This Turn review contains spoilers.
Turn Season 4 Episode 9
SPOILER ALERT: The Americans, with the help of the French, defeated the British at Yorktown, Virginia. That shouldn’t come as a surprise since Yorktown is one of the half-dozen Revolutionary War milestones most Americans have heard of. Even in the Turn universe, which deviates in significant ways from actual U.S. history, the British aren’t going to win there.
Therefore, reporting that the latest episode of Turn climaxes with the British surrender at Yorktown can’t help but take some of the suspense out of the narrative. This installment doesn’t offer a lot of big twists. Instead, the American spy plots we’ve been tracking for weeks play out. Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge (Seth Numrich), Anna Strong (Heather Lind), and Mary Woodhull (Meegan Warner) collaborate to feed the British army commander false intelligence. The Royal Navy gets fouled by the discordant signal books that Robert Townshend (Nick Westrate) and James Rivington (John Carroll Lynch) printed. One member of the Culper Ring is wounded during the fighting around Yorktown—but I’ll keep that character’s name confidential.
On the British side, more is still up in the air as Maj. Edmund Hewlett (Burn Gorman) finally confronts Lt. Col. John Graves Simcoe (Samuel Roukin), badly wounded last episode. Hewlett is dubious about that false intelligence once he hears the name Woodhull attached to it. But then he remembers he’s given up on serving the Crown, so he volunteers to travel to Yorktown just to get within striking distance of Simcoe. The major’s hatred of the lieutenant colonel goes back to learning who really killed his horse in season 1. But can Hewlett discard all his noble feelings and murder a helpless man?
Much of this episode, titled “Reckoning,” is taken up with the battles around Yorktown, on land and sea. Last week’s show did a good job of depicting the chaos and brutality of small skirmishes. But the Yorktown siege involved 11,000 American soldiers, 9,000 French, and 9,000 British and Hessians, not to mention more than forty warships. Combat on that scale strains a television special-effects budget, and this episode never achieves a realistic picture of such a large campaign. A CGI shot can show two big armies at the surrender ceremony as long as they remain mostly still. But when there’s a shot of warships maneuvering, they just look like models. For battlefield action, Turn must resort to the usual tricks: nighttime, smoke, close low-angle shots, and a couple dozen men standing in for thousands.
All that said, the cutest effects shot of this episode was done entirely “in the camera” as Abe Woodhull (Jamie Bell) has a double vision of his little son Thomas—played by twins Cabell and Ellis Chase. Likewise, Virginia, which has been standing in for New York and Connecticut for the whole series, finally gets to play itself.
Another sort of scale lost in this episode is the distance between New York and Virginia, not just in space but in time, given the realities of eighteenth-century travel. Historically, Gen. George Washington (Ian Kahn) started his troops moving from New York in mid-August 1781, and they didn’t reach Virginia until the end of September. In contrast, Maj. Hewlett announces he’ll set out for Yorktown and after just one intervening scene he’s there. Characters always seem to know where their allies and enemies are; in the 1700s, that was a guessing game.
As another example of temporal warping, this episode shows the final days of pregnancy for Peggy Arnold (Ksenia Solo) alongside the Yorktown siege. In the first scene Peggy is already quite far along, so is it over two months later when her labor parallels Tallmadge’s attack on a British redoubt (“Push!”)? Of course, just because directors cut between events doesn’t meant they’re simultaneous (Dunkirk, anyone?), but that’s how Turn has operated so far.
What’s left for next week’s series finale? Though we think of Yorktown as the final milestone in the war, it took more than a year for the British and American (and French and Spanish) governments to sign terms for peace. During that time Gen. Washington and the Continentals were once again camped around New York City, wondering what was going on inside. The Culper Ring and other spies were actually at their most active. However, nothing they accomplished was as dramatic as Yorktown.
We’re therefore likely to see the wrap-up of characters’ personal storylines rather than more spying. The most dangling loose end is how Gen. Benedict Arnold (Owain Yeoman) and his young servant Cicero (Darren Alford) are somewhere between Virginia and New York. Akinbode (Aldis Hodge), having made his way back into the arms of his beloved Abigail (Idara Victor), has set off to find her son. That family apparently still intends to head for Canada—or perhaps Vermont, the only part of English-speaking North America that then outlawed slavery?
We have three married couples whose relationships might need more smoothing: Peggy and Benedict Arnold, ready to murder each other but now parents; Anna and Selah Strong, separated by choice for most of the war; and Abe and Mary Woodhull. Mary has once again shown her devotion to Abe, but how will she feel when she finds out that he’s promised his father’s estate to Maj. Hewlett?
For that matter, how will Hewlett, a high-ranking officer in the British army, be able to take possession of an estate on Long Island after the war? Similarly, in the last episode Townshend signed his coffee-house over to Rivington, but once the British forces leave New York a propagandist for the Crown will be very unpopular.
The finale might show us a version of the Newburgh crisis, in which Gen. Washington faced down officers who were pressuring Congress to pay them. That would hearken back to the themes of the mutiny earlier in this season. It’s a moment of high drama, though perhaps overblown by the commander-in-chief’s biographers. But I’d rather see Washington admit to Tallmadge that at crucial moments he was wrong.
Finally, for public safety I must address how Capt. Caleb Brewster (Daniel Henshall) loads a cannon by himself during the siege. Do not work a cannon that way! You’d be lucky if you merely lost your arms.
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).