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Turn: "Who By Fire"

My cabbages!

Welcome back to Turn, the show you’ll tune in to while waiting for Mad Men to start! Last week gave us an earnest premiere that set up eventual turncoat Abe Woodhull and drew parallels between modern surveillance culture and the omnipresent totalitarian Brits who quartered in homes and had a revolution coming. It was solid but lacked spark, and I’d hoped that they’d either commit to the atmosphere and historical resonance, or swing wide with spy shenanigans.

“Who By Fire” offers some of the former: We see Fawkes theater in the Bowery and effigies in Long Island, the wigs-askew chivalry extended to captured enemy officers, and at its best, we get more of the quietly engaging Abe and the community dynamic in Setauket, where principles are constantly under revision as they come close to home. Richard Woodhull might suspect Anna of murdering Captain Joyce to the point of inventing evidence, but even he tries to keep her out of the way of Robert Rogers. It’s an emerging theme I hope to see more of: the flow of information in times of surveillance and occupation, and the many lesser betrayals a community commits within itself.  

At its most awkward, though, we get this week’s mystery, which is about local oyster-seller Will Robeson having an illicit affair with Joyce that could only be settled with murder. (... Sure.) This puts him under Rogers’ thumb going forward and the drummer Rogers murders leaves Hewlett something to be incensed about, so plotcakes prevails. And if later episodes flesh out Robeson beyond the stock trope, he could be a useful counterpoint to Woodhulll—two men at loggerheads whose recruitment into espionage has been driven by fear rather than patriotism.

But this week’s good moments came almost entirely from embracing a little camp; they had an energy missing from the afterthought of Joyce’s murder. Major Hewlett, who in Burn Gorman’s hands teeters on the right side of the character/caricature line, has an arch scene with interloper Rogers (no one can petulantly open a letter like Burn Gorman) that reflects growing frustrations. And in imprisonment, Captain Simcoe’s making up for lost time with some snide home truths about the colonials’ bad intel in between beatings. But JJ Feild might walk off with the delivery of the week when handing Rogers his cap back and suggesting Rogers find out what happened re: last week’s ambush in Connecticut, “Seeing as the bonnet doth bellow for revenge.” Oh, JJ, I’m just happy you’re here.

The centerpiece of the episode, though, is Rogers’ sit-down with the Woodhulls and Anna. (I had Macfadyen’s “I should like. To question. Your officers.” booked as his paid-in-scenery meal of the week, but that was before Abe mentions George Washington and Rogers slowly unrolled, “Oooooh, we’ll get him.”) The whole scene underscores existing strengths—Abe and Anna’s connection, Woodhull’s disappearing/reappearing moral gray area, and great work from Jamie Bell as Abe builds a Royalist persona on the fly. (His line of the week, reading from the back of Rogers’ Guy Fawkes coin: “He who conceals himself is detected.”) But the streak of dark humor is welcome—McNally’s  laser eyes at Abe are priceless—and builds both menace and leads to a glorious tromp downstairs to uncork Captain Joyce. It’s the tensest father-son standoff we’ve seen so far, which lends some counterweight to Rogers blithely offering up some forensics, complete with wet brotherly slap on Joyce’s pickled back, as Abe tries not to lose his lunch.

Sadly, much of the show has yet to be gripping, which is worth noting in such a limited series. It’s not that things aren’t happening—far from it. As if making up for the deliberate pace of the pilot, this episode alone sets up Robeson as a spy for the other side, enhances Abe’s financial desperation through the destruction of the last of his crop, demonstrates Tallmadge as a clever guy in over his head, and hints that Caleb’s disenchanted with him. It also introduces Philomena, an actress/JJ Feild recruit who’s apparently headed to New Jersey, and removes Simcoe from his below-the-radar imprisonment, bringing events to the point of being overstuffed. But a lot of it still feels like setup for something that’s meant to get good later.

Luckily, it also has occasional breathing room in the cinematic setups that a full-season order brings. “Who By Fire” makes the most of sun-soaked meadows, the rafters of second-tier theater halls, and Hewlett’s lit-through-skim-milk makeshift headquarters (which gets a wide-shot in which intense conversation occurs in front of some snacking horses). Since last week, we’ve moved from exposition to that brand of narrative efficiency where Abe explains the family’s cabbage shed to his own wife moments before it’s set on fire. But even that can be smoothed over by this cast, as in the scene between Abe and Anna when she reads the love letter and he’s mooning so hard she has to call his attention to the actual espionage. I’m looking forward to this playing out; his concern for her being as intense as her activism offers conflict without the love triangle, and his second thoughts feel slightly more than the water-treading they probably are. And Anna’s sit-down with Rogers felt like a revelation to her in terms of how far she has to go if she’s going to commit to aiding and abetting the colonial cause, and how Abe’s budding secrecy might endanger her more than it helps her. But outside the cast, this is a show still trying to find its footing, and with only ten episodes, they don’t have long. Here’s hoping they manage it soon.

Stray observations:

  • It happened. “MY CABBAGES!” 
  • Historical tidbit of the week: Mary’s awake in the middle of the night, referencing segmented sleep, a sleep pattern widely accepted until the last century or so, in which a sleeper experienced two four-hour periods of sleep, interrupted by a period of wakefulness in which it was common to tend to the house, visit with family, pray, and burn down your neighbor’s cabbages.
  • The men who are working on Abe’s farm are named Luke and Jeremiah. Whether he’s a slaveowner is still apparently on a need-to-know basis. I’m not sure how much this show intends to engage with history in the long run, given the tonal shift to pickled corpses this week, but I guess we’ll find out by how long this all goes unremarked upon.
  • Kind of rich going on about the serpent’s belly of sodomy while you’re gripping handsome Abe Woodhull close enough to kiss, Rogers.
  • To the day player playing Guy Fawkes Actor who got beaned by the lettuce, and to whoever threw that hunk of lettuce, I salute you.
  • This week we got an exchange that, at least so far, belongs to a subtler show. When André meets Rogers in the theater with the Guy Fawkes pantomime, they exchange an odd greeting: “Think they’ll stop him in time?” “Be more interesting if they don’t.” In some other iteration of the show, this brief bit of dialogue confirms André as a jaded pro who recognizes that the coincidences and lucky breaks of history are often due to behind-the-scenes intelligence that glorifies the winners, and confirms Rogers as an agent who’s ultimately not of the Crown but of chaos. If this is where they’re going I’ll be totally along for the ride; this or pickled corpses, I guess.
  • The resident baby remains totally unwilling to look Jamie Bell in the eye, even after being handed an actual bag of money.
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