Abraham Woodhull is the American’s lone productive spy in 1777 New York, but did we see a glimpse of his bloody fate? In the episode’s opening moments, he meets with an undercover British officer in a tavern teeming with Redcoats. After a quick exchange of passwords, Abe leaves with a special coded egg, marked with the intentions of the British troops – Philadelphia By Land. But outside, he’s harassed by a hungry British soldier, and in their haggling, the egg breaks, Abe’s ruse is discovered, and he’s shot in the gut. The Brit yells, “Traitor! Traitor! I’ve killed a traitor!” while Abe bleeds to death in the gutter.
This can’t be happening now – but is this somehow foreshadowing something in the future? Or is this just a worst-case scenario of Nathaniel Sackett, the American spymaster (Stephen Root) who later chastises Benjamin Tallmadge for his sloppy – but fortuitous – intelligence operation in Setauket? Or, perhaps, is this what actually awaited Abe in Manhattan if hadn’t been sidetracked by a desperate American patriot on his way to the city – and if newly free Captain Simcoe hadn’t stabbed Sackett’s undercover agent in the neck during dinner at John André’s? Had Abe been scheduled to meet the same American agent clumsily trying to pass himself off to André as a captured British officer?
Simcoe and the American agent were part of a prisoner exchange following the battles of Trenton and Princeton, crucial American victories that kept the rebellion alive in the winter of 1776-77. The released American officers returned in dire condition, drawing a rebuke and a warning from George Washington in a letter to British General Howe. In war, officers are typically treated well by the enemy, but to the British Army in 1777, the concept of “American officers” was ridiculous. They were traitors, nothing more, and often treated as such. Then again, the Americans essentially tortured Captain Simcoe, so…
When we first met Washington last week, he asked Ben about Abe, an almost omniscient question since Ben had never included his source’s name on the intelligence he had stuffed in General Scott’s letter. There’s an aura of power and intrigue that surrounds Washington, no more so than when he answers an excellent question with the smiling non-answer, “Excellent question.”
The Culper ring’s Trenton intelligence was a fluke, but it’s a fluke that Washington and Sackett are interested in trying to replicate, especially since New York, the base of all British military activity, is completely dark to patriot eyes and ears. Will Howe strike north, cutting the colonies in two by separating the fervent patriots of New England who started it all from the rest of the country? Or will he strike south, towards Philadelphia, the colonies’ most populated city? Washington needs to know.
In New York, André is hosting a quiet dinner for the five returned British officers, including Simcoe. The charming intelligence chief teaches his new free-in-name-only servant Abigail how to set the table for proper European eating etiquette – planting a crucial clue that will out the undercover American. Abigail, of course, was Anna Strong’s slave in Setauket, but she and Simcoe don’t acknowledge each other in the two encounters they have at André’s. Is it possible they don’t know each other? Are they both afraid to mention their connection? During his briefing with André, Simcoe expresses his desire to return to Setauket, despite his disdain for Major Hewlett. “There’s someone whom I left, far too abruptly,” he says, clearly referring to Anna.
At dinner, the American agent uses his fork with his left hand, a glaring error – at least for André and the audience. But before André can entrap him and potentially turn him against his American handlers – and perhaps arrange the deadly trap for Abe that we viewed in the episode’s opening scene – Simcoe buries a dagger into his neck at the table, killing him for not knowing his regiment’s motto. His mindless bloodlust enrages André, but what can you expect from such a cold-blooded blunt instrument such as Simcoe?
Abe’s trip to New York, officially to sell hogs to the Redcoats but really to gather intelligence, is sidetracked by a rogue Continental soldier who’s been striking the British from behind enemy lines since the military debacle of New York. He understandably doubts Abe’s patriot bonafides and intends to steal his goods, clothes, and possibly, his identity. Over a campfire, he challenges Abe’s story and his manhood, basically calling him a coward for not joining the fight against the British. “Why didn’t you enlist?” he says. Abe’s response, “Because you can’t win.” His honest answer damns both men: the Continental Army is no match for the British war machine, yet if everyone was as timid and reasonable as Abe, there would have been no revolution at all. British soldiers finally stumble upon their camp, and kill the patriot after he mounts a suicidal charge into their guns. But in the end, did the patriot sacrifice himself and provide Abe an alibi so he can continue his spy operation?
At Washington’s headquarters, the braintrust of Sackett, Ben, and Scott are split on the best course for an intelligence operation. Sackett thinks Ben is simply lucky that he hasn’t gotten all his sources killed already, Scott is a martinet who believes only in the chain of command, and Ben isn’t sure he trusts Washington or Sackett to keep his childhood friends safe. Especially since Washington won’t share his methods for knowing Abe’s identity as Ben’s source. The General decides to take Ben into his confidence, and his secret is wrapped in history. As it turns out, Ben’s college classmate at Yale was Nathan Hale, the American spy who was hanged by the British in New York in September and whose final words were, “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.” Hale had told Washington about Ben’s childhood Setauket friends, including a farmer named Abraham Woodhull, and the General had cleverly made the connection.
So Ben is in. (Scott is out.) And Abe will forever be referred to as Samuel Culpepper. Samuel – a tribute to Ben’s brother, who is currently rotting away on a British prison ship in New York Harbor – and Culpepper because… wait, why Culpepper, General? “Excellent question.”
A few other questions:
Might Abigail be warming to André, who promises to deliver a present to her son in Long Island? Or is she still willing to spy on him for Anna and the ring?
Safe to say that Ben didn’t learn his spycraft at Yale’s Skull and Bones Society? It wasn’t founded until the 19th century, but Ben and his black petticoats were likely not that group’s inspiration.
What are we to make of Jordan, the Strong’s former slave who has feelings for Abigail, who fought his way into the Queen’s Rangers with an impressive demonstration with staves? I was just grateful that the fight scenes allowed for a cameo from Robert Rogers, but that character has yet to prove his purpose.