This review starts with a correction. Since last season, I’ve referred to the British army officer played by Burn Gorman as Maj. Richard Hewlett. That was the full name of the Crown commander at Setauket, Long Island, during the Revolutionary War. To be sure, the historical Major Hewlett was a Loyalist born in New York in 1729 while Gorman’s character is a young-fogey aristocrat from Britain. But the character clearly appeared to be based on the historical figure.
The latest episode of Turn: Washington’s Spies reveals that the first name of its Major Hewlett is not Richard but Edmund. This is yet another reminder that we can’t assume that the series is adhering strictly, or even moderately, to the historical record.
Hewlett reveals his first name during his hesitant wooing of Anna Strong (Heather Lind), in which he also reveals himself to be… an astronomy nerd! He shows off his new “reflecting telescope” (which is, alas, a refracting telescope). During the first season of Turn, Hewlett appeared mainly as a military martinet, insistent on his rules and snobbishly devoted to the Crown. Now he’s not only opening up but becoming one of the show’s more admirable personalities. While Judge Richard Woodhull and his son Abe (Kevin McNally and Jamie Bell) go behind each other’s back, Hewlett speaks up for honesty, complaining how there are “too many secrets in this household.”
Of course, this being Turn, there are secrets everywhere. Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge (Seth Numrich), having disappointed his commander-in-chief, flirts with attaching himself instead to Gen. Benedict Arnold (Owain Yeoman). Maj. John Andre (JJ Feild) necks with young Peggy Shippen (Ksenia Solo) soon after telling off her father for presuming to investigate his suitability for marriage. Lt. Caleb Brewster (Daniel Henshall) snatches up that crucial scrap of paper from London just ahead of Maj. Robert Rogers (Angus Macfadyen). And Abe Woodhull, now equipped with both a small knife up his sleeve and invisible ink, tries to evade stalkers and recruit “our man in New York.”
Abe’s storyline remains the biggest drag on this series for me, which is a problem since he’s the central character. Whether it’s because of how Abe has been written or how Bell has played him, I’ve never found the character’s decisions convincing. His brainstorms, which in this show include promising to win over an agent who’s shown him nothing but hostility, make little sense. If we’d seen Abe leaping into risky, dramatic gestures from the start, and having to channel those impulses to serve a cause, his decision-making might seem more consistent and compelling. But instead we saw Abe mope. I’ve found Turn’s other performances, however outlandish, and other storylines to be more entertaining.
This episode, written by Alexander Rose (author of the history book that inspired the series) and directed by Kate Dennis, is notable in how it braids the several storylines. After Maj. Hewlett looks at his telescope and mutters, “I suppose we could use it as a spyglass,” we zip across Long Island Sound to a Continental camp in Connecticut, soon under attack from the Queen’s Rangers—and then mention of the major’s name puts us back on the island. In separate scenes both Hewlett and Arnold speak of “men of blood,” providing the title of the episode, yet they voice opposing attitudes toward such men.
Speaking of “men of blood,” here’s one more historical note. This episode shows us the crew of a privateer and repeats the notion that they were simply licensed pirates. In the eighteenth century privateers were privately owned warships operating under government contracts. Investors shouldered the high costs of building and equipping those ships in exchange for the lion’s share of what merchant ships they might capture. (Continental Navy captains and crews also received such rewards, in large part because the government had to compete with privateers for personnel.)
Pirate ships operated outside the law, but privateers were strictly regulated. Bureaucrats on shore oversaw the sale of captured vessels and cargoes, disbursing the money according to standard formulas. Great Britain recognized the distinction between privateers and pirate ships; its government also contracted with privateer owners, and when the Royal Navy captured an American privateer, its crew became prisoners of war, not criminals. During America’s war for independence, large numbers of ordinary young men in New England signed up for privateering cruises in the hope of a windfall.
This episode of Turn needed a bunch of maritime outlaws for drama, and undoubtedly there were some privateer captains who tried to evade the system for their own gain, as this one does. But, just as I shouldn’t have assumed the show’s Major Hewlett is named Richard, so you mustn’t assume the show’s privateer crew are typical of those from the real Revolutionary War.