Turn Recap: A History of Violence

(Ed. Note: I’m in a different time zone with laptop issues this week so Clarence’s take on the most recent episode of Turn was a bit delayed. My fault, not his)

Turn’s pilot episode had flashes of violence, borrowing the sounds of stabbed corpses from its gorier AMC cousin The Walking Dead. The subsequent offerings, however, have mostly relied on bloodless gunplay and spy intrigue for action. That practice ended as this week’s episode, Mr. Culpeper, provided Turn’s bloodiest hour to date.

We begin with a scene that confused some across the Internet. A man, later to be revealed as civilian strategist Nathanial Sackett (memorably played by character actor Stephen Root), devises “Scenario 37” during which we see our hero, Abe Woodhull, exposed as a spy in a botched intel exchange. He is shot and left to bleed to death. The scene then cuts to Sackett crumpling a piece of paper (the failed “Scenario 37”), revealing the Abe’s death to be the imagined outcome of a failed plan. A clever ruse on the part of the creators, but just an illusion nonetheless.

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The remainder of the episode, as the Turn writers like to do, divides itself into four subplots, each story offering its own vision of war violence.

The most dramatically intense section kicks off with a prisoner exchange between armies. This exchange includes the fascinatingly off-kilter Simcoe who was captured earlier in the series and nearly killed. The British prisoners are taken to Major John Andre’s home to recuperate and share information. Here, we get a glimpse of Andre’s kind treatment of Abigail, the freed slave now serving as spy/Andre housemaid. There is a particularly well-played scene between Andre and Abigail where he illustrates his eccentric tastes in place settings based on European dining customs. Obviously, there is more than etiquette on display here.

Later, Andre hosts a dinner with the freed Redcoat captives, one of whom is an undercover Continental Army spy. Relying on observation (see above-mentioned European dining customs), Andre correctly guesses the identity of the spy exactly as Simcoe plunges a dinner knife into his neck (the soldier had incorrectly recited his regiment’s motto). This sudden outburst of violence underscores Simcoe’s damaged psyche as only hinted at earlier in the season. His pending return to Setauket does not bode well for Anna Strong.

This dense episode continues with Abe Woodhull attempting a return to New York Island under the guise of selling pigs to the British army. During his trip, he is ambushed and beaten by what appears to be a Redcoat soldier. This soldier intends to steal his identity and abandon his outpost. They randomly scuffle before a Redcoat patrol shows up and kills the soldier, freeing Abe. This interlude is clearly meant to illustrate the madness of the war, but it felt undeveloped. In the end, Abe is told he can no longer travel to New York Island on his own, presumably complicating his spy activities. At least it gives him something to do…

Also underserved is an intriguing subplot about Jordan, the freed slave working in New York, and Titus, a black member of the Queen’s Rangers. The men are pitted against each other in hand-to-hand combat by Rangers leader Robert Rogers, giving Jordan the opportunity to demonstrate some crazy late 1700s mixed martial art skills. After easily winning the duel, Jordan is invited to join the Queen’s Rangers. While it offered an entertaining fight sequence, it absolutely left me wanting to know more about Jordan and how he received such extensive training.

Finally, we return to Ben Tallmadge and his pending court martial. The stakes are set for Tallmadge early in the episode when General Washington (played with grandeur and stoicism by Ian Kahn) oversees the hanging of a court marshaled soldier. The threat of violence hangs heavily over Ben as he negotiates his role in the evolving spy ring. We are treated to a really interesting and fun performance by Stephen Root as the aforementioned Sackett who devises spy scenarios for Washington. Ultimately, Tallmadge and Sackett develop a new identity for Abe Woodhull to avoid detection: the Mr. Culpeper of the episode’s title.

The episode was one of the more engaging to date, full of forward momentum for the overall plot, and the various manifestations of violence were purposeful and thoughtful, mostly. Balancing a cast this large is a difficult task, and Turn’s writers have done well enough thus far. Given a finite end point for the series (it is based on history, after all), I’m optimistic they have clearly defined intents and goals for the duration of the series.

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