This Turn: Washington’s Spies review contains some spoilers.
This week’s episode of Turn: Washington’s Spies features a vehicle that seems to sail straight out of steampunk. Capt. Caleb Brewster (Daniel Henshall) takes command of a one-man “underwater machine” built like an oversized barrel floating vertically in the water. Called the Turtle, it’s armed with explosives timed to go off after its pilot scoots far enough away. It’s moved with hand-cranked propellers, and can even submerge.
What does the pilot do for light while he’s underwater? A candle would quickly consume the oxygen inside. Fortunately, none other than Benjamin Franklin has suggested outlining the necessary controls with a luminous fungus.
That all sounds outlandish.
And it’s all historically accurate. Even the part about Franklin and the fungus. The Connecticut inventor David Bushnell built the Turtle in 1776. Its missions in New York harbor that fall had mixed results, scaring the Royal Navy but not sinking any ships. Still, it was the first submarine ever used in warfare.
Having given us a glimpse of the Turtle in Nathaniel Sackett’s barn earlier this season, the makers of Turn draft it for a second voyage in early 1778. Brewster uses the submersible to sneak into New York City in a bold attempt to rescue Abe Woodhull (Jamie Bell) from prison. That mission is not, however, the climax of this episode. Indeed, this installment is so full of twists that it’s easily the best episode of the season so far.
“Providence” starts with Brewster and Benjamin Tallmadge (Seth Numrich) standing over a grave marked with the name of Maj. Hewlett, “The Devil Incarnate.” It cuts to Maj. John Graves Simcoe (Samuel Roukin), tending his wound and equally convinced Hewlett is dead in the woods. But then Hewlett (Burn Gorman) pops up where we’d least expect him. And by the end of the episode, he’s toe to toe with Simcoe, Anna Strong (Heather Lind) in between them and each man’s soldiers behind.
I’ve complained about clichés in some of Turn’s dialogue, but Andrew Colville’s script this week is fresh and snappy. In particular, I enjoyed the scene in which Brewster obtained his Manhattan outfit and the conversation between Gen. George Washington (Ian Kahn) and Gen. Benedict Arnold (Owain Yeoman) over new assignments.
I won’t try to trace all the episode’s plot lines, in part because that would risk spoiling the better turns and in part because the result is easy to sum up: at the end of this show, almost all the characters’ conflicts and situations are more or less where they stood a little over three episodes ago, but there’s one huge change—the French are about to enter the war.
Remember how Gen. Washington was convinced that that scrap from a royal ledger shown in this season’s first episode was the key to a French alliance? And how in the fifth episode Maj. Robert Rogers (Angus MacFadyen) managed to intercept that paper on its way to Paris? And how that failure was a big factor in Washington’s crack-up last week? Well, not to worry. The Marquis de Lafayette arrives at Valley Forge with the news that his king has been convinced by the American victory at Saratoga alone.
Instead of discussing storylines, I’ll share some general observations. One recurring theme of this episode is hair-cutting. Three of the male regulars shear off part of their hair or whiskers. Brewster and Woodhull even take time during their jailhouse reunion to discuss their beards.
Another repeated lesson is that it’s not a good idea to touch Gen. Washington. He gets flustered when Lafayette kisses him on both cheeks and positively frosty when Arnold grips his shoulder.
Finally, Mary Woodhull (Meegan Warner) punches well above the number of lines she has. She’s been keeping Abe alive even as a condemned spy, and she spurs Hewlett into helping him when Judge Richard Woodhull (Kevin R. McNally) stays quiet.
To be sure, there are still plenty of historical howlers in Turn. Lafayette reports that his king is negotiating an alliance with “Messrs. Franklin and Adams.” John Adams didn’t reach Europe until after that treaty was signed. (Franklin’s colleagues in Paris in 1778 were Silas Deane and Arthur Lee, but the show already has two unrelated characters named Lee.) And while Quakers didn’t have ministers to perform weddings, that doesn’t mean a Quaker couple could wed just by saying, “We are married,” as Peggy Shippen (Ksenia Solo) says. A whole Quaker congregation oversaw weddings, and marrying outside the faith was a big deal. Unnecessary deviations from the historical facts like that keep me from ranking this show higher.