A common pitfall in popular portrayals of the American Revolution, either fiction or nonfiction, is portraying George Washington as larger than life. Writers can acknowledge his mistakes and even his flaws. But anyone who might stand in the way of him being commander-in-chief and president, anyone who objects to his vision of the United States, gets portrayed as misguided or even treacherous.
This season of Turn: Washington’s Spies appeared to be conforming to that “Father of His Country Knows Best” pattern. It takes place in the wake of the September 1777 Battle of Brandywine, where the British army commander outmaneuvered Washington. He had to abandon the American capital of Philadelphia, just as he had lost New York in the previous year (and in the previous season).
During the winter that followed, members of the Continental Congress discussed whether Washington was up for the job of commander-in-chief. Perhaps Horatio Gates, who won the second Battle of Saratoga that same season, might do better. This was a reasonable question. However, many American authors with reverence for Washington and 20-20 hindsight have presented such discussions as foolish (belittling Gates) and devious (the “Conway cabal”). Turn was also going that route, tying such talk to a treasonous Gen. Charles Lee.
What’s more, a couple of this season’s dramatic moments have turned on Gen. Washington (Ian Kahn) thinking strategically several steps ahead of his intelligence officer, Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge (Seth Numrich). Within those episodes, those plot twists worked well: they were surprising yet satisfying. But the show was verging on hagiography. Then in the “Men of Blood” episode, the general’s hunches led to disaster. And in the latest episode, “Valley Forge,” Washington goes crazy.
Yes, crazy! Hallucinating that all his teeth are cascading out of his mouth. Talking to his beloved half-brother, Lawrence, who died in 1752. In fact, Turn’s George Washington is so disturbed that he orders his enslaved young manservant, William Lee (Gentry Smith), to treat him “as an equal” for one night in their tent as he works through his demons. (Historically, Washington spent the Valley Forge winter in a house with his wife Martha and a “family” of military aides as well as William Lee. Turn has instead opted for a recreation of the general’s canvas tent and campaign furniture.)
This storyline leads to Washington kneeling in the snow at Valley Forge—an image that American evangelists love. (That moment comes from an unconvincing anecdote written by the Rev. Mason Weems, who also spread the story of young George and the cherry tree.) Instead of praying to God, however, this Washington is begging for guidance from his brother’s ghost.
The resulting portrait of a troubled commander-in-chief won’t be convincing for people who’ve studied Washington at length. Even knowing how much of his private life he and his widow concealed, it’s impossible to picture him giving up so much outward control at this time. But within the fictional world of Turn, the scenes are dramatic and interesting. They take the man’s internal struggles and make them play out visibly and melodramatically on screen. We certainly haven’t seen anything like it before.
This episode is the most narrowly focused yet—almost claustrophobic. Our only breaks from Valley Forge are flashbacks to two other places of confinement: one of New York’s sugar house prisons, where Abe Woodhull (Jamie Bell) is in chains, and a tiny stockade in a Continental Army camp, where Maj. Edmund Hewlett (Burn Gorman) succumbs to frostbite and madness. Both men are due to be killed. Back at Valley Forge, Washington is wrestling with the question of whether to spare Hewlett’s life in order to exchange him for Woodhull, whom he considers “a failed spy.”
In the end, Gen. Washington regains confidence in his hunches and chooses to proceed with a prisoner exchange. (In real life, the difficulties of communication between Valley Forge, Connecticut, and British-occupied New York would have made such time-sensitive balancing impractical.) And even in the world of Turn, it’s quite possible that by the time that deal is settled, neither Woodhull nor Hewlett will be available for trading.