Turn: Against thy Neighbor review

Turn revels in some historical inaccuracies this week, but still manages to get the job done. Here's our review.

This Turn review contains some spoilers.

The latest episode of Turn begins in the spring of 1777, apparently several weeks after the last. Abe Woodhull (Jamie Bell) and Anna Strong (Heather Lind) have delivered a British codebook to their Continental Army contacts and settled into their secret affair, he separated from his wife and she now a widow. Of course, Abe’s wife Mary (Meegan Warner) is actually no farther than his father’s house on the other side of Setauket, Long Island, and Anna’s husband Selah (Robert Beitzel) is alive and feeling much better with the Continentals in New Jersey.

But the resolution of that conflict will wait. In this episode, titled “Against Thy Neighbor,” trouble comes from how Capt. Simcoe (Samuel Roukin) hunts enemies of the king. At first Maj. Hewlett (Burn Gorman) is dubious about the captain’s methods, but then he suffers the loss that hurts him most: his horse has to be put down, apparently poisoned by cyanide on an apple meant for him.

In short order, Simcoe arrests the man who supplied that apple, who happens to be related to his former torturer Caleb Brewster (Daniel Henshall). Just as Abe and his father have convinced the British officers not to rush to judgment, someone shoots Judge Woodhull (Kevin McNally) from hiding. We get to see the bloody extraction of the musket ball.

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(A scene of surgery without anesthetic is a requirement of period war drama, isn’t it?)

Now grimly determined to restore order, Maj. Hewlett orders the civilians of Setauket to turn in their muskets and pistols. Among those law-abiding gun owners is a character we haven’t seen before: the Rev. Nathaniel Tallmadge, minister of the Setauket church. A veteran of the French and Indian War, he was pushed from his pulpit when Hewlett took over his church for an office (and stable). Of course, we know that minister is also father of Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge (Seth Numrich), the Continental Army intelligence officer—no wonder Simcoe is so suspicious of him. Indeed, the captain might be so convinced of the local men’s guilt as to have manufactured the evidence against them, or even the crimes themselves.

Under pressure, the citizens of Setauket start to divide among themselves. One hands a sensitive document over to the royal authorities. Another plots to escape. And Anna, always fiery, tells Abe he should lead an uprising. Instead, Abe promises to manipulate the trial so as to protect his neighbors. There follows a sequence of him reviewing William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Law of England in voiceover as British soldiers raid one house after another.

(There’s a lot of cross-cutting in this episode, starting with Abe and Anna’s sex mixed with Maj. Hewlett’s horse going mad, as if they were in adjoining rooms.)

Historical incongruities continue to abound in Turn. The young ensign who’s been living with the Woodhulls and treating Mary much better than Abe does (Thomas Keegan) reveals that he grew up in an orphanage. In eighteenth-century British society such a boy had no chance of becoming an army officer. Abe speaks of “the Grand Union Flag,” a phrase invented in the late 1800s. Brewster refers to a widely-told story of how Gen. Benedict Arnold was pinned under his horse and almost bayoneted; that occurred in April 1777, simultaneous with this episode.

Such glitches become most bothersome in the climactic trial scene. Throughout the series, the show has referred to Richard Woodhull as a judge and magistrate, and now Abe stands in for him—but he acts as a prosecutor instead. Maj. Hewlett presides over the trial despite also being one of the alleged intended victims. He says he’s deciding between hanging, with nooses already tossed over gallows outside, and sentencing everyone to ten years on the Jersey—but that ship was for prisoners of war, not convicted criminals, and the judicial system hadn’t yet adopted long prison sentences.

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Abe tries to throw the case by rousing sympathy for the defendants in the courtroom—but it’s not a jury trial. For two episodes the British officers have been looking for a “petition” that reveals the names of all the Patriots in Setauket, but that document (already a historical anachronism) doesn’t come up in court. And while the show offers a forensic twist to exonerate one defendant, that doesn’t really fit with the firearms available on Long Island in 1777. I’ve set aside Turn’s historical inaccuracies as long as the show’s own version of the Revolutionary War is internally consistent, but this sequence was just too illogical to follow.

What lies ahead? Maj. Tallmadge and his Continental comrades from Setauket are planning a raid to rescue their home town. However, Tallmadge’s commander-in-chief told him to work with Gen. Benedict Arnold; in history Arnold didn’t switch sides until 1780, but does the timeline in Turn work at the same speed? And Mary Woodhull has come across evidence that could convict Abe not just of adultery but of espionage.

J. L. Bell is proprietor of the Boston 1775 blog, which offers daily doses of history, analysis, and unabashed gossip about the start of the American Revolution in New England.

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3.5 out of 5