Turn: Washington’s Spies: Houses Divided Review

Turn focuses on the major female characters in what historians of the period call “the domestic sphere.”

One notable aspect of Turn: Washington’s Spies is how the series’s regulars appear irregularly. We haven’t seen Gen. Benedict Arnold for a couple of episodes now. Last week Gen. George Washington was a major player and Maj. John Andre an off-screen presence. This week Washington is merely mentioned, and we see a lot of Andre (JJ Feild)—but nothing of Maj. Robert Rogers, Maj. Edmund Hewlett, or Robert Townsend. That pattern reflects the complexity of the show’s many plots as well as, no doubt, the budgeting for the cast.

The latest episode, “Houses Divided,” focuses on the major female characters in what historians of the period call “the domestic sphere.” Ksenia Solo as Peggy Shippen didn’t appear in the last episode, but we literally see much more of her in this one—in a slightly titillating, basic-cable way. Meegan Warner as Mary Woodhull has lately remained silent in the background of scenes, but in this episode she’s blurting secrets. Anna Strong (Heather Lind) struggles with having attracted no fewer than four ardent suitors, and her former enslaved maid Abigail (Idara Victor) takes up the job of being an official Continental spy.

Both Mary and Anna want to rescue Abe Woodhull (Jamie Bell) from being abused in a Crown prison and hanged on charges of spying for the rebels. Both see the key to Abe’s freedom in also freeing Maj. Hewlett, condemned by the Americans for a wartime atrocity. Hewlett could vouch for Abe’s claim to have been working for the Crown. Or the two men could be traded, like Anna’s husband last season.

Mary pleads for help from her father-in-law, Judge Richard Woodhull (Kevin McNally), but he’s fed up with his son’s double-dealing. She then catches the judge’s attention by throwing his account book into the fire, telling him that she helped Abe cover up a murder, and declaring she’ll do even more to preserve her family. I don’t know if that’s supposed to win the judge over or scare him into cooperating.

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As for Anna, she’s also became rather fond of Maj. Hewlett, the way one appreciates a big dog who clearly wants to climb on the bed but keeps off for the sake of your approval. She’d like to see both prisoners back in Setauket. Unfortunately, her main resource is Maj. John Graves Simcoe (Samuel Roukin), as creepy as ever and literally using her bed. What’s more, Anna doesn’t know that Simcoe framed Hewlett for that war crime. (Almost needless to say, no such crime was committed by the historical Simcoe or Hewlett.)

As women in wartime, these characters don’t have much freedom of movement or action. They’re confined to trying to obtain their goals through men with more power. Mary turns out to be the most independent, proposing to travel to New York herself to see Abe in prison.

Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, Peggy Shippen and John Andre are sharing a bed, and also sharing Shippen’s letter from the offscreen Gen. Arnold. Though showing a skill for duplicity, Peggy hasn’t yet thrown herself into the Revolutionary conflict. Andre is apparently unaware that the shrinking Continental intelligence staff is now in contact with his maid Abigail, but his offer to bring her son Cicero (Darren Alford) from Long Island might shift her allegiance.

Both Shippen and Andre express surprise when they learn that Abigail’s son isn’t living with her already. That shouldn’t come as a surprise. Not only were teenagers like Cicero routinely bound out to other households in the eighteenth century, but slavery was notorious for how it broke up families. I’ve previously praised Turn for highlighting individual characters of African descent even at the cost of anachronism, as in making Jordan (Aldis Hodge) second-in-command of the Queen’s Rangers. But suggesting that enslaved families weren’t broken up all the time seems to conceal an important facet of history.

Another displeasing aspect of this episode was how bluntly the characters state their emotions and motives: “I am very pleased.” “I do not love you, I never will.” “Prison is no place for a woman.” There’s no danger a modern television-viewer would misunderstand such speeches from an eighteenth-century character. After all, they’ve probably heard the same words from many other characters in many other stories. 

What will we see next? Amidst the women’s maneuvering, this episode shows two groups of soldiers angling for Hewlett’s prison in Connecticut: Continentals under Maj. Ben Tallmadge (Seth Numrich) and Capt. Caleb Brewster (Daniel Henshall), and Queen’s Rangers under Maj. Simcoe. The Patriots from Setauket want to grab Hewlett from their own comrades so they can arrange a prisoner swap for Abe, their boyhood friend. Simcoe has promised Anna that he’ll bring the major back, but his interests lie elsewhere. And where exactly is Maj. Rogers?

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3.5 out of 5