He aimed a fist at my wounded ear.  It hurt very badly.”  After that, I expected Simcoe to stick out his bottom lip and point doe-eyed to his boo-boo, but Abe finally interrupts, demanding Simcoe confess to ordering up the bullet that took down Richard and to torching the property of various townspeople.  While he is beat down by the gavel, he repeats firmly, “The prisoner may present evidence of the truth.”  This truth, we’ll soon discover, will indeed set him free.

Simcoe gets impatient with the trial, demanding that Richard rest his case, unsure if the magistrate is delaying the inevitable verdict “out of sentiment or cruelty.”  Instead of acquiescing, Richard calls his next witness:  Mary Woodhull.  Mary is vehement in her support of Abe, refusing to refer to him as “the prisoner” and insisting she “witnessed no act of treason.”  Richard, however, is more interested in showcasing Abe’s disloyalty to her, not to his country.  “Mary Blake Woodhull is a woman who holds to her obligations.”  Richard vocalizes this, but he didn’t foresee what it meant; as the magistrate thunders away, Mary rises and issues a verbal smack-down:  “I love my husband, and I stand by him now.  If he broke the law, it was from a need to protect those he loves—to protect the town that he loves—from you.”  She turns to the gallery next:  “It was Judge Woodhull who gave Captain Simcoe your names.  The fields that were burned were from a list that he wrote up,” and she even calls out his scheme with Major Hewlett and the Royal Army to profit off of them.  Richard tries to shut her up and dismiss her from the stand, but the courtroom erupts in anger and the proceedings spiral out of control.

The next day, Abe is treated to the Simcoe alarm clock (a.k.a., a bucket of icy water to the face) to rouse him for the trial’s closing arguments.  His father has prepared lengthy remarks, but before he can begin, Abe is beset by cascading memories and leaps to his feet to confess—not to the charges at hand, but to something far more grave: “I killed him.  I killed Thomas…I started the riots at King’s College; it was a prank that went wrong, but I started it.  I felt responsible for his life, so I took it—I took his intended, I took his inheritance, I took his good Tory name, but it wasn’t me.  It was never me.  You ask who I am:  I don’t know.  I buried that man along with my brother…I lied to try to make things right, but it didn’t work…I can’t lie anymore, and as for these crimes that I’m accused of committing, my only regret is that I didn’t commit them sooner.”  His monologue renders all speechless—all but a beaming Simcoe, who abruptly confirms Abe’s guilt, bangs the judge’s gavel himself, and announces the immediate sentence of death.

On the gallows, Abe is silent and resigned.  A scout arrives with news for Captain Wakefield, but he’s blown off by Simcoe, who refuses to have his fun interrupted.  The Ranger gleefully informs the crowd that they can pull on the body if death takes too long, then kicks over the platform and watches with hungry eyes as Abe flails.  Richard watches, too, until he can take no more.  He surges up to his son and grasps him around his legs, and for a sickening moment, it looks like he is going to tug on them.  Instead, with a mighty effort, he lifts up, giving Abe a gulp of air.  The elder Woodhull begs help from the crowd, and as Simcoe tells his men to kill all those round the gallows, Wakefield raises his pistol to the Captain and orders his soldiers to take aim at the Rangers.  Colonel Cook makes a timely entrance, simmering with anger for Simcoe’s costly campaign of destruction.  He suggests that perhaps the battlefront would be a better place for the Ranger, and at Judge Woodhull’s prompting, the people of Setauket are only too happy to put their stamp of approval on bidding farewell to the town tyrant.

Before he departs, Simcoe confronts Richard.  Finally he sees that he’d been set up by the Judge from the beginning: “Those names, those fields…I underestimated you, Magistrate.”  Richard, not even bothering to gloat, bites out a simple reply:  “Get out of my town, you pathetic amateur.”  All clear the field, leaving the resurrected Woodhull family to stand united.

Closed Door, Open Window

While Abe’s experience is a veritable circus, Andre’s trial is solemn and brief, its verdict assured; however, the manner of the Major’s death is left to Washington’s discretion.  He claims “it remains complicated” after the General receives a threat from Arnold of retaliation, a “torrent of blood that may be spilled” by American prisoners.  An agitated Washington, totally blindsided by the defection of one from his inner circle, is forced to do a quick reassessment of his intelligence lines in the wake of Arnold’s defection.  Culper, he insists, must remain where he is, despite the danger.  Ben questions this wisdom:  “You would spare Andre but not Abe?”  He does not wish to extend a courtesy to Andre that was not extended to his friend, Nathan Hale, a man also just doing his duty but was hanged as a spy.  Washington scoffs at the comparison:  “Hale was captain in our militia; Andre is adjutant general of the British army.  He doesn’t hang without consequences.”

But Ben presses the issue.  He insists an example must be made to restore order and re-establish the trust of the men in their leadership.  Now irked, Washington’s response is to blow apart Ben’s last memory of his school chum Hale:  the noble words he supposedly uttered at the moment of his death were nothing but a PR fabrication, invented after the fact by the officers of the Continental Army.  “He didn’t write them and he never said them…We altered what he said and thus converted a failed mission to an act of martyrdom.”

Nathan Hale had once been the Patriot equivalent to Macbeth’s Cawdor, embodying the idea behind “Nothing in his life became him like the leaving of it.”  If that uplifting example is but one more idiot’s tale, what does that mean for the sound and fury of each of us when, as with Andre, it will abruptly be heard no more?

Abigail and Cicero arrive at camp, granted emancipation in gratitude of their service to their country. Abigail delivers Andre’s uniform to him.  He is grateful to see her, but she is overcome by tears.  The irony of the scene is thick as the condemned man comforts the spy who helped seal his fate.  Is Abigail feeling remorse about her role, or is she merely saddened by the loss of a kind and decent man?  Then, when Andre whispers, “It’s not your fault,” is he just soothing her pain like a gentleman, or is he pardoning an opponent in the game of espionage?  His words make her face contort, stricken that he may have known of her involvement, but the ambiguity of the scene remains intact.

As Andre is taken to his execution, he and Tallmadge have the opportunity for a very civil exchange in which Ben divulges how he first came to hear Andre’s name, and John personally apologizes for the death of Nathaniel Sackett as Gamble had been instructed not to employ violence.  The two majors both cop to their own failures and compliment the other on his successes.  Andre calls Culper “the master stroke” and inquires out of curiosity about his contact in York City.  Ben ducks the query, bringing up Nathan Hale and paralleling his situation to Andre’s, the former working for his country and the latter his king.  Tallmadge admits he “can see the honor in both.”  But John Andre, a Romantic to the end, leaves his one regret as the woman he forfeited in the process, the one whose love he fought for to the end.  “That is the loss I regret, more so than my own life.”

Andre’s execution is a staid affair.  He is formally marched with fife and drum to the gallows.  He steels himself to approach the noose, and before mounting the stairs, he and Ben share a final handshake.  On the platform, he places the rope around his own neck and ties his own blindfold, peeking from under it for his last words:  “I pray that you all bear me witness that I meet my fate like a brave man.”  Just before the cart lurches, his eyes find those of Peggy Shippen in the crowd, clutching his braid in her fingers.  She is the last thing he sees.  The poet-major’s journey has ended.

As a final courtesy to his esteemed opponent, Ben stops Peggy as she leaves the scene.  He noticed her as the focus of Andre’s attention, recognized her eyes from his sketches.  He hands over the drawing to her and gently informs her, “His thoughts were with you in the end.  It’s only a matter of time before your role in this is discovered.  I suggest you cross the lines as quickly as you can manage.”  Go back to her husband?  The weak and desperate one who abandoned her to save himself?  The one she doesn’t even love?  All she can choke out is, “Why?”  Peggy, girl, we have no answer for you on that one.

While Washington’s rage at Arnold’s letter had been muted, General Clinton’s is not.  He bursts in on his new acquisition, demanding to know if he truly threatened to slaughter forty hostages.  Benedict is quick to pull out the “He started it!” defense, as Washington had threatened Arnold’s ruin.  Clinton is contemptuous:  “We do not murder prisoners of war, and you do not speak for the King.  Ever…I would trade you for Andre in a heartbeat if my hands were not tied.”  He is unable to trade away a defector for fear that it would discourage others from taking the same course.  Arnold insists that he needs to be returned to his milieu, the battlefield, to show his real worth:  “I am a warrior, not a diplomat…Give me a command, and I will give you victory.”  Clinton is only too happy to deliver the not-so-good news—Arnold will be a Brigadier General (a demotion) and have to raise his own regiment of loyalists, “though it remains to be seen whether any man will fight under a turncoat.”  Out of the frying pan and into the fire, eh, Benedict?

The disgruntled Arnold, awkward in his bright red uniform, marches into Rivington’s tavern as he wants to publish in the Gazette a proclamation to the American people.  When he is ribbed by James over whether he can afford the ink, Arnold bristles—he can afford that and more—then skulks off to order of Townsend, “Drink—whatever’s cheapest.”  He whines to Robert about the dirty ring of spies who subverted him, ones he vows to root out and destroy, adding, “No one will ever know the measure of my sacrifice.”

Given the earlier discussion with his father, that strikes a chord with Townsend, who calls it “a road with no end.”  To Arnold’s shallow thinking, focused only his ailing bank account, that road does end, in death.

That’s all Robert needs to hear.  He accosts Rivington and, with his usual deadpan style, repeats what has become one of the most menacing phrases of the entire season:  “I’d like to buy an advertisement.”

Grant us a fourth season, AMC—this war rages on!

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