Turn Review: “Who By Fire” (Season 1, Episode 2)

turn season 1 episode 2 who by fire clip Turn Review: “Who By Fire” (Season 1, Episode 2)

After last week’s sometimes thrilling, sometimes muddled opener – packed with so much exposition that even this critic, as some replied in the comments section of last week’s review, did not even pick up on all of the nuances – Turn has taken an, ahem, turn for the better this week. The pacing has more momentum, the characters more clearly drawn and the performances are starting to resonate on a deeper level. Even without any climactic action sequences, save a big fire and some cabbage throwing at an actor fretting his hour upon the stage, there is enough intrigue to arrest the viewer.

The term for the entire operations involved in planning and participating in war is called a theater. (This is made plain in a scene with JJ Feild’s Maj. John Andre, as he wrestles in the sheets with a young actor. “What I do is closer to an art,” he tells her, evoking the episode’s themes in a rather rudimentary way.) So, as it goes, Turn is looking at the theatre of theater – the performance involved in spying on the other side and grasping intelligence that had been previously withheld. Many of the show’s main players have more than one motivation this week, with a few coming close to breaking their character.

For Abe Woodhull, he has nothing left to lose, after masked men set his shed filled with the remnants of the farmer’s crop ablaze. Abe is trying to reassure his wife that she has no reason to stay up and night and pray, as well as his son, who he shows a small bag of coins – “pirate treasure,” he says playfully. Now that he is left with almost no crops, he is forced to keep with his undercover role. Abe is conflicted, though, as this performance is good for his livelihood but bad for his relationship with God. “That double life… it leads straight to hell,” Abe tells Anna. He still has remnants of faith to attest to, but we will see how long this struggle last.

Due to the ambush in Connecticut from the end of the pilot episode, the British are aware that there are traitors in their midst. However, Abe has to protect Anna, whose estate is vulnerable and whom the British (and Woodhull’s dad) suspect could be involved in Captain Joyce’s death. Capt. Simcoe is also missing, and the British want to know why.

Simcoe, in fact, is chained up in a cell, with Ben and Caleb interrogating him – and in a manner that certain administrations would term “enhanced.” They want to find out if there are any enemies lurking under a rebel guise. Their methods are conspicuously modern, which means Turn is starting to turn into a historical allegory – an especially topical feat during an age of paranoia and privacy concerns. We will see if the authorities that find Ben and Caleb at the episode’s end will conceal details about Simcoe’s treatment.

The British are now cutthroat, due to the surprise attack. Frontiersman Robert Rogers (a crackling Angus McFadyen) is fed up and desperate for results. “You didn’t count the tracks,” he spits at Maj. Hewlett, “and you buried the bodies who can tell us the tale.” However, he is an easy charmer to his supposedly loyal friends, as he tries to figure out the mole in his midst. “We should drink to friends and traitors alike,” he toasts in a scene at the tavern, surrounded by Abe, Anna and Abe’s dad, Richard.


Turn Season 1 Episode 2 1 Turn Review: “Who By Fire” (Season 1, Episode 2)

“Who By Fire” makes a clear allusion to a moment in English history that is still popular today with the ubiquity of the Guy Fawkes mask appearing throughout. In the episode, the British townspeople in Setauket throw effigies of one of the notorious Gunpowder Treason plotters into a Setauket bonfire. “Usually it’s only one man who takes the credit and the infamy,” one character intones to Abe. Interestingly, none of the Culper Ring’s members will have a day of infamy in their honour.

Jamie Bell, currently in the midst of a career comeback with striking turns in Nymphomaniac and Snowpiercer, has finally found an adult role that may get audiences to stop referring to him as “the boy from Billy Eliot.” Bell is terrific here, straining to keep a face of loyalty alit as he deals with an array of tumultuous ordeals, from his relationship with Anna to providing for his family. Moreover, of course, he must remain honourable to the Culper Ring without abandoning principle. Bell is a fine actor playing Woodhull, whose performances are passable but not quite as convincing as a mastermind spy’s should be.

This week’s episode of Turn comes from Ed Bianchi, best known for his work on Deadwood and The Wire. His work on a rusted period piece and a twisty, intricate procedural proves to be perfect preparation for this series as the period details are just as authentic here. Bianchi, like director Rupert Wyatt last week, keeps the mood intimate while paying tribute to the past by lighting the nighttime scenes only through candlelight, fires and moonlight, which add texture to the drab aesthetic. Craig Silverstein’s dialogue cuts quicker this week and the actors are more comfortable in navigating their characters, even if they are still a bit green with getting their double-sided nature just right.

Thankfully, Turn’s second hour is sharper and more intriguing than the pilot, as we learn more about the characters’ allegiances and struggles. Building in momentum and personality, the series is starting to find its footing as a historical drama and an absorbing look at spies whose masks will never be worn.

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  • Glorious_Cause

    “and in a manner that certain administrations would term “enhanced.””

    Good grief…let it go.