Told in a vacuum, HBO’s new limited series The Plot Against America, from The Wire creator David Simon and Ed Burns, is top-shelf prestige television. Based on Philip Roth’s acclaimed 2004 novel, the show takes place in an alternate history America in which Franklin D. Roosevelt is defeated in the 1940 election by hero pilot Charles Lindbergh. It follows the Levins, a close-knit Jewish family living in Newark, New Jersey as flagrant anti-Semitism begins to rise in the wake of Lindbergh’s election. It’s a gripping drama with outstanding performances, but I couldn’t stop wondering what the point of it all was. The entire purpose of the narrative device of an alternate history is to challenge and educate your audience with how things might have been, but when virtually every flagrant display of racist nationalism depicted in The Plot Against America is something that has happened in real-life America over the past four years, it’s hard to find the show’s main offer terribly compelling.
First, some background – in 1940, FDR was elected to an unprecedented third term as president (he would ultimately win a fourth term before dying in office in 1945). The divergent point in the series is the Republican National Convention in 1940, when famed pilot Charles Lindbergh is appointed as the Republican nominee instead of businessman Wendell Willkie. Lindbergh was staunchly against America’s involvement in World War II, instead favoring an appeasement policy with Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. In addition to being a hero pilot (he was the first person to complete a solo transatlantic flight, from New York to Paris), Lindbergh was a Eugenicist, a xenophobe, a probable Nazi sympathizer (he received a medal from Hitler’s second-in-command Hermann Göring), and a confirmed anti-Semite. In The Plot Against America, Lindbergh runs on a populist platform of keeping America, still reeling from the Great Depression, out of another devastating global conflict. In a sequence that echoes election night coverage from 2016, state after state is called for Lindbergh, and he defeats FDR in an upset.
Simon knows how to spin interpersonal drama in a way that almost blazes off the screen (he co-wrote the series with Burns and Reena Rexrode), and the characters in The Plot Against America easily carry the slack of its premise. Herman (Morgan Spector), the Levin family patriarch, is a firm and serious man prone to outbursts of rage and disbelief at the injustice brewing in the country after Lindbergh’s election. Spector is electric in the role, bouncing between passionate anger, strength, and dignity as he is forced to face an increasingly hostile America loudly telling him that he and his family are no longer welcome. He’s frequently at odds with his oldest son Sandy (Caleb Malis), who loves and supports Lindbergh and refuses to see the danger in the vitriol of the president’s supporters and the policies of his administration specifically targeting Jews. Similarly, Herman’s wife Bess (Zoe Kazan) wrestles with her sister Evelyn’s (Winona Ryder) enthusiastic role in the Lindbergh White House alongside her husband, Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf (John Turturro), developing “integration” programs designed to break up Jewish communities and remove Jewish families from major cities. Herman’s volatile relationship with his headstrong nephew Alvin (Anthony Boyle) adds to the tension in the home, until Alvin finally decides to defect to Canada and join the war. Meanwhile, the Levins’ youngest son Philip (Azhy Robertson) tries to keep the peace in the family while simultaneously being too young to fully understand the magnitude of the darkness into which the country is spiraling.
As I said, Spector is the show’s absolute standout, but the supporting cast is no less incredible. Ryder delivers an uncharacteristic performance as the kind-hearted but foolish Evelyn, who is so taken in by her respect for Lionel and her sudden good fortune that she cannot see the very real horrors she is helping facilitate, and is deaf to Bess and Herman’s protests. Kazan is gut-wrenching as Bess, struggling to keep her wits about her for the sake of her children but growing more and more fearful of the dystopia threatening to swallow them. In a particularly haunting scene, the Levins are on a family trip to Washington, D.C. when a police officer offers to lead them to their hotel and Bess bursts into terrified tears, pointedly asking a bewildered Herman, “Where is he taking us?” Because for all of Herman’s outrage over Lindbergh’s anti-Semitic government, he still can’t believe that their lives might actually be in danger.
John Turturro is predictably excellent in his role as the drawling Southern rabbi Lionel, who firmly believes that preserving the lives of American Jews by keeping them out of the war is more important than intervening to stop Hitler’s Germany. (It’s important to note that America didn’t learn of the Holocaust until 1942, and that’s in real life. The show spans 1940-1942, and none of the characters ever express any knowledge of the Holocaust.) Turturro is endlessly charismatic but also frustratingly stubborn and myopic, and it was a weird feeling to be so angry at him. I’m pretty sure I’ve never been this mad at a Turturro character before. It was a new experience for me.
At only six episodes, the limited series is like a bullet train of storytelling, and never feels like it’s spinning its wheels. The finale in particular is one of the best episodes of television I’ve ever seen – the amorphous threat brewing over the previous five chapters suddenly coalesces into a powerful noose that begins rapidly tightening over the final 60 minutes. In terms of character drama and pure tension, I am struggling to think of a more effective chunk of TV.
But the series finale also presents the biggest stumbling block. The show’s ultimate resolution to America’s spreading unrest and violence (and, let’s face it, Naziism) is ludicrous to the point of being unforgivable. I’ll avoid specifics to keep from spoiling anything, but the story suddenly pivots into a ridiculous deus ex machina that is made all the more laughable because of the times in which we currently live. I don’t believe The Plot Against America’s climax for a second, because I’ve seen exactly how the right-wing, conspiracy-obsessed punditry currently lording over disinformation in this country would absolutely tear it apart for ammunition to sow an even further push into white nationalism. It’s embarrassing that the series doesn’t come to the same realization. For what it’s worth, the ending is preserved from Roth’s novel, which was a similar point of criticism from some reviewers at the time of its release.
While this story may have been shocking and unthinkable when the book was published in 2004, in 2020 we’re experiencing America’s descent into racist fascism on an everyday basis. We don’t need to imagine what it would be like to live in an America in which the election of a populist nationalist president prompted a spike in hate crimes and xenophobic, anti-Semitic rhetoric, because it’s literally happening right outside my office as I write this. It’s hard to feel new outrage watching Herman scrub graffiti off of vandalized Jewish gravestones, because I’ve seen real people do the same thing in Missouri and Massachusetts and Nebraska, and around the world in France and Germany and Slovakia, within the last year. The Plot Against America has already been executed, and Simon’s warning has come several years too late.