With all due respect to Mary Woodhull, the plain Tory wife of Turn’s Long Island cabbage farmer – and patriot spy – audiences have spent the show’s first seven episodes wondering, “Why did Abe marry her?” She’s not Abe’s type at all, and her main character trait so far has been to express disapproval and disappointment. Abe clearly was meant for Anna Strong, the brave and buxom patriot he was secretly engaged to before Mary, and the short answer to the question has always been that Abe was simply a loyal son and brother. Mary had been arranged to marry Abe’s older brother, Thomas, before his untimely death, and Abe filled his dead brother’s shoes to honor his family’s commitment.
A noble gesture, for sure, but one that never quite added up. Why would Abe, the clear black sheep of his family, give up a future with Anna to please a father who he never saw eye to eye with anyways? Abe married Mary, and soon had a son named Thomas. Anna married a wealthy patriot named Selah Strong, an especially unlucky choice once Selah was sent to a notorious British prison ship in New York harbor. But tonight, Abe explained why he chose the path he did. And it was worth the wait.
Anna and Abe are in New York to pick up Selah, whose parole has finally been granted. You might think that Anna’s heart and mind would be on her slightly brighter future, but she decides it’s the ideal time to corner Abe about why he broke his promise to her and what might’ve been had they married. “The truth is some things just aren’t meant to be,” Abe says, frustrating Anna and the audience.
While Abe conducts business in town, Anna heads to the prison ship Jersey to collect Selah. Little does she know that Selah is about to be passed off as the dead Samuel Tallmadge at a prisoner exchange in New Jersey, part of Robert Rogers’ plot to draw Ben out into the open so he can exact revenge on the Connecticut Dragoon. The Jersey’s captain lies and tells Anna that Selah is dead.
Abe shares the news with Anna that he’s been invited to John André’s Dionysian stag party, and she insists on attending to exact some retribution from the British occupiers who’ve cost her everything – first her property and now her husband. When Abe refuses to bring her along, she finds another way in, masquerading as one of the party’s harem of escorts. She seduces a war profiteer and invites him to follow her upstairs, where she pages through André’s code-book while she waits. But it’s Abe who bursts through the door, angry with her for risking so much – and perhaps jealous as well. He kisses hers, which only makes Anna furious – day late and a dollar short, cabbage boy. “If you’d married me, none of this would’ve happened,” she spits at him. “You’re a coward!”
Anna’s British admirer walks in on the couple, and bitterly disappointed to find Abe there first, he complains to Abe’s patron and demands that he leave the party in shame. But not before he answer the question that the drunken officers posed in between puking in buckets and pissing in the fireplace: Who would you kill if you knew you could get away with it? “The man who killed my brother,” Abe answers. Thomas was killed trying to suppress the liberty-pole riot at King’s College (a.k.a. Columbia) in 1773 (though the history books date it as 1770). Abe was studying law there at the time, and the pole had long been a lightning rod for patriot protest for several years. One night, Abe says, some drunk put a Phrygian cap atop the pole, and Thomas’s unit of the King’s militia moved in to establish some order. One or more persons stabbed and stampeded him, but that’s not who Abe wants to kill. “I want the coward who put the hat on the pole,” he says.
The key word is coward, and Anna immediately makes the connection. Abe is the drunken fool who hanged the symbolic cap on top of the liberty pole, Abe is the instigator who sparked the riots, Abe is the man he holds responsible for his brother’s death, Abe is the man he wishes were dead. Suddenly, Abe’s decision to marry Mary makes a little more sense. The guilt that Abe felt – and still feels – must’ve crushed any rights Abe thought he had for his own personal happiness. His only hope for redemption was filling his brother’s shoes.
Anna finally understands, and though the decision caused her such heartbreak, maybe she loves Abe a little for making it, in light of what she now knows. They share a steamy night together, and no one watching cares that Selah is alive (barely) with Caleb and Ben, or that Mary is probably throwing silverware angrily around the kitchen. (I’m actually hoping that when Anna and Abe return to Setauket, there’s a note on the Woodhull door saying that Mary and Mr. Baker have run off to Nova Scotia together. They can take baby Thomas too.) More likely, unfortunately, this was a one-time thing for Anna and Abe. Domestic normalcy awaits him, and Anna has a shock on the horizon – but they’ll always have New York.