Turn: Washington’s Spies: Sealed Fate Review

Turn’s creators take inspiration from history and ride off in another direction in search of drama...

The fifth episode of this season’s Turn: Washington’s Spies begins with an encounter between two characters we’ve never seen together before: Maj. Robert Rogers (Angus Macfadyen) and Gen. George Washington (Ian Kuhn). The time is 1775, soon after Washington’s appointment as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. Washington is eating alone, served by his valet William—no doubt modeled after the real general’s enslaved bodyservant, William Lee—when Rogers enters to offer his services. 

Historically, the closest to an event like this took place in December 1775, when Rogers visited the American lines at Cambridge. But Washington distrusted the man, knowing he’d spent the previous few years in Britain seeking favors from the royal government. Washington never met with Rogers, instead having one of his younger generals do so and report back. The commander-in-chief’s instincts turned out to be right. Rogers did side with the Crown and was responsible for the capture of Nathan Hale in New York the following year.

That scene offers yet another example of how Turn’s creators take their inspiration from history and then ride off in another direction in search of drama. And it’s yet another reminder that the plot twists of this show won’t match all the turns of real life. Historically, all the white Americans we see spying in Turn—Woodhull, Strong, Brewster, Tallmadge, Sackett, and the still reluctant Townsend—lived through the war. (There’s no exact equivalent of the enslaved maid Abigail, so I can’t put her on that list.) However, in this television version of the American Revolution, there are no such guarantees. Not all those characters will necessarily survive the war. In fact, not all of them survive this episode. 

Much of the action in “Sealed Fate” takes place in the new American camp at Valley Forge. We get to see the Continentals building cabins to replace their summer tents and the first flakes of snow falling past a new thirteen-star flag. This season’s production design remains impressive. 

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The episode’s main storyline involves the arrival of two defectors in the American camp. One is a British army officer, the other a civilian. The first warns that the second is a plant, sent by Maj. John Andre (who never actually appears). Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge (Seth Numrich) tries to puzzle out which man to trust. “What if they’re both lying?” asks spymaster Nathaniel Sackett (Stephen Root).

On the sitcom NewsRadio, Root played the station owner. In one episode, his manager reported how he’d thought of a solution to a problem. Root’s character cheerfully replied with something like, “I’ve thought of an idea, too, Dave. Guess which one we’re going to try!”—one of the best encapsulations of the working world. The same dynamic appears in this episode of Turn, but Root’s character is no longer in the commanding position. This time Gen. Washington has an idea. Guess which one his intelligence staff is going to try. 

This episode also brings to an apparent end to the quest for a maguffin introduced in this season’s premiere, when we saw a London sculptress snatch up a scrap of paper from a royal treasury ledger and send it off to America. In “Sealed Fate,” Caleb Brewster (Daniel Henshall) finally brings that paper into the Continental Army camp. Somehow that scrap reveals the entire financial situation of the British government, showing how thinly stretched the royal resources are. If the Americans can get that document with its official seal back across the ocean to France, it would surely bring that powerful ally into the war. But by the end of this episode, that option appears to have been cut off.

Meanwhile, Maj. John Graves Simcoe (Simon Roukin) returns to Setauket, now at the head of the Queen’s Rangers, with the formerly enslaved man Jordan (Aldis Hodge) as his right-hand man. That Long Island town isn’t an ideal staging-ground for raids against the Continentals, but it’s clear that Simcoe’s real goal is Anna Strong (Heather Lind), and his foremost enemy is now Maj. Edmund Hewlett (Burn Gorman). Not only have the two Crown officers developed a mutual grudge, but both are wooing Strong. Unknown to Hewlett, in last week’s episode Simcoe left a note in a Continental Army camp giving him credit, or blame, for a bloody raid. 

Finally, we have to watch Abe Woodhull (Jamie Bell) insist on recruiting innkeeper Robert Townsend (Nick Westrate) as his intelligence asset inside New York City. I still don’t understand why out of all Manhattanites Abe sees so much potential in Robert, aside from personal affinity. Both men are caught in battles of wills with their fathers. Judge Richard Woodhull (Kevin McNally) is trying to stop Abe from spying for the Americans while Robert Townsend’s father, Samuel (John Billingsley), is trying to convince him to do so. The Townsends were indeed Quakers, as the show says, but they were also active Patriots—an unusual combination that could have offered personal drama as Robert Townsend sought a non-violent way to aid the Continental cause. The show instead creates interpersonal drama between Abe and Robert. 

In yet another brainstorm whose logic didn’t quite reach me, Abe creates a note from the “Sons of Liberty” to leave at a hiding-place in the city—only to be caught in the act by British soldiers. To save his skin, Abe drops the name of Maj. Hewlett on Long Island as an authority who can vouch that he’s on a mission to ferret out American spies. That’s indeed the cover story that Abe told Hewlett. However, by the end of “Sealed Fate” the major is in no condition to speak up for him, and both men are in serious trouble.

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4 out of 5