Apr 272017


The American Revolution is in peril!

Abraham Woodhull (Jamie Bell) AKA Samuel Culper has stopped sending messages and Caleb Brewster (Daniel Henshall) is now solely involved in the black market, blaming Benjamin Tallmadge (Seth Numrich) for the death of his uncle in the previous season.


Would you like to see my telescope?

I have to admit that even my Grinch-like heart is stirred by Major Hewlett’s (Burn Gorman) earnest if awkward attempt to court Anna Strong (Heather Lind).

Love is definitely in the air since Major John Andre (JJ Feild) and Peggy Shippen (Ksenia Solo) fall madly in love. Apparently, courting was a bit more complicated back then. Aside from dealing with a possessive father, Andre finds himself facing Shippen’s lawyer, banker and secretary.


John Graves Simcoe. A savage who can lead other savages.

Simcoe (Samuel Roukin) accepts command of Roger’s Rangers despite losing seniority and pay by switching to a provincial unit, in exchange for permission to base his unit at Setauket, where he can continue to court (or stalk, depending on your perspective) Anna Strong. The grizzled rangers are initially contemptuous until Simcoe earns their respect by beating and then killing one of them. While the real Simcoe did transform the Rangers into a solid fighting unit, he actually volunteered for the position. It does not matter that the show’s version of the Rangers is made up of only twenty men, even though the real force numbered five hundred, since they basically wait around to carry out black ops missions for spymaster John Andre. In reality, the Rangers did military things, like protecting farmers bringing food to Philadelphia and attacking the rebels’ outposts at Valley Forge, which seems understandable since there was a war going on.

In the end, the many inaccuracies in Simcoe’s portrayal do not matter, since the character is so crazy that he is simply fascinating.


The Culper Ring Expands.

While making detailed notes of the defences in New York, Woodhull stays at Robert Townsend’s (Nick Westrate) rooming house, and sharp-eyed Townsend deduces that he is a spy. Although initially reluctant to become involved in the spy ring, despite the urgings of his Quaker father, Townsend only agrees to become a spy after the Rangers take horses from his father’s stables, and then burn the stables when he asks for payment.

The real Townsend was driven to aid Woodhull because the British had turned Long Island into a military camp and treated everyone, including Loyalists, so roughly that many began to regret supporting the British. Seeing his home turned into an armed camp where residents were whipped if they were outside after curfew unsurprisingly changed Townsend’s loyalties. Numerous officers let their soldiers simply take whatever food they wanted from farms, which drove many Loyalists to support the rebels, or at least stop supporting the Crown. While the Rangers’ indiscriminate looting gains the screen Woodhull a valuable ally, the show’s decision to focus on the personal relationships among the main characters, rather than present the widespread nature of the harsh treatment, prevents viewers from grasping the full scale of the damage caused by the inability to distinguish between Loyalists and rebels.


Speak truth to power.

A true conservative, Mary Woodhull (Meegan Warner), Abe’s wife, is not the most appealing character but there is a stunning scene where she demolishes Judge Woodhull’s (Kevin McNally) smug confidence that he had uncovered the full range of Abe’s conspiracy. Abandoning her struggle to present the facade of a happy marriage, Mary explains that she had tried to stop Abe spying for the rebels, and now merely wants to protect him. While the judge was understandably shattered by her admission that she burned Abe’s code book, and then torched her own home to cover up Abe’s murder of Ensign Baker when he overheard them arguing about it, one would think that he would react by putting as much distance as possible between himself and his psychotic daughter-in-law. The model of a loyal wife, Mary even cooperates with her husband’s lover to ensure his freedom.


Goodbye Sackett.

The real Nathaniel Sackett (Stephen Root) resigned as head of intelligence due to some offence he had made that had angered General George Washington, but a simple disagreement apparently lacked sufficient drama. Instead, he falls victim to a complex plot where Andre’s agent is able to enter the rebel camp, win their confidence, be left alone with Sackett, kill him, take valuable documents, walk out of the camp and make his way across the lines, all while wearing the uniform of a redcoat officer. Unbelievable. Literally.

Honestly, it’s hard to take the Culper Ring seriously since Tallmadge and Brewster frequently wander around the camp at Valley Forge, shouting at each other and using the spies’ real names as they argue about plans. The amateurish approach on the show does a disservice to the real Sackett who had designed a surprisingly advanced spy system, where civilians posed as British sympathizers to forge connections with Loyalists in order to gain more access to the British military.

At one point, Brewster uses a submersible obtained by Sackett to sneak into New York City to rescue Abe Woodhull from prison. That is cool. I could almost forgive the show its many, many historical errors for the scene of a barrel moving along underwater. Almost.


It’s lonely at the top.

Driven to the edge of madness by the stress of command, Washington (Ian Kahn) has a minor nervous breakdown when he has to decide the fate of Major Hewlett, who was framed for a massacre by Simcoe. Hoping to cure his mental situation by making a decision, Washington tells his slave and manservant William Lee (Gentry White) to treat him as an equal, while he whines about how his older half-brother could have solved the problem. The storyline is a waste of time, intended simply to let the actor show off, but it is good to see Lee receive some attention, since he spent the eight years of the revolution beside Washington, but has been largely ignored.

Besides, Washington could be excused for going a little crazy. Most of his army had simply gone home, the few men who had remained were starving while they froze, Horatio Gates and Charles Lee were openly campaigning for his job, his most recent battles had been defeats, and the revolution seemed unlikely to succeed without an alliance with France, which had refused to commit. Unknown to Washington, the British situation was not as firm as it appeared.


War is not cheap.

Removed from command of the Rangers last season by Andre, who had lost patience with Rogers’ feud with Tallmadge, Robert Rogers (Angus Macfayden) has been cooling his heels in London for months hoping for employment. It appears that his fortunes have changed when King George III orders him to hunt down a document stolen by a Patriot spy that was sent to America. In exchange, he will be given command of an expedition to find the Northwest Passage and his debts will be paid. Despite Rogers’ willingness to slaughter anyone unfortunate enough to get in his way, the document ends up in Washington’s hands, and it reveals that the cost of fighting wars in North America, the Caribbean and India has bankrupted England, which should convince the French to make a formal alliance. When Andre tries to have him silenced, apparently on the orders of the king, Rogers decides to join forces with Woodhull in order to gain revenge on Andre.

There are several problems with this plot line. The British East India Company governed the British territories in India, and paid for its own army. However, the key issue is that the revolution, including its cost, was debated in Parliament, so the government’s financial situation was not a secret. Clearly, these imaginary conflicts were introduced to give the spies credit for the the French alliance with the American rebels, when the deciding factor was was the British surrender at Saratoga, which is only briefly mentioned on the show.

Speaking of Saratoga

Hoping to deal the rebellion a fatal blow, Lieutenant General William Howe planned to capture Philadelphia, the largest city in the colonies and the base of the Continental Congress, while a second expedition from Canada would seize control of the Hudson River, separating Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Massachusetts from the remaining nine colonies. Although Washington failed to prevent Howe from occupying Philadelphia in September 1777, the rebel army did block Howe from linking up with the army that had marched down from Canada under Lieutenant General John Burgoyne, which was surrounded and forced to surrender at Saratoga on October 17. Although Major General Horatio Gates claimed the credit, his predecessor Major General Phillip Schuyler’s scorched earth policy had given him the time to recruit militia, Washington had sent enough Continentals (American regulars) to give Gates the core of an army, and Brigadier General Benedict Arnold had actually won the battles. The British surrender at Saratoga convinced France to ally with the Americans, which transformed the war.


Valley Forge

Soldiers freezing at Valley Forge is one of the iconic symbols of the American Revolution, so there is a brief scene of men freezing to death in Valley Forge.

Since the show focuses on spies, it ignores the soldiers who did the actual fighting, even though a pivotal change was taking place in the Continental Army that winter. Frederick William Augustus Henry Ferdinand, Baron von Steuben, a former Prussian captain and current soldier of fortune, had arrived in February and began teaching the troops how to drill. Most of the men at Valley Forge were veterans of numerous battlefields and had experienced firsthand the devastating power of the British massed volleys, therefore they embraced Steuben’s instruction. Steuben was not a patient man so his first English words were all swear words but that simply endeared him to the hard-bitten veterans. Within a few weeks he had trained enough drill instructors to oversee the training of the army as a whole. None of that appears in this season.

To be fair, there is a brief scene, basically a snippet of a scene of an officer with an accent drilling soldiers, but Steuben’s name was not mentioned, I had to check IMDB to find out. Thanks to IMDB, I learned that Horatio Gates appears somewhere as well, but is also not introduced. These historical tidbits are like Easter eggs, but hidden so well that one would imagine that the writers do not want the viewers to find them.


It’s an extravaganza.

General Clinton has arrived and appears to be in command of the British army but there is no mention that he has replaced General Howe or the massive effort devoted to the preparation of an extravaganza to honor the departing Howe, rather than attack Washington at Valley Forge. Once again, I only know it is Clinton because I checked IMDB. Is he supposed to be mysterious, like the Smoking Man on X-Files, or is it just crappy writing? Why do I even bother asking these questions? Of course it is crappy writing.

After the French alliance with the rebels becomes official, Andre informs his lover Peggy that General Gates fears that the French will put their navy between Philadelphia and New York, cutting off Philadelphia. Aside from the fact that Gates was an American general, the victor of Saratoga, it would be pretty difficult for the French navy to do that. Philadelphia was abandoned because the alliance transformed a local rebellion into a global war. Instead of receiving additional reinforcements, more than ten thousand men were taken from Clinton’s army to attack French possessions in the Caribbean and to guard British-controlled islands, leaving him with too few men to defend both New York City and Philadelphia. And, just to repeat, apparently no one in the show noticed that they confused the name of the commander of the British army with the name of an American general.

Benedict Arnold

Poor Benedict Arnold.

His name has become a byword for traitor in the United States, but at least the real man sold out his country for the wealth necessary to impress the beautiful young wife that he loved. Now it turns out that she actually loved John Andre, and only married Arnold to recruit him as British agent. Displaying a heart-warming devotion to her man, Peggy was willing to go to New York with her lover, even though she would become a social outcast. However, Andre’s ambition overrides his common sense when he learns that General Benedict Arnold (Owain Yeoman) has been appointed military governor, so he convinces Peggy to remain in Philadelphia and befriend Arnold in order to help Andre turn him, believing that Arnold is furious that Gates took the credit for the defeat of Burgoyne, which will gain Andre sufficient influence to gain permission to marry Peggy. She clearly loves him because that is an idiotic plan.

The bold nature that made Arnold a formidable general is transferred to his courtship of Peggy Shippen. After saving the Shippens from an angry Patriot mob, Arnold then meets her formally in the garden, where he steals a quick kiss before proposing marriage to the stunned Peggy, who had expected to string out the courtship over months.


The Skirmish of Monmouth

General Charles Lee strokes Washington’s ego to convince him to agree to an attack on the rear guard while the British army is strung out during the retreat to New York, unaware that he has fallen into Andre’s cunning trap. The weak rearguard was bait to lure the American army into the open where it could be crushed, thus breaking the rebels’ spirits and hopefully convincing the French to reconsider their alliance. The trap is sprung and Lee leisurely leads a retreat, no doubt thinking of the small fortune waiting for him, when Washington suddenly appears with the main army, calls Lee a damned poltroon (a fancy word for coward), and organizes a counterattack that forces the British to retreat. Washington had known that Lee was a traitor but wanted the opportunity to court-martial him for incompetence rather than as a traitor.

Almost everything is made up, although it is true that the British army presented a juicy target as it crawled with its massive baggage train from Philadelphia to New York. Ordered to lead the initial attack against the British rear guard at Monmouth Court House on June 28, the real Lee’s failure to communicate with his commanders or even explain his plan caused a retreat that almost became a rout. Actually, Lee had not wanted to attack the British because he had only been released from British captivity two months earlier and still believed that Continentals could simply not stand up to British regulars. Therefore, he wanted to isolate the British rear guard and crush it before reinforcements could arrive and provoke the full-scale battle that Washington wanted but Lee believed the rebels would lose. Washington stopped the retreat and organized a proper defence, so the day ended with the British retreating, thus proving that the rebels could stand up to the British.
While the show portrays Lee as actively conspiring with the British to destroy the rebel army, it seems more likely that the real Lee was merely timid, since he had been a British prisoner for a couple of years and had not seen that the American army had evolved into a more professional force.

At this point, I have to pause to wonder why the producers decided to make a historical show other than to film people plotting and struggling with conflicted romantic entanglements while wearing fancy clothes. While little is known about the period of the Vikings, honestly, a lot is known about the American Revolution, but the producers do not seem very interested in the actual history.