Turn: Mr. Culpeper review

Turn delivers what is undoubtedly its strongest episode with enough twists to even keep history buffs guessing.

Turn starts to fulfill its potential in episode six. I was worried when the first sequence was an imaginary scenario full of artificial danger, but the rest of the episode offered plenty of actual twists and lively performances.

I give special credit to Stephen Root, one of our most enjoyable character actors (NewsRadio; Office Space; Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou?; King of the Hill; Pushing Daisies; and a stage production of Driving Miss Daisy I saw years ago). He enters the series as Nathaniel Sackett, a new Continental spymaster. We know little about the real Sackett (1737-1805) aside from how he came recommended to Washington as “a Person of Intrigue, and Secrecy,” and that let the show’s writers create an oversized personality for Root to deliver. He provides a fine complement to Ian Kahn’s portrayal of George Washington as quietly charismatic yet also full of secrets.

This episode is all about such men with secrets trying to manipulate other men. None of the action takes place in Setauket, that Long Island town full of unresolved family tension and inertia. Abe Woodhull (Jamie Bell) has a storyline of being captured by a renegade soldier as he tries to bring hogs into New York. For much of the series Abe has been reluctant to act; this episode actually has him tied to a tree, making his inability to move physical, while his captor (Steve Lenz) offers an example of dedication.

Meanwhile, in the Continental Army camp, Capt. Benjamin Tallmadge (Seth Numrich) wrangles over intelligence-gathering methods with his commanding officer, Gen. Charles Scott (Seth Gaston); Sackett; and ultimately Washington. Scott plays the necessary role of stick-in-the-mud, refusing to approve Tallmadge’s idea for a “chain of agents” involving his childhood friends on Long Island. As for Sackett, he’s thinking so far ahead that he talks about the need for a “dead drop”—a twentieth-century term. Sackett judges the system Tallmadge has already set up to be primitive. “Please tell me you’re using encryption,” he says, like any modern security expert. “My god. I was told you were a graduate of Yale.”

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Capt. John Graves Simcoe (Samuel Roukin) returns to the British Army, released with other officers in a prisoner exchange. (For some reason only he wears a white wig.) After debriefing, Simcoe manages to get on the bad side of Maj. John Andre (JJ Feild) in the worst way. That major shows his good side to his new servant Abigail (Idara Victor), promising to convey a birthday present to her son back in Setauket. But does Andre actually have a nefarious plan? Of course! Andre always has a nefarious plan.

Outside, another former slave from Setauket, the African-born Jordan (Aldis Hodge), catches the eye of Lt. Col. Robert Rogers (Angus Macfayden). The portrayal of the New England-born and bred Rogers as bearded, tartaned, and speaking with a thick burr remains completely outlandish and rather entertaining. In this episode we also hear him speak what I assume is an Iroquois language as he strides through New York City with a painted, feathered Native ally. As for Jordan, he displays the martial arts of a Maasai warrior, exceedingly rare in North America since the Maasai are from east Africa and thus far from the Atlantic slaving trade.

Overall, the relationship of Turn’s version of the Revolutionary War to actual history is rather like that of the Marvel movies to the Marvel Comics continuity. The major characters play the same basic roles, but some people and most costumes look different, the timing of events is entirely reworked, and you can’t be sure that facts from the earlier universe apply in the new one.

Just like those Marvel movies, every so often the show drops in a familiar name for buffs. Pvt. John Herring of the commander-in-chief’s guard really was hanged for looting (albeit in October 1778, not January 1777). The black member of the Queen’s Rangers who might seem unbelievable was likely inspired by a real Loyalist of African descent who became known as “Colonel Tye” for his prowess in leading military raids in New Jersey. And Benjamin Tallmadge did have a younger brother named Samuel, though he was never on the Jersey prison ship.

Now that we know that in Turn both Tallmadge’s brother and Abe’s romantic rival Selah Strong are on the Jersey, I expect the series to visit that prison ship soon. Hopefully, the show will continue to offer the high rate of twists as this episode.

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Rating:

4.5 out of 5