This article contains spoilers for Turn: Washington’s Spies.
As soon as the producers of Turn: Washington’s Spies added the character of Gen. Benedict Arnold to the second season, we knew the series was angling toward the moment when he defected to the British. And that event in turn would lead to the execution of Maj. John André, introduced in season 1 as the head of British intelligence. Turn could deviate from recorded history in many ways large and small, but not from the most famous espionage story of the Revolutionary War.
It has now been a week since AMC ran Turn’s season 3 finale, which means—fair warning—I’m no longer worried about avoiding spoilers. The penultimate episode ended with Arnold, his treachery detected by the Culper Ring, fleeing from West Point. The last showed André’s hanging.
Furthermore, several of Turn’s wholly fictional storylines also appear to have reached natural plateaus. Maj. Robert Rogers, driven from the British army in season 2, achieved his season 3 goal of taking revenge on André. Maj. Edmund Hewlett, his heart broken, has decided to cash out of the king’s army and return to Britain. On the American side the enslaved family of Abigail and Cicero have attained a chance of freedom behind the American lines. The initial love triangle of Abraham Woodhull, his wife Mary, and his old flame Anna Strong has been flattened. And Abe has publicly admitted his feelings of guilt about the riot that killed his older brother, which seems to be some sort of psychological milestone.
So where can Turn go from here? The Culper Ring is still active—the finale’s last scene of Robert Townsend in New York City confirmed that. Maj. John Graves Simcoe and his Queen’s Rangers have been driven from Setauket but are still prowling Long Island. Assuming the economics of television production make another season of Turn feasible, is there a big story about the surviving characters to fuel more shows?
U.S. history certainly provides such a story in the events of 1781. (Season 3 appears to have concluded in the winter of 1777-78, but Turn has always played loose with actual chronology, so the show could jump ahead as needed.) Throughout the first months of 1781, Gen. Henry Clinton inside New York and Gen. George Washington outside jockeyed for advantage. Late that summer, Washington concluded that he could strike a decisive blow against the British army by moving most of his army with Gen. Rochambeau’s French troops south to Virginia to attack the British general Cornwallis at Yorktown.
That decision was preceded by months of espionage work, offering plenty of work for Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge and Oliver De Lancey, the New York-born British army officer who succeeded André as adjutant-general. Washington asked his agents for clues to whether Clinton would send more troops south or mount a major attack from the city. Likewise, Clinton’s intelligence staff wanted to know when Washington would make a move. Both sides tried to feed false information across the lines and made feints to deceive, distract, or draw off the other side.
To keep the Americans busy in the north, Clinton ordered none other than Brig. Gen. Arnold to lead a raid on New London, Connecticut. As a site of Continental naval operations, that coastal town was a legitimate target. That didn’t stop Americans from complaining that Arnold was driven by resentment toward the state where he had grown up. For Turn’s hotheaded Arnold, that motivation could be a real factor.
It would be easy to work the other main characters of Turn into those campaigns. Townsend and Woodhull would be busy gathering military intelligence from New York, of course. Capt. Caleb Brewster would carry that information across Long Island Sound to Connecticut—and his extended family might be living in New London, right in Arnold’s path.
(In season 1, Simcoe killed Brewster’s uncle; since then, Brewster hasn’t had a personal storyline, serving only as a sounding-board and instrument for Tallmadge and other characters.)
Simcoe could be part of Arnold’s forces, resenting the assignment all the while. Rogers could still be around as a loose cannon, disrupting operations. Even Hewlett could reappear, his voyage home cut short by an American privateer. The long-suffering major might find himself held behind American lines, awaiting a prisoner exchange—but Continental intelligence operative Anna Strong would argue against that, fearing he might reveal all he knows about the Culper Ring. Meanwhile, hasn’t it been too long since we’ve seen Anna Strong’s estranged husband, Selah?
Then there’s the New York printer James Rivington. The actor John Carroll Lynch unfortunately didn’t have much to do this season, but there’s more drama to be mined from his character. As of 1779, Townsend worried that Rivington would expose the Culper Ring to Clinton. But he never did. At the end of the war in 1783, when the British military and most Loyalists evacuated Manhattan, Rivington stayed behind. Rumors soon circulated that he had been one of Washington’s spies. Was he? Another season of Turn could offer an answer to that mystery—not necessarily a definitive answer, but a dramatic one.
Finally, Gen. Washington’s march south would offer a chance to go more deeply into the lives of the series’s black characters. Abigail and her teen-aged son Cicero have proved to be valuable intelligence agents while Akinbode, once Abigail’s love interest, became Simcoe’s right-hand man in the Rangers (and then disappeared from season 3). By 1781, Cicero might be a Continental soldier who volunteers to cross the siege lines at Yorktown as a spy, just like the real African-American spy James Armistead. Might he meet Akinbode among the British troops? Such a plot line could give us a clearer look at American slavery than we’ve seen so far and raise an important question: for enslaved Americans, which side offered true liberty—the Continentals or the British?
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).