Turn Series Finale Review: Season 4 Episode 10, Washington’s Spies

The spying is over. The war is history. Turn: Washington’s Spies ends its run with an eye toward a new revolution.

This Turn review contains spoilers.

Turn Season 4 Episode 10

The final episode of Turn: Washington’s Spies is titled “Washington’s Spies,” but there’s no more spying to do. The Americans and French won the siege of Yorktown last week. The finale may start with King George III saying, “They want independence? I’ll give them blood,” but the war is winding down. This episode focuses instead on the individuals we’ve come to know over four seasons.

The only military action of the week is the attack on New London, Connecticut, which in real life Gen. Benedict Arnold (Owain Yeoman) led in September 1781. (That was weeks before Yorktown, but the calendar is different in the Turn universe.) We see the most incendiary version of that battle, adopting the American complaint that it ended in a massacre rather than the confused, angry fight that most modern historians describe. Ironically, Arnold, said to have ordered that killing for vengeance on his childhood town, comes across positively.

But the real point of that scene is a small, fictional detail: Arnold’s teen-aged servant Cicero (Darren Alford) runs away from the battle and ends up, however improbably, with his mother’s beloved, Akinbode (Aldis Hodge). Soon they have a father-son relationship. And that’s what this episode is about—establishing and reestablishing families.

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True, there are two storylines about British army officers trying to carry on the war. Gen. Arnold is hungry to lead, and he pins his hopes on an audience with King George III. It does not go well. (That scene also carries on the excretory theme that flowed through this season.) Likewise, Lt. Col. John Graves Simcoe (Samuel Roukin) seeks a new military position, only to be told the British Empire is now so peaceful, and he is so unpopular, that he should go off to Upper Canada.

The other two storylines are about establishing domestic tranquility. The formerly enslaved Abigail (Idara Victor) seeks to reunite with Cicero and Akinbode. But they are on opposite sides of the battle lines. Abigail draws on all the resources of her spy ring to free her loved ones, but she must also maintain her own freedom.

Finally there’s Abraham Woodhull (Jamie Bell), who’s made a quick recovery from his bullet wound last episode. He brings his wife Mary (Meegan Warner) and little son back to his farm in Long Island. But Abe continues to be an exasperating, unfathomable character. Finally sitting face to face with Gen. George Washington (Ian Kahn), Abe embarrasses his friends by asking for money so he can plant his cabbages.

Like a Shakespearean comedy, Turn ends with marriages, or marital reconciliations, for almost every main character. The Woodhulls are back on their farm. The Arnolds are in London. Anna and Selah Strong (Heather Lind and Robert Beitzel) settle into the new sort of mutually respectful marriage that social historians have termed “companionate,” as shown by her editing his prose—a bit of business that carries the most meaning for writers.

Those couples, of course, exhaust the series’ main female roles. So Lt. Col. Benjamin Tallmadge (Seth Numrich) and Capt. Caleb Brewster (Daniel Henshall) announce engagements to ladies we’ve never seen, the ladies their real-life counterparts married soon after the war. The fictional Maj. Edmund Hewlett (Burn Gorman) expects a solitary life, but he finds someone to share his interest—a woman based on a real eighteenth-century figure. Listen carefully, and there’s even a suggestion that Col. Jonathan Cook marries the actress Philomena Cheer. Of our surviving spies, only Robert Townshend (Nick Westrate) remains unattached, as the real Townshend did.

The episode still offers some mild surprises. Gen. Washington confronts the Loyalist printer James Rivington (John Carroll Lynch) in New York; Washington’s grandson described such a visit, but the conversation goes differently from what he recounted.

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As we should expect, the last part of the episode jumps ahead to show the decades after the war. Some of these moments follow the historical record, such as Tallmadge serving in the U.S. Congress. Others don’t, as in the way Peggy Arnold (Ksenia Solo) revisits Philadelphia. And some are in between: we see Alexander Hamilton at the Constitutional Convention, but he, of all people, speaks the words of Thomas Jefferson. Along the way, a couple of characters important in previous seasons come back, and one we’ve seen all along falls to British arms.

Two major developments strain credibility even within Turn’s own narrative. One is the conversion of Lt. Col. Simcoe into a respected statesman. The series’s biggest villain, he was portrayed as a sociopath in the first couple of seasons, and this season left no doubt that he is a sadist. True, there have also been signs of his concern for his soldiers, including the black men. But somehow his stalled military career and a hint that he should find himself a lady lead to Simcoe turning himself around—entirely off screen.

The second implausible resolution involves Abigail. (The following discussion includes spoilers.) As Turn shows, Washington insisted that the British military return all the escaped slaves who had taken refuge in New York and Charleston. The last British commander, Gen. Guy Carleton, refused. Instead, he had his administration record all those people’s names in a document titled “Book of Negroes” and brought them with other Loyalists to Nova Scotia.

In the Turn universe, Carleton gives in to Washington’s demand. Abigail, who is actually free and even on a ship to Halifax, ends up back in the U.S. of A. in chains. Through a glimpse of a pistol and voiceover narration we’re told that eventually she frees herself and joins Cicero and Akinbode in Canada. It’s a happy ending, but again all off screen. It feels like a magical solution for what the show acknowledges remained America’s biggest fault, slavery.

In that regard, the Turn finale carries on the approach of the preceding seasons. The show certainly addresses slavery in its discussion of liberty, includes major characters of African ancestry, and raises the serious question of which side of the war was better for them. But it shies away from showing the details of slavery close up. Abigail’s employers—Anna Strong, John André, and Peggy Arnold—usually treat her as a colleague and friend, not as an employee or as property. Despite all the show’s bloodshed, there’s little hint of the legal violence necessary to maintain chattel slavery. Actually showing racism up close would probably give viewers too much discomfort. But the invisible resolution of Abigail’s storyline provides too much easy comfort.

To see how enslaved Americans like Abigail made it to Canada and what they experienced next, fans of Turn might want to turn to the CBC/BET miniseries The Book of Negroes, now streaming on Hulu. That show was based on Lawrence Hill’s historical novel of the same name. For a nonfiction study of the black Loyalist diaspora around the world, look for Cassandra Pybus’s Epic Journeys of Freedom.

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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).


3 out of 5