Under eighteenth-century international law, a warship had to display its nation’s flag while it attacked another ship. Otherwise, the captain and crew were liable to be hanged as pirates. However, a ship could display any flag right up until the moment it started to attack. That meant an armed ship often sailed with the flags of multiple nations on board, hoisting one after another as it approached another vessel depending on what its captain suspected about the other’s real identity. Meanwhile, the other captain was doing the same, trying to guess whether the first ship’s flag was genuine. It was a giant game of rock-paper-scissors on the high seas, with cannon.
The tactic of flying another nation’s colors to get close to an enemy ship was called a “false flag.” In modern espionage, that’s become the term for any operation that one group carries out to look like another group is responsible. For example, NBC correspondent Richard Engel recently stated that while he thought he’d been held in Syria by a Shiite militia, his captors were actually their Sunni enemies.
“False Flag” is also the title of the latest episode of Turn: Washington’s Spies, and it’s appropriate for the amount of double-dealing that different characters engage in. Stephen Root makes a welcome return as the Continental spymaster Nathaniel Sackett, now with a workshop full of espionage tools and trainees, but he’s actually one of the most straightforward characters.
In contrast, Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge (Seth Numrich) sets out to trick the treacherous Gen. Charles Lee into betraying himself to Washington (Ian Kahn) by exploiting two other generals and an invention of Thomas Jefferson. (In the Turn continuity, by 1777 Thomas Jefferson has invented a machine to copy letters; in real life, Jefferson bought his first machine to do that in 1804.) That false-flag operation does not end well for Tallmadge as the chief target of his revelation turns out to be playing the game of false fronts at a much higher level.
Meanwhile, in Setauket, Long Island, Judge Richard Woodhull (Kevin R. McNally) figures out that his son Abraham (Jamie Bell) is up to something secret on his trips to New York City. Maj. Richard Hewlett (Burn Gorman) reveals to the judge that his son is trying to infiltrate the Sons of Liberty. So now the judge knows that Abe has promised the major to spy for the British, and Abe doesn’t know his father knows, but neither the judge nor the major knows that Abe’s really spying for Washington.
In Philadelphia, Maj. John Andre (JJ Feild) paints theatrical sets, just as the historical Andre did, and constructs his latest front by pressuring Peggy Shippen (Ksenia Solo) into opening a correspondence with her old acquaintance Gen. Benedict Arnold. We also get to see Arnold (Owain Yeoman) snap at Washington that the Continental Congress was too late and too stingy in promoting him to major general. Such disrespect and resentment suggest that this version of Arnold is on a faster track to breaking with the Continentals than the real one, who didn’t defect until 1780.
One welcome deviation from recorded history is how much respect Turn grants to its characters of African ancestry. Sackett refers to Andre’s enslaved servant Abigail (Idara Victor) as a “355,” the Culper Ring’s code for a “lady”—a term with a narrow, class-based meaning in the eighteenth century. Capt. John Simcoe (Samuel Roukin) manumits another slave, Jordan (Aldis Hodge), and makes him second-in-command of the Queen’s Rangers. The British-American caste system of the 1700s did not condone such treatment.
The show’s most eccentric performance still comes from Angus Macfadyen as Maj. Robert Rogers, now on a secret mission for His Majesty. Macfadyen is once again sporting a Scottish bonnet and scruff of beard. He’s also once again acting like a badass, slugging his way through the troops of his own army. Given how he treats his allies, what might Rogers do to Caleb Brewster (Daniel Henshall) as they compete for a bust that contains a sensitive royal document? And will Brewster ever get a plot of his own, as opposed to being an instrument of other characters’ plans?