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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Turn: "Eternity How Long"

Illustration for article titled Turn: "Eternity How Long"
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As Turn starts to find its footing (and it is; a bit slowly for a limited series, but it’s gaining traction), it’s becoming clear that its initial hook—a little old-fashioned espionage from America’s First Spy Ring—is, at least so far, at its best as a backdrop element. The least compelling of this week’s plots is the Colonial spycraft; Tallmadge and Caleb working to sneak last week’s Hessian-heavy troop report past their commanding officer all the way to Washington is dryly funny in a Ye Olde Workplace way (you know the boss never reads past page one), but what felt immediate and looming last week as Abraham fished for details doesn’t translate this week, and the passing of the letter is set up as a quest on the edge of a knife when it feels more like filler.

However, Talmadge and Caleb’s partnership holds strong against military protocol even when it hurts their cause, and I suspect that’s the real purpose of much of this early development of the spy ring, especially pitted against the mustache-twirling Redcoats. These C-plots establish the Culper Ring as having such potential for success because of internal loyalties that run deeper than protocol or national pride; their strength comes in being able to rely on those friendships without question. (Well, without much question; Simcoe’s still smarming it up somewhere in New England, and by now everybody but Abe is on the line for that one.)

And tracking the ebb and flow of internal loyalties is where the show is strongest: its political-trouble parallels and interfamily tensions have been by far its most compelling and carefully drawn aspects. At its best, “Eternity How Long” explores the breaking point of a community under pressure—and comes to the depressing, if accurate, conclusion that it’s always farther down the road than one would think. This week, Hewlett demands headstones from the town’s graveyard to be dug up and planted as defenses against rebel attack; it’s such a sacrilege that even Judge Woodhull balks at first against being asked to collude. He reluctantly agrees, but it’s a fool’s errand, and Abraham pins a nice one on Dad when he points out the inherent evil of the request, and the impossibility of solving it: “No amount of wisdom can make that just.”

This is oligarchical, totalitarian British occupation (Hewlett reminds the Judge that he’s been appointed by the King, who’s appointed by God), and crossing this line means that those who had been apolitical are agitated enough to gather twice to protest, calling down the red-flag of “illegal assembly” and the instant threat of martial action that’s so direct a political parallel it wouldn’t need to be particularly well-done to drive its point home. But it is; the episode neatly delineates the ways those in power set up scapegoats with a vested interest, who absorb the community’s anger without changing the ultimate outcome—a wallpapered drawing room the Judge visits is a trap snapping shut, and both Woodhulls find themselves fighting against their own beliefs in the pressure of the moment. Even the Judge eventually realizes he’s been played (with an assist from Abe, for whom the entire business has been a transparent exercise—maybe their first moments of real connection about this political fulcrum). In the end the Judge sacrifices his son’s headstone to stave off revolution, and Hewlett basks in having managed to “tame a colony.” But Turn has been interested in the home front since the very beginning, and the community’s awake now to the yoke it’s under; they might be momentarily subdued, but loyalties are shifting in ways it will be hard to stop.

In a microcosm of the community fracturing, I enjoy watching the Woodhull’s fragile marriage: It’s dysfunctional in a way that manages not to particularly demonize anyone (yet), always poised on the razor edge of working or falling apart. Mary’s attempts to memorialize Thomas are a practiced entrance to a difficult family moment, and her hesitant, heartbreaking “I can be what you want” in bed with Abe speaks volumes about the dynamic they’ve been laboring under and the ways in which that’s beginning to crack. The good news is that whatever internal conflict Abe’s under, he doesn’t hold any of it against Mary; in fact, taking her into his confidence is a step toward a partnership Abe could probably use. It’s unfortunate that she it was such an obvious line-up for plotcakes. “Promise me you’ll keep it quiet” is the television equivalent of investigating basement noises in a negligee, and the moment we cut to Mary tugging nervously at her corner in the quilting circle, we know she’s going to give up her intel.

It’s unfortunate, and her milquetoast apology as things fall apart feels like sidelining her, which she doesn’t deserve; I suspect they’re setting her up as untrustworthy in order to make it more palatable if Abe and Anna rekindle something, but that seems like an easy out for a situation that’s already suggested—and deserves—more nuance. If they follow it through, though, this love triangle could end up being a more interesting story of people struggling to define themselves in increasingly impossible circumstances, where home turf calls for spycraft of its own; it’s something we might yet hope for.


Stray observations:

  • If you were hoping for a glimpse of the big man, you’ll be disappointed (better luck next week), but Washington has a hell of a lot of reading material on his desk.
  • He’s doing a lot of unsung work, but Jamie Bell manages to make the most of every lingering stare and loaded pause; as he becomes quietly more driven, he looks more dangerous by degrees, like a falcon in a leather frock coat.
  • I’d have been up for a lot more of the backstage power-games of the women of Setauket, actually; that they didn’t want the gossip, but her source, is a telling detail, and you could see them smelling blood in the water. The show seems to tilt increasingly toward internal community conflicts, and this is definitely a part of the flow of power that the show could make good use of.
  • The British initiative finds insidious glee this week with Basking Ridge, a seasoned actress, and Charles Lee, who history tells us was a Continental general who thought Washington was a terrible tactician unfit to lead, and who this show tells us had a proclivity for chasing strange women blindfolded in potential enemy territory, which dovetails nicely. JJ Feild, who still seems uncertain exactly why he’s here but is determined to make me smile every time he’s on, snags his prey during a game of Marco Polo that becomes priceless the moment Feild utters, “Polo.”
  • Babywatch: The kid could not take his eyes off Jamie Bell. Feelin’ good about this.
  • Side note: I’d like to thank everyone who’s reading and commenting; a slow-burn show isn’t always the easiest to nail down, but I’m hopeful this one will continue to improve. That said, it’s in a hell of a time slot, and the pageview numbers so far are a little low; if you’d like to get people talking about it here so we can see it through to the end, that would be awesome. Someday JJ Feild’s just going to break the fourth wall and wink right at us, and I’d like to be there when it happens.