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TURN Series Finale “Washington’s Spies” Review

By on August 14, 2017

Jamie Bell as Abraham Woodhull, Ian Kahn as General George Washington - TURN: Washington's Spies _ Season 4, Episode 10 - Photo Credit: Antony Platt/AMC

By Chris B

The series finale of Turn shows how all parties involved try to make sense of life in the aftermath of a long and costly war.  The first scenes depict a delusional leader whose tactful advisors try fruitlessly to convince him of the reality of the situation in America, but hearing a fanciful symphony in his head, the man seems determined to follow an ignorant course that could bring the entire empire down.  While this scenario may seem eerily like a story from the present day, here it is of King George III, who does not wish to recognize the authority of the Continental Congress and have his legacy be “the king who lost the Americas,” not pacified by the counterargument of “There’s still Canada!”  Rather than independence, the King decides he’ll “give them blood.”

And blood they receive when a regiment of Americans attempt to surrender in New London, Connecticut. The commander ceremoniously hands over his sword, only to be harpooned by it a moment later.  This is brutal act is compliments of a squad directed by Benedict Arnold, who rushes to quell the action and chastise his officers, too late to stem the slaughter.

Arnold soon leaves the Americas, intent to hitch ride with Cornwallis back to England to plead with the King for more men and more funding to continue the fight against the patriots.  He’s taken with the idea of returning to “thrash Washington in a way those gentlemen generals never could” and of obtaining the heady title of Commander of the British Forces in North America.

Arnold, per his usual, finds himself thwarted once he gets to London.  Robert Rogers makes a surprise appearance, tracking him down and offering Benedict “one last chance to regain [his] honor” and not end up as the last name in a list that begins with Brutus and Judas.  How?  By assassinating the King.  Arnold scoffs at this, but when he meets George III and has to endure his lengthy praise of John Andre (all while watering his plants with his own urine), Arnold fingers suggestively the small pistol that Rogers has slipped into his pocket and momentarily reconsiders.

Washington and his men, including Ben and Caleb, march into Philadelphia to much fanfare and fangirling.  Selah, too is there, in search of his wife.  Their reunion is tense, but Selah doesn’t allow the discomfort to settle.  Instead, he asks for Anna’s feedback on a bill he is crafting to present to Congress to ensure pay for their war veterans.  Anna is momentarily nonplussed, but she quickly takes to her role as writing coach.  They sit down together to make changes to the document, and it is clear that Selah has finally found the key to his wife’s heart, what she has craved most of all: respect. She has fought as vigorously and as shrewdly as any man, and to have her input valued despite her gender is the recompense that she so richly deserves.

Jamie Bell as Abraham Woodhull, Meegan Warner as Mary Woodhull, Seth Numrich as Ben Tallmadge, Ian Kahn as General George Washington - TURN: Washington's Spies _ Season 4, Episode 10 - Photo Credit: Antony Platt/AMC

Jamie Bell as Abraham Woodhull, Meegan Warner as Mary Woodhull, Seth Numrich as Ben Tallmadge, Ian Kahn as General George Washington – TURN: Washington’s Spies _ Season 4, Episode 10 – Photo Credit: Antony Platt/AMC

Back in Setauket, Abe is scrambling to try to revive a life for himself and his family.  While his dilapidated farmhouse still stands, he hasn’t got the funds to plant a crop, and is in danger of losing the whole season.  He can’t get his friends to agree to help, and after he signs over the deed of Whitehall to Hewlett (who immediately sells it to Martin De Young), he asks the Major for a loan.  Hewlett declines, needing “all this and more to try for a new life,” but he advises Abe to seek payment for his services directly from Washington:  “He owes you, Abraham; I suggest you collect.”

Hewlett passes on Abigail’s letter and informs Abe of Cicero and Akinbode’s capture; he promises to get word “through his New York connection,” whom Hewlett is curious to have identified.  Abe defers to discretion about that, while Hewlett does the same with regard to Simcoe’s demise:  “I assure you, the man you knew as John Graves Simcoe is dead and gone.”

Figuratively, perhaps.

The man himself still walks the Earth, albeit with a limp and a cane.  He shows up at General Clinton’s estate in Devon to plead for a post.  Clinton, however, is baffled by Simcoe’s need to leap back into action; he advises him to enjoy his convalescence and get a hobby.  John can’t compute this—he is a weapon in search of a war, and he is determined to dog Clinton until he gets what he wants.  Thus, Clinton offers up Canada, and while they may be fighting “no one except the weather,” it is a good option for John to exercise some of his leadership skills.  Instead of killing, Simcoe can now try his hand at building and creating something that will benefit others.

Abe sets off with Abigail’s letter, diverting to Robert Townsend’s farm when he learns that the former Culper Jr. is no longer in New York.  Abe promises that he will get to Washington and secure funds for Robert’s expenses as well as his own.  Abe feels responsible for Townsend as he was the one who dragged the Quaker into the spy business.  Robert, though, is less desperate and more reflective:  “The only thing that I regret is having to be prodded into doing something that my conscience should have dictated.”  Abe does not have the luxury of that; he has a family to provide for.  Townsend acknowledges this to Abe, adding, “And family you’ve lost.  You’ve paid a deeper price than any of us. I don’t know what makes that whole.”

Robert has something else in mind, “one more issue to be settled” between them: who is the superior draughts player.  The two sit in the fading sunlight next to the barn and bring their long-standing tournament to a close.

Abe meets up with Washington’s entourage when they ride into New York, getting Ben’s attention by shouting out his code number, 721.  Ben is unprepared for the stack of papers his friend bestows upon him, invoices and receipts from four years’ worth of travel expenses, paper, ink, and the like, for himself and Townsend.  The timing is off, but Ben agrees to try to get them what they’re owed.

The next stop on Washington’s victory tour is Setauket, and he holds a private meal in the tavern in honor of Abe.  This gives Abe his chance to plead his case to the man himself, and so determined is he to do so, he awkwardly interrupts a toast in his honor to do it. Washington freely acknowledges that “our country owes its life to heroes whose names it will never know,” but Abe is a hero that does not qualify for veteran’s benefits and who has crops to plant soon in order to ensure the welfare of his family. Washington, who’s endured his own planting woes at Mount Vernon, understands.  He writes out a document to pay Woodhull from his own funds.

Samuel Roukin as Captain Simcoe - TURN: Washington's Spies _ Season 4, Episode 10 - Photo Credit: Antony Platt/AMC

Samuel Roukin as Captain Simcoe – TURN: Washington’s Spies _ Season 4, Episode 10 – Photo Credit: Antony Platt/AMC

Abe’s protests to this gesture are overcome, for Washington has learned the hard way that “failure to settle accounts can turn friend to foe, whereas the payment of a debt is freedom felt by all.”  Abe’s relief is extreme, and he is brought to tears.  So long has he fought and so much has he lost that the prospect of ceasing those struggles seems to leave him with a realization of how monstrous the journey has been.

The ending of the tale is that of a reflection by an aged Abraham, writing a letter to his son Thomas about the secrets he never spoke of from the war, penned thirty years from the day that their first crop made it to harvest.  In the montage that unfolds, we see Mary pregnant, Hewlett married and living the dream as a “great man of science,” and Robert Rogers dying a drunk in the streets.  Caleb works in a fledgling coast guard, Ben in Congress; Benedict Arnold dies without the glory he sought, and Peggy pines for John Andre until her own demise, still possessing a lock of the Major’s hair.

Indeed, “love is something easy to conceal but hard to kill.”  Such is the case for Abe’s love for Anna Strong (now with kids and living in Connecticut), as well as for Thomas, who we learn is killed by a British musket on August 24, 1814, at the Battle of Bladensburg.  The boy had wanted to fight for his country, just as his father did.

Both did so honorably.


Limited Freedom

The finale reminds us of what Turn has largely skirted in its tenure: the fate of people of color in the American colonies.  A victory for the patriots is not a victory for all, not when the man who would become the first president of these newly united states is himself a slaveowner; nothing but a life of subjugation awaits most of these people, as Abigail comes close to discovering.  

When Benedict Arnold is distracted by the slaughter in New London, Cicero takes the opportunity to make a break for it.  He runs into the woods but is almost immediately intercepted by Akinbode who, true to his word, has tracked the boy there.  Their joyous reunion is brief, however; moments later, both are captured by Americans.

When Arnold refuses to pay the ransom demand, Abigail must find another way to get back the men she loves.  She heads to Major Hewlett, offering up what she knows about “a rebel spy” in exchange for a pass out of the city and through enemy lines.  Hewlett, however, is unmoved by the offer of information; he tells her that he already knows about Culper as Abraham Woodhull, and that they had “plotted together to murder Colonel Simcoe.”  

Heather Lind as Anna Strong - TURN: Washington's Spies _ Season 4, Episode 10 - Photo Credit: Antony Platt/AMC

Heather Lind as Anna Strong – TURN: Washington’s Spies _ Season 4, Episode 10 – Photo Credit: Antony Platt/AMC

Abigail has a near panic attack, thinking herself headed for the gallows, but Hewlett is quick to assuage her fears:  “I’m not going to turn you in.  I was plotting to kill Simcoe, too.”  Hewlett advises her to save herself from “slave catchers frothing up from the south” and board one of the boats offered to take black loyalists to Nova Scotia.  The Major allows her to write a note for Akinbode and her son which Edmund will see delivered to Abe, who will then get it to Washington’s camp.

Abigail is thrown by his kindness.  “Why would you help me?”  Hewlett’s smile is a sad irony:  “We are in the same dirty business…if we spies don’t seek restitution for one another, who will?

Before their release, Akinbode and Cicero spend their time in jail reading the Bible and teasing each other about their respective “tall tales” of a big bag full of gold and of spying for General Washington.  When their pardon comes, both take pleasure in gleefully telling the other, “Told ya!” when it is proven that he was speaking the truth.  They commit Abigail’s letter to memory and go to a town in Canada to await her arrival.

But things do not run so smoothly for Abigail.  Washington intervenes in New York and asserts ownership over “all Negros and other property of the southern states”; he orders the escaping vessels turned around.  As a result, Abigail is shuttled in chains from the boat that was to take her to Canada and freedom, but thanks to her unfailing cleverness, she is able to lift a small pistol from one of her uniformed abductors.  Since Abe later refers to a coded message received from Nova Scotia, we can deduce that she was successful in securing her own freedom to reunite with Cicero and Akinbode.


What Remains

“The real war, the one between good and evil, was fought within ourselves.”

Abe’s realization is a reminder for us of the contradictions which we live with today, ones that life in America has cultivated from the start.  Fighting stringently for one’s principles is a good thing, until it becomes the means by which another is robbed of his.

While in New York, Washington pays a visit to Rivington’s tavern, and it is no accident.  The General proceeds to quote some of James’s creative and alliterative headlines, condemning them with his deadpan assertion that he himself chooses to “favor fact over form.”  Rivington tries for a pithy reply:  “What are facts but opinions expressed as truths?”  But it is clear that even he does not believe that tripe.  

Washington presents James with one more quote, one from before the war:  “The printer is bold to affirm that his press has been open to publications from all parties…In the country wherein he was born, he always heard the liberty of the press represented as the great security of freedom…”  This had come from Rivington himself before his press, and his home, were destroyed by the Sons of Liberty.

Burn Gorman as Major Hewlett, Jamie Bell as Abraham Woodhull - TURN: Washington's Spies _ Season 4, Episode 10 - Photo Credit: Antony Platt/AMC

Burn Gorman as Major Hewlett, Jamie Bell as Abraham Woodhull – TURN: Washington’s Spies _ Season 4, Episode 10 – Photo Credit: Antony Platt/AMC

That idea is one upon which the two men can agree.  In fact, Washington’s soldiers are not there to take action against Rivington, but to “protect [him] from new reprisals.  We shall need vigorous voices to hold pride in check, lest our young country stray down the same road as the one we just defeated.”  Then, he suggests a name change for the Royal Gazette, for “sometimes principle must be tempered with practicality,” and bids Rivington farewell.

When disparate voices are silenced, when there is room for only one viewpoint, when respect for the perspectives of others cannot be tolerated, then we have ceased to have any hope of being the republic that we have desperately tried to be for more than two centuries.  If tyranny is given permission to take root here once more, it will do so, firmly.

As Abe speculates, “It may be that the price of our new union was to overlook our greatest divide, or it may be that the bill will come due with a vengeance.”

Indeed, we severed our union less than a century later, nearly forfeiting all for which Washington’s spies had fought.  Have we reached a point today where the divides are all we see in one another?  

Abe wrestles with the contradictions that his life has offered to him, ones that include a murderer like Simcoe “who had oppressed so many colonists” offering freedom and prosperity to generations in his province of Canada, or the lethal Robert Rogers being the one to give Abe the trick which saved his crops from maggots.

The greatest solutions, those which can save us all, sometimes come from the most unlikely of sources, but if we are blind to those possibilities, then that light will never be permitted to shine, and who we could have been will perish in the dark.

After four years, it is clear that Turn is not a show about history; it is a show about us, all of us.  It demonstrates that the issues with which we grapple today are not new; they are ones that humans have struggled with consistently in all societies, and given our persistent refusal to learn from past mistakes, they are ones we have yet to solve.

But that doesn’t mean they’re impossible.  If it is one thing that Abe Woodhull, Ben Tallmadge, Caleb Brewster, and Anna Strong prove, it is that no situation is insurmountable; complications are merely opportunities to up our game and soldier on.

“The Revolution never ends.” 

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