Review: “John Adams” – Episode 3

When we last left John Adams, the Declaration of Independence had been signed, but now that we’re back, it’s time for him to head over to Paris – with his son, John Quincy Adams, in tow – in order to assist Benjamin Franklin in establishing a treaty with France so that they will assist America in its efforts to battle against Great Britain.

John’s initial announcement of his impending departure goes over poorly with Abigail, given that he’s only just returned from an expedition, but as those of us who’ve ever found ourselves as part of a couple can appreciate, her reaction is one which begins with utter infuriation but concludes with concern that he’s packed properly for his trip. The two Johns soon get aboard the ship to head to Paris, and there’s a humorous moment where young John Quincy lies in his hammock and continues to do his lessons while his father pukes his guts out. (Some people just can’t handle the motion of the ocean.) Things quickly get dramatic, however, as the ship encounters a vessel on its way from Great Britain, resulting in a oceanic battle with guns and cannons blazing. Certainly the most profound moment from a character standpoint occurs when Adams ignores the demands of the ship’s captain and joins the battle, but it leads to a disconcerting sequence where one of the hands is struck by a cannonball and requires immediate surgery. Note to self: if I’m ever time-traveling back to the 1700s, avoid any injury that might result in amputation.

Upon their arrival, the Adams boys meet up with Benjamin Franklin, and while John Quincy begins the matter of his further education, his father quickly learns that his erratic temperament has no place in France. Franklin first announces that a tentative treaty between France and America has been signed, thereby making Adams’ sea voyage predominantly unnecessary, but when Franklin discusses the specifics of the treaty, Adams immediately gets out of sorts, demanding more. It’s not an attitude which sits well with the French, and it’s made worse by the fact Adams hasn’t bothered to learn a lick of the language. The audience clearly sympathizes with Franklin in the scenes where he chastises Adams for his poor ambassadorial methods, and it’s even harder to treat Adams as a good guy when he continues to fly off the handle on these matters. Again, Tom Wilkinson’s performance as Franklin is wonderful, interspersing Franklin’s well-documented wit with his knowledge of politics and infuriation at Adams’ refusal to pay him any heed.

Meanwhile, back in the States, Abigail and the daughter who shared her name were busy toiling on the farm to keep things running in John’s absence. The elder Abigail is growing more furious by the day that her husband can’t be bothered to keep in touch by letter, but they’re both following the war between America and the British with a close eye, ever hopeful that it will conclude sooner than later. These scenes between Laura Linney and Madeline Taylor are well done and serve to build the rapport between mother and daughter for the audience.

Things move rather slowly in this episode, even more so than in the courtroom drama of Episode 1. There are, however, progressions with John’s political dealings in Europe as he moves to work with the government of the Netherlands, resulting in a very funny moment when they hesitate to commit to provide financial assistance to the States because they haven’t established much in the way of credit. Giamatti’s performance is consistently strong, and ahe episode concludes on a decidedly ominous note, with poor John battling off an unspecified disease. Still, it’s hardly what you’d call a cliffhanger, given that the guy hasn’t even been elected President yet, let alone Vice President, but since I never knew he’d dealt with a major medical condition, it’s educational at the very least.


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