Watching The Plot Against America is an utterly harrowing experience. It is not for the faint of heart, no matter what your beliefs or political affiliations are. The Plot Against America, dare I say, is as close to horror as an alternate history drama is allowed to be without intruding into the genre. Even as the final credits of the HBO miniseries began scrolling, with the sounds of sombre violins playing in the background, I found no reprieve. No resolution. Merely pure unadulterated terror, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Recently, HBO has produced some top-notched limited miniseries. Their most ambitious endeavour of recent memory being a trailblazing adaptation (and sequel) of Alan Moore’s Watchmen which further solidified the premium television network’s prestige. And just when I thought the bar was set, HBO comes out of nowhere and obliterates it with a stunning and faithful adaptation of Phillip Roth’s The Plot Against America.
Much like Roth’s novel, the series follows a family of Jewish Americans living in Newark, New Jersey in the 1940s. Around this time, Nazi Germany has risen. Hitler has begun laying the foundation of his war with Europe, and the Final Solution for the Jewish people. Sounds a lot like what happened in our time, right? There’s just one small difference though. In our world, Franklin D. Rosevelt (FDR) won a second term as president and joined the Allies in World War II. In Roth’s fictional world, a Nazi sympathizer and famed pilot, Charles Lindbergh wins the election and decides not to go to war with Germany. America is spared the agony of global war. The price of peace, however, is a terrible one to pay and the Land of the Free is now at risk of becoming a fascist state.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen shows tackle the idea of alternate outcomes of World War II and how it affects history. Amazon’s Man in the High Castle is a web series centred around an America invaded by the Axis Powers with the continent divided between the Nazis and Japanese imperialists. Where High Castle and The Plot Against America differs is in its depiction of fascism and hatred. High Castle is far too loud and simplistic. The show is very clear when it comes to its dichotomy of its “bad guy” invaders and “good guy” American freedom fighters struggling to take back their nation. Any historical novelty of a hypothetical Axis-dominated America and its real-world implications are quickly overshadowed by the show’s need to set up a cathartic and cliche resistance subplot. Eventually, it becomes painfully obvious as to the direction the series is heading towards. Viva revolution!
Not here though, you don’t get your loud, dumb catharsis. No, you get to sit there every Tuesday night watching this ordinary working-class family squirm and suffer under the boot of a Nazi-friendly America. It starts with simple things like the media taking a soft stance on the war in Europe. Then, you see political tokenism as President Lindbergh employs a rich, upper-middle-class rabbi to keep the Jews in line. It soon leads to the US government using more insidious means like forced integration and forced relocation of Jews into “more American” parts of the land. There in the heartland of the Mid-West, you see a people divided, marginalized and suppressed. First with words, then with policies and finally with physical violence.
The Plot Against America’s vision of a fascist United States is one that feels both profoundly relevant and frighteningly prescient. It took risk and restraint to avoid going the Hunger Games route with cheap platitudes of revolution and big, action set-pieces with firefights between noble rebels and evil empires. The truth of the matter is history isn’t a storybook for children. Sometimes, you don’t get a pleasant resolution to an ugly atrocity. Sometimes, change comes slowly, if it ever comes at all. Those in power who take seemingly benevolent steps to better the world don’t always do it out of the kindness of their hearts. Rather out of cold calculus and cynical self-interest. Similarly, the worst crimes against humanity can come from good intentions or noble dreams.
What truly amplifies the terror of the show’s portrayal of ethnic persecution are the stellar performances on display. Most of the events of the series are squarely fixed on the plight of the Levin clan. Morgan Spector as the familial patriarch, Herman Levin marks a defining moment for the actor’s career. Spector’s Herman is a man thoroughly acquainted with the tribulations of the past and increasingly anxious of the future ones to come. This tension is so dynamic because of the multiple expression erupted from it. One moment he’s a bitter, entitled man who lashes out at those around him who do not share his concerns. The next, he’s a loving husband and father who desperately fears for his family’s safety.
This sort of complexity is extended to the rest of the Levins as well. Zoe Kazan brings s quiet strength and painful sincerity to Herman’s wife, Elizabeth “Bess” Levin. Often the voice of reason, if not the voice of God (the writers’) at times. Stranger Thing’s Winona Ryder does a wonderful job as Bess’ naive and envious sister Evelyn. Evelyn’s lack of self-esteem and resentment makes it a challenge to tell when her character is fully aware of her involvement in Lindbergh’s policies. This grey area between ignorant enablement and political opportunism is very deliberate and incredibly intricate. A strong testament to Ryder’s depth as a performer. The true standout here though is John Turturro as Evelyn’s lover and leader, Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf.
It’s been a long time since I’ve hated a fictional character as strongly as I have Turturro’s Bengelsdorf. The rabbi is the textbook picture of an ethnic token in elite conservative circles. Watching him revel in the prestige of Koshering Lindbergh’s questionable decisions was sheer agony. So you can imagine the satisfaction of seeing his face when he realizes that he is not in control. He is but an ornamental “Uncle Tom”. The perfect encapsulation of tokenism.
The production quality here is laudable. From the noisy cul de sacs of cramped apartments bustling with domestic drama to the rowdy raucous of late-night dives, every set in The Plot Against America is engineered for immersion and atmosphere. The soundtrack is beyond reproach with time appropriate tunes lifted from the era and its ominous score beating in the background. The series’ most striking musical feature is its opening credits.
Its opening theme song, 1933’s “The Road Is Open Again” was a cheery anthem used to promote FDR’s presidency and the hope that comes with it. The show reappropriates the song to play in its opening as black-and-white clips of life in the 1940s get progressively more disturbing. It all ends with something wholly alien and unfamiliar to anything you may recognize. A fitting preface for the alienation and oppression that is to be visited on the Levin family and their people.
In an era dominated with big-name blockbuster TV shows like Narcos, Game of Thrones and Westworld, it’s easy for a show like The Plot Against America to slip under your radar. I pray it doesn’t miss you for The Plot Against America is by far one of the most thoughtful, well-developed pieces of political fiction available on television right now. Within its relatively short six-episode run, the show delivers a chilling and gripping narrative of the death of democracy. One that feels as starkly relevant as it is hauntingly prophetic.
You can catch The Plot Against America on HBO on selected times or watch it anytime on Astro Go / HBO Go.
The Plot Against America (2020)
The Plot Against America is by far one of the most thoughtful, well-developed pieces of political fiction available on television right now. One that feels as starkly relevant as it is hauntingly prophetic.