This Turn: Washington’s Spies review contains some spoilers.
Turn Season 3 Episode 2
The latest episode of Turn: Washington’s Spies introduces a new character who promises to be fun to watch. As presaged by an image of the Royal Gazette newspaper added to the show’s opening credits, Turn has brought the New York printer James Rivington onto its stage.
In the first two seasons, the show featured Stephen Root as Nathaniel Sackett, Continental Army spy chief. He appeared only occasionally, but he energized every scene he was in. Root appeared to be having so much fun playing Sackett that he was fun to watch. Alas, that character is no longer a factor in the show.
Rivington feels like he could fill that hole. While we know little about the real Sackett, Rivington is well documented as a larger-than-life figure. Born in England, he arrived in New York in 1761 and started the New York Gazetteer twelve years later—just as the colonies’ conflict with Parliament was about to boil over. Rivington sided with the Crown, and in May 1775 Patriot mobs destroyed his press and home. In 1777 he returned to New York, now the British military’s base of operations, and relaunched his newspaper as Rivington’s New York Loyal Gazette, later the Royal Gazette. More than any other printer, Rivington was able to get under the Patriots’ skin with needling comments and political propaganda. He published poetry by John André and was partners in a coffee house with Robert Townsend—last season’s addition to the Culper Ring.
It’s particularly encouraging that the actor playing Rivington is John Carroll Lynch, a veteran of the Guthrie Theater in Minnesota and many movies and television shows. He has the same deep experience as Root. He can deliver lip-smacking lines like “I’m a newsman, which is a religion of its own,” or, “It’s always the quiet ones that have the darkest secrets,” without inducing snorts.
Turn also appears to be taking advantage of the print shop at Colonial Williamsburg to depict Rivington’s shop with authentic hand-operated presses and a large staff of journeymen. But here’s a note on historical accuracy: Eighteenth-century newspapers didn’t work like that. They didn’t have headlines, as created for us viewers. Rivington wouldn’t have changed his front page to report the latest news; in the 1700s the newest items usually appeared on a later page, the last to be set in type. Such are the compromises between historical accuracy and television drama. (Turn also calls the Royal Gazette a “biweekly.” It was a semi-weekly from 1778 on, but that’s probably a linguistic error, not a historical one.)
Rivington plays only a small role in this episode’s plot, an unwitting conduit for a coded message from Robert Townsend (Nick Westrate) to Abraham Woodhull (Jamie Bell) on Long Island. One might assume, based on the end of last week’s episode, that Abe would be in no shape to receive such messages. After all, his father (Kevin McNally) finally told Maj. Edmund Hewlett (Burn Gorman) that he’s been spying for the Continentals.
But Abe, shielded by his toddler and wife (Meegan Warner), gains enough time to remind Hewlett how shameful it would be to admit to hosting an American spy in his own headquarters. In the broguish words of Robert Rogers (Angus Macfadyen), Abe’s pursuer-turned-ally, “You’re blackmailing him, aren’t you?” Then Anna Strong (Heather Lind) proposes one of her ruthless plans, convincing Hewlett that he should spare Abe and use the name of “Samuel Culper” to lure his personal nemesis, Capt. John Graves Simcoe (Samuel Roukin), into an ambush.
The rivalry of Hewlett and his regular soldiers against Simcoe and his rangers thus takes precedence over the, you know, war. That smaller fight turns quite bloody in this episode, with two gross-out shots of injured soldiers. Meanwhile, former British field agent Rogers furthers his personal campaign by inserting himself into the Culper Ring’s information chain in the guise of “a humble cabbage farmer” sporting an even more outlandish accent.
In the Continental camp at Valley Forge (which Washington’s troops should have left behind months ago), Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge (Seth Numrich) and Capt. Caleb Brewster (Daniel Henshall) have to thwart a duplicitous chaplain. We see this man in a Continental Army uniform with a big cross around his neck, and we hear of him taking soldiers’ confessions. Eighteenth-century American chaplains didn’t work that way, either.
Gen. Benedict Arnold (Owain Yeoman) comes to camp complaining about accusations that he’s abused his position as military governor of Philadelphia. The commander-in-chief (Ian Kahn) suggests asking for a court-martial to clear his name. The real Arnold did just that, and it didn’t turn out well. Given how Arnold is known in American culture as a deceptive archvillain, it’s ironic that he’s the one regular character in Turn not keeping secrets from anyone yet. It might be good to see Arnold start plotting along with the rest because his anger is becoming one-note. And when Yeoman seethes, I can’t help thinking he looks like the young John Cleese trying to return a dead parrot.
After all that violence and anger, however, this episode ends with a kiss—but a kiss that suggests more confusion and betrayal ahead.