Turn: “Mr. Culpeper”
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Turn: “Mr. Culpeper”

How spies get made

Before every episode of Turn, AMC reminds you to turn on your Story Sync Two-Screen Experience for, among other things, spycraft trivia—teasing that you aren’t getting the whole story without it. Though one hopes the network wasn’t denying regular viewers anything vital, Turn has always carried itself with a certain notable delay of story, a sense of something being withheld for later. That turned out to be the actual spying. It’s given us both character study and political parallels, but the espionage that was the series’ hook has been slow to emerge. By the halfway point in the series last week, Abe Woodhull’s spying had been an examination of the fallout of a key few pieces of information gathered through a mixture of impulsive rebellion and happy accident. This week, spying becomes the order of the day, and you can almost feel the series starting to tighten up.

“Mr. Culpeper” doesn’t quite erase the wheel-spinning of episodes past, but it goes a long way toward giving context to the tight-knit capers that we’ve seen so far, contrasted with approaches that work markedly less well. The opening sequence—in which Nathaniel Sackett (Stephen Root) sketches a hypothetical information-chain scenario as Abe enacts it, an egg-heavy gambit ending in death for Abe, and just another crumbled piece of paper for Sackett—neatly delineates the relative stakes of planning espionage and actually carrying out the plan. It also foreshadows power differentials in an episode that’s all about the many ways spies are made, both in the sense of being recruited and the sense of being found out.

And it’s no coincidence that as Tallmadge, Sackett, and Washington try to hash out procedures, rules, and expenses, Abe is huddled alone, taken prisoner, as a Redcoat wrings his secrets from him. Though it feels like our robber’s largely there to coax character beats out of Abe (“Why didn’t you sign up and fight for your country like a man?” “Because you can’t win”), it’s still worth noting Abe’s panicked attempts at military etiquette for prisoners falling on derisive ears. Somehow, they’re a better reminder of the danger he’s in than the actual danger he’s in. There’s no doubt he’ll be rescued from this particular situation before the episode is over, but twice this episode, we see him in peril, and real or otherwise, both of them highlight the summary judgment he’d be facing if he was caught. Jamie Bell has always managed to quietly telegraph the dread of doing something that offers no protection by either side, but for Abe, the difference between knowing it and experiencing it is sobering.

Stephen Root, who energizes pretty much any screen he’s on, snaps the desk-job espionage into sharp focus as Nathaniel Sackett, his arch pragmatism lending both humor and weight to the bureaucracy of spycraft. But in an episode teeming with the trepidation of discovery and the narrowing timetable to lay down a workable strategy, administration takes on a welcome edge. Even Tallmadge gets to impress The American Cincinattus with his ability to read a room, and getting promoted to a level of power that allows him to implement the chain of information he’s always wanted. As usual, this subplot bears most of the expositionary weight, but now that it has forward momentum, the increasing distance between the strategists and the operatives on the ground feels like the show’s getting comfortable enough to critique levels of operation and ethics even in the same side. Maybe there’s still enough time to prove Abe right that there’s no winning.

On the other side of the line, André’s a much smoother operator than the Colonials. He meets with returned Crown prisoners to pump them for information and smoke out any spies, which would have worked out beautifully except that he’s such a theatrical guy he had to announce that he’s found the spy at the dinner table like it’s an Agatha Christie novel. (And frankly, if you couldn’t tell Simcoe was a little off after chatting with him one-on-one, maybe you’re not the judge of character you thought you were; when Simcoe knifes that spy in the throat, my only surprise was that André was surprised.) That said, JJ Feild clearly relishes the chance to do anything more complicated than smirk and portent, and makes the most of it. His barely-restrained anger is all the more interesting in how little it bothers Simcoe. André sees himself as the gentleman spy able to manipulate anyone to his purpose, and is furious at having lost one asset and misjudged another. Simcoe’s veneer of gentility is just leveraging a position of power; he could care less about long-term strategy so long as he’s the last man standing.

But André succeeds on the domestic front this week, chillingly. Abigail (who should have been introduced sooner, and seeing her here only highlights how little we’ve gotten to know her over a series of episodes that definitely had the room) has settled in at André’s house, but her attempts at espionage are quietly being compromised by André’s calculated kindness. It’s a quiet recruitment of Abigail, unfolding slowly, and it’s the first proof we’ve really had that André’s as good at spycraft as the show’s promised he is. Interestingly, director Eagle Egilsson frames them at equal visual disadvantage straight through—André hovering behind her as he teaches her during table-manners foreshadowing, looming above her as he offers to send her present to her son—but her reactions soften even between their first scene and their last, sowing some intriguing doubt about what she’ll do when the time for espionage comes. (Technically it’s already here—Simcoe’s headed home, and Anna has to prepare—but if this is Abigail’s first test, it’s a test for next week.)

Turn has never quite been the show it’s clearly wanted to be. Its visible work at balancing its tonal and stylistic elements against developing plots and characters has sometimes just been a lesson in how hard that all is to do well. But with “Mr. Culpeper” we see how some of that work can pay off. It is, admittedly, a case of a story getting started too late in the game (the opening sequence of this episode, or even last episode, feels like an entry point into a more stylistically-assured series), but it’s beginning to feel like a story that knows how it wants to be told.

Stray observations:

  • I’m all for Revolutionary War espionage tips and trick, but George Washington crushing the “Mr. W” boiled egg in his hand made me laugh out loud. Shit just got real.
  • Jordan wearing a shirt stamped “Liberty to Slaves” as he digs in the camp: “Welp” moments in history. His recruitment by Robert into the Rangers is the setup of the week, but there’s a lot of potential for him to throw a spanner in the works from his new vantage point, and Jordan clearly knows it.
  • Awasos gets his first lines this week!
  • I got a nice moment of pop-culture synergy smugness when Sackett was discussing encryption techniques. (Tallmadge is much easier to read than a Vigenère’s cipher.) 
  • This last note is even sadder than the lack of Babywatch. As many suspected when Turn rolled out a cabbage-heavy slow burn opposite Game Of Thrones, the show just hasn’t found a significant audience. The AV Club might drop in again at the end of the season to see how things have panned out, but this will be the last weekly recap for Turn. Thanks so much to everyone for reading!
Filed Under: TV, Turn

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