Turn: The Battle of Setauket Review

Review J.L. Bell 6/9/2014 at 10:01AM
Turn Eternity How Long Review

The first season of AMC's Turn ends with a historic battle. Here's our review of the season finale!

Spoilers ahead... 

The first season of Turn concludes with “The Battle of Setauket,” with the death of a character we’ve seen since the series’s first moments, and without resolving most of its long-running tensions and storylines. 

This tenth episode begins with Mary Woodhull (Meegan Warner) staring into a fire at her home after finding her husband’s codebook and realizing he’s been spying for the rebels under Gen. Washington. As in past episodes, that image is mirrored toward the end of the show as we once again see Mary in front of a fire. 

In between, Setauket, Long Island, becomes a battlefield as Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge (Seth Numrich), Lt. Caleb Brewster (Daniel Henshall), and Selah Strong (Robert Beitzel) cross the sound from Connecticut to attack the British troops threatening to hang some of their relatives. The Continentals quickly take the village. Maj. Hewlett (Burn Gorman), Capt. Simcoe (Samuel Roukin), and most of their redcoat soldiers hole up in the fortified church. 

The historic battle in Setauket in August 1777 took place around that church at night and involved cannon, swivel guns, and the capture of several horses. In Turn, that fight occurs in broad daylight and quickly devolves into a hostage situation, with more yelling back and forth and scheming than actual fighting. The infantry action is laughable as Selah and his men pin down the British from the worst cover imaginable, but the British artillery performs well—and provides a big special-effects explosion. 

Both sides of the fight are hampered by leadership squabbles. Down in the village, Abe Woodhull (Jamie Bell) and Anna Strong (Heather Lind), still hiding their Patriot loyalties from their neighbors, argue with Tallmadge and Brewster about their plans. Up in the church, Hewlett struggles to rein in Simcoe’s blood lust, with limited results. In the end, it’s up to the Woodhulls, son and father (Kevin McNally), to find a way out of the stalemate without big costs in either blood or filmmaking budget.  

As has happened too often in Turn, some character logic gets sacrificed for the sake of dramatic, well, turns. After Anna reunites with her husband, she decides she must continue to serve the Patriot cause; her impulsive decision takes such a dramatic form that it should make her seem less reliable to the royal authorities or anyone else. Likewise, in one day Abe both quits spying for Washington and insists he’ll be “Mr. Culper” again. Mary confronts Abe about his anti-British activity one minute, then takes the lead in covering it up.

Over and over characters invoke “family” as the deep underlying reason for their decisions. “I believe in family,” Mary says. “So this raid is family business,” Abe chides Tallmadge and Brewster. Yet we see hardly any family life, especially by historic standards. Eighteenth-century families were large, the result of wives becoming pregnant about every two or three years until menopause and most (though not all) of those children living to adulthood. Men who were widowed often remarried. Older and single people often lived with their relatives in extended-family households. More than half the population of eighteenth-century America was below the age of sixteen.

However, on Turn the families are not only nuclear but small. The Woodhulls consist of four people (Abe, Mary, their infant son, and Abe’s father) in two households, plus a late lamented brother. The Tallmadges appear to be two men, plus another dead brother. Anna and Selah Strong have no children and apparently no parents or siblings either. This sparsity of relations reflects our modern lifestyle, plus casting budgets, but it also undermines what the characters say about “family.” So often they appear to make their decisions based on no more than what will keep the drama at high pitch.

The end of this season leaves us pretty much where we’ve been for several episodes. The War for Independence is still going on, of course, but most sources of tension for the main characters also remain. Anna and Selah are still separated. Abe and Mary are still stuck together and will now be living with his father. Maj. Hewlett is still in command of Setauket, Maj. Tallmadge still patrolling in Connecticut. We don’t see the black characters—Jordan, Abigail, and Cicero—at all. And, alas, we don’t get a final sight of Gen. Washington or spymaster Nathaniel Sackett.

The new developments seem minor. The triangle of Abe, Mary, and the young British officer quartered with them, Ens. Baker (Thomas Keegan), finally comes to an end. In this episode’s single scene off Long Island, Maj. John Andre (JJ Feild) relieves Robert Rogers (Angus Macfadyen) of command of the Queen’s Rangers, meaning Rogers could become a loose cannonball or (as in history) fade into obscurity. Historically, Capt. John Graves Simcoe eventually became the Rangers’ colonel, but at the end of this season he’s hardly in a commanding position. 

Meanwhile, characters keep mentioning the Continental general Benedict Arnold—will he become a focus of a second season? And will Turn ever introduce “Samuel Culper, Jr.,” the spy well placed inside New York City? 

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