There is a war going on, you know. This season of Turn: Washington’s Spies hasn’t shown a lot of military action. Instead, we’ve seen the violence of small raids, torture, and assassination. But the latest episode opens on a British army column slicing into the heart of Virginia, with all the smoky chaos and bloodshed that brings.
Gen. Benedict Arnold (Owain Yeoman) has gone back into battle, this time for the Crown. As really happened in January 1781 (though it seems to be happening later in the year in the Turn universe), Arnold leads an attack on the new state capital, Richmond. His forces quickly sack the city, sending Gov. Thomas Jefferson fleeing.
Just as in Revolutionary history, Arnold is accompanied by the Queen’s Rangers under Lt. Col. John Graves Simcoe (Samuel Roukin) and by a Loyalist corps that includes Sgt. John Champe (Chris Webster), actually a Continental agent. Not as in history, Arnold’s forces also include other unreliable men: his sneaky young manservant Cicero (Darren Alford) and goldbricking Pvt. Joseph Sturridge (Dylan Saunders), who’s more surprised than anyone to find himself in an actual fight.
And then there’s Pvt. Abraham Woodhull (Jamie Bell), torn between his mission as a Continental agent to capture Arnold and his personal crusade to kill Simcoe, his earnest desire not to shoot any Americans and his remaining instinct for self-preservation. Gen. Arnold singles Abe out for his useful talent—not as a soldier or spy but as a merchant able to find buyers for goods the army has plundered.
Arnold’s greed produces an odd scene in which the general complains, “Am I to be the only honest man in this war?” while demanding his cut. The voice of military virtue is, of all people, Lt. Col. Simcoe. He’s been quite willing to kill his own countrymen and even a lover for the sake of his plots. But, he chides Arnold: “I came here to fight, not to loot.”
That same scene throws Lt. Col. Simcoe and Pvt. Woodhull together for the first time this season. With Arnold looking on, it’s not a good time for either man to kill the other, or even to spill all the dirt he knows. Instead, we see a lot of nostril-flaring and terse threats. It’s a bit of an anti-climax. And the fact that Roukin appears to be about twice as tall as Bell makes the face-to-face confrontation awkward.
Back in the Continental Army camp, the top officers debate what to do about Virginia. All but one want to work with the French to attack the British there. However, the one holdout is Gen. George Washington (Ian Kahn). He still wants to attack the main British force in New York City. The most he agrees to is permitting Gen. Lafayette to take some forces south to harry Gen. Cornwallis.
Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge (Seth Numrich) has a more personal reason to focus on Virginia: his old friend and secret agent Woodhull is trapped there. Tallmadge is ready to resign as Washington’s director of intelligence in order to go fetch Abe, turning his job, files, and schemes over to Col. Alexander Hamilton. But Anna Strong (Heather Lind) and Mary Woodhull (Meegan Warner) convince Lt. Caleb Brewster (Daniel Henshall) to take on the mission instead. Caleb is still shaky at the sight of blood, even chicken’s blood. How will he stand up to the pressure of seeing Simcoe in battle?
The Continental camp scenes include a curious moment in which Tallmadge berates Washington, his commander-in-chief, about his “obsession with taking New York.” The major tells the general that he’s acting “out of vanity, just as Arnold did.” Washington draws himself up to his full height and bellows, “Get out!”—which does nothing to refute the vanity argument. Even in the Turn universe, we know that Gen. Washington will eventually march down to Virginia. I expect we’ll see a really proper apology around that time.
Inside New York, the tailor Hercules Mulligan reappears, free from the royal authorities who arrested him in this season’s first episode. Mulligan brings news that the Royal Navy has commissioned James Rivington (John Carroll Lynch) to print copies of its signal book. That gives Robert Townshend (Nick Westrate) the idea of sneaking into the print shop underneath his coffee house to sabotage the job. There is a little evidence linking Rivington’s operation to how Americans intercepted the Royal Navy’s signals, but it didn’t work like this. Turn’s approach is structured to lead to a crucial confrontation between Rivington and Townshend.
All this adds up to one of the season’s better episodes, full of action, twists, and important decision points. There are still some historical anomalies, to be sure. People and news travel from New York to Virginia with surprising speed. The big battle that brings Woodhull, Brewster, and Simcoe together appears to take place in an abandoned nineteenth-century factory, judging by the gothic arches. And of course Caleb’s beard only gets longer.
But within the Turn version of history, things are getting very serious. At the start of this review I listed several men marching with Gen. Arnold’s forces at Richmond. By the end of the episode, all of them appear to have been taken out of action in one way or another. War is dangerous, doubly so when there are so many betrayals within the British ranks.
J. L. Bell is the author of The Road to Concord: How Four Stolen Cannon Ignited the Revolutionary War (Westholme, 2016). In 2012, he completed a study of Gen. George Washington’s first campaign of the Revolutionary War, which included new findings about the commander-in-chief’s first successes and failures in espionage. Bell maintains the Boston1775.net blog, which offers daily doses of history, analysis, and unabashed gossip about the start of the American Revolution in New England. He is also an associate editor of the Journal of the American Revolution and an assistant editor of the Colonial Comics anthologies (Fulcrum).
Read and download the full Den of Geek SDCC Special Edition magazine here!