In contrast to the last episode of Turn, “Mercy Moment Murder Measure” takes place almost entirely inside Setauket, Long Island—and Abe Woodhull (Jamie Bell) wants to get out of that town. He’s ready to make another trip to New York City to gather intelligence for his friends in the Continental Army. But after being stopped by army patrols and waylaid on his last trip, Abe knows that he can’t travel alone. So whom does he ask to come with him? His old flame Anna Strong (Heather Lind), of course. That’s sure to go smoothly—only a couple of episodes back, they were rolling around on his kitchen table.
The suppressed love of Abe and Anna has been the big secret hanging over Turn’s scenes in Setauket—even more than the secret that they’re both spying for the American cause. But by the end of this episode, that secret is out. Abe’s wife Mary (Meegan Warner) and Anna’s creepy suitor Capt. Simcoe (Samuel Roukin) each force the truth from Ens. Baker (Thomas Keegan).
Deciding to avenge Anna’s honor whether she wants him to or not, Simcoe assaults Abe in the woods. That leads to a hearing before Maj. Hewlett (Burn Gorman) and Judge Woodhull (Kevin McNally), where Abe admits his unfaithful thoughts. Given how gossip travels in a small town, it’s astonishing that the installment ends with a woman assuring Mary about Abe and Anna, “Trust me—there’s no love lost between those two.” Really, those two still have a lot to work out.
A duel with pistols between Abe and Simcoe provides the climax for this episode. Looking back, it’s hard to read Abe’s thinking when he agrees to that challenge. So far he seems to be driven, or torn, by three major motivations. He acts to protect Anna or her interests, to stand apart from his father, and to look after his family. If, along the way, Abe could squeeze in some spying for the Patriots, he’s done that, too. Yet when Abe accepts Simcoe’s invitation to an encounter that no one thinks he’ll survive, that doesn’t appear to serve any of his purposes. He just seems to be a man at the end of his rope, and perhaps at the mercy of writers seeking a dramatic set piece.
This seems like an appropriate moment to discuss the historic Abraham Woodhull and Anna Strong. In real life, Anna Smith was born a decade before Abraham Woodhull, so they didn’t grow up together. He was only ten years old when she married Selah Strong in 1760, a decade and a half before the Revolutionary War began. Woodhull didn’t marry until 1781, so when the Culper Ring began he was neither a husband nor a father.
It’s not at all clear that the real Anna Strong had any connection to the Culper Ring. The story of her hanging laundry as a signal for spies is a flattering “family tradition” not published until the twentieth century. In Washington’s Spies, the 2006 history that inspired Turn, Alexander Rose posits that Anna Strong was the “lady” ready to help Woodhull visit New York in the summer of 1779—but there seems to be no evidence to single her out from all the other ladies on Long Island.
Thus, the romantic tensions in Turn between Abe and Anna and their spouses and suitors are entirely fictional. The show’s creators have made that relationship one of the main engines of their plot, and would seem to have an open road to drive on. Unfortunately, so far that has turned out to be one of the less compelling elements of the series.
This episode showed little of the Continental Army spies and nothing of their entertaining commanders. But we know something will happen to them soon. Caleb Brewster (Daniel Henshall) has volunteered to pick up the brother of Ben Tallmadge (Seth Numrich) on his release from a British prison. However, this week’s first scene told us that brother has already died in captivity. It would appear that Lt. Col. Robert Rogers (Angus Macfadyen) has set a trap.