tv review

The Plot Against America Is a Devastating, Relevant Alt-History Drama

John Turturro as the rabbi speaking out for Charles Lindbergh in The Plot Against America. Photo: Michele K. Short/HBO

“Dad, isn’t this your homeland?”

That question comes from 10-year-old Phillip Levin during an early scene in episode one of HBO’s six-part The Plot Against America. Prior to sitting down to Shabbat dinner with his family, Phillip watches his father give some money to a Hassidic Jewish man who knocks on the door and asks for contributions to the “Jewish homeland in Palestine.” Phillip’s cousin, Alvin, explains that the money will help Jews in Europe who are looking to settle somewhere while “running from Hitler.”

Still a little confused, Phillip asks his father again: “We don’t need another homeland, right?”

“No,” says Herman, Phillip’s dad. He is certain. Phillip looks relieved.

If you’ve read Philip Roth’s novel of the same name, or even if you’re familiar with the premise of this limited series based on that novel, you already know that this reassurance doubles as a moment of ironic foreshadowing. In June of 1940, when the first episode of the superb The Plot Against America takes place, through 1942, when the last episode ends, America goes through a transformation that makes the members of the Levin family and other Jews across the country feel like the United States isn’t their homeland anymore at all.

In this alternate history of events, Charles Lindbergh — depicted here as not only a famed pilot, as he was in real life, but also a populist presidential candidate — gets elected to the nation’s highest office, boosted by his promise that U.S. forces will stay out of World War II. In the process, Lindbergh uncorks pent-up anti-Semitism and racism that had once been bottled. “These assholes, they’ve always been here,” notes Herman’s brother, Monty (David Krumholtz), of Lindbergh’s unleashed extremist supporters. “Now they have permission to crawl out from under their rocks.”

If that sentence sounds like something you’ve said, verbatim, at least once since 2016, that’s part of the point. As adapted by HBO regular David Simon and Ed Burns, who previously worked together on The Wire, The Plot Against America inevitably strikes notes in its fictional, reimagined, 80-year-old world that resonate with what’s happening in the actual one right now. Lindbergh’s rise to power and heavy tilt toward fascism — at one point while president, he holds a state dinner in honor of German foreign minister Herr Von Ribbentrop, complete with Nazi and American flags hanging side-by-side — evolves slowly, and then all of a sudden. Some Americans are very supportive of the perceived American hero while others, like Herman (Morgan Spector) and his wife Bess (Zoe Kazan), are suspicious from the start. In 2020, we don’t exist in the same timeline as the show — for starters, the things that happen in ours are often about 85 times dumber — but there are enough parallels to drive home the idea that “it can’t happen here,” as Sinclair Lewis’s political novel states and as the series also notes, is just a lie we like to tell ourselves.

To their credit, Simon and Burns, each of whom either wrote or co-wrote every episode, never get too heavy-handed in their attempts to make connections between the story they are telling and the Trump era. They commit to the narrative originated in the 2004 book and, with some key divergences, especially in the finale, stick to its broad strokes.

Episode one, which debuts tonight, takes its time to introduce the characters in what could, at first, be mistaken for a period piece kitchen sink drama. That time is necessary to establish what normalcy looks like for the Levins and how jarring it will be when that rapidly begins to crumble.

Herman is an insurance salesman for MetLife and a diehard supporter of Franklin Delano Roosevelt who regularly shouts his approval at the radio while listening to famous host Walter Winchell. He is extremely vocal about his views. His wife Bess is much more quiet but also more practical. She doesn’t rant like Herman, but she understands the real-life implications of what’s happening much more quickly than Herman.

The election of Lindbergh impacts every member of the extended Levin family, including Herman’s ne’er-do-well nephew Alvin (Anthony Boyle), who’s frustrated by the lack of U.S. involvement in World War II; Sandy (Caleb Malis), the Levins’ teenage artist son who becomes increasingly fascinated with Lindbergh; and Evelyn (Winona Ryder), the politically naive sister of Bess who enters into a relationship with an older rabbi, Lionel Bengelsdorf (John Turturro), an ally of the Lindbergh administration.

Then there’s Phillip (Azhy Robertson, who played Henry in Marriage Story), the stamp-collecting innocent who observes the conflict erupting around him with wide, only partially comprehending eyes. Robertson gives such an open performance, and puts Phillip’s eventual anxiety on such full display, that you can practically see his trauma settling in and starting to harden into eventual PTSD.

Given the names that have been dropped, it may be redundant to say that the cast of The Plot Against America does committed, convincing work across the board, but they do. All of the performances are worth highlighting but for the sake of brevity, I’ll note two standouts: Kazan, who brings a sturdiness and sense of dimension to Bess that establishes her as the backbone of the family, and Boyle, who co-starred in the original production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and pops off the screen in the role of Alvin. As the mischievous fast-talker, Boyle enters every scene like he’s bringing an entire life force with him, which makes it that much more heartbreaking in later episodes, when circumstances leech that life out of him.

Minkie Spiro and Thomas Schlamme divvy up the directing duties, with Spiro handling the first three episodes and Schlamme handling the last three. Both do an exceptional job of capturing the period, along with the production and costume designers, with a sense of understatement and grace. Spiro and Schlamme also use light, such a central part of the Jewish tradition, as a running motif and a commentary on contrasts. In the first episode, the camera zeroes in on Bess as the candles she lights for shabbat dinner illuminate her face; the final shot of the same episode captures Sandy bathed in the glow from a flashlight as he sketches an image of Charles Lindbergh while hiding under his bedsheets. In episode four, the best of the series, headlights wash over Phillip’s face in a moment of horror and grief while, a few moments later, Evelyn is blinded by a spotlight as cameras film her dancing at that aforementioned state dinner with that Nazi foreign minister, a moment of horror of another kind.

As it follows the paths of each character, The Plot Against America demonstrates that politics is personal and can have life-changing effects on relationships and people’s futures. It’s a cautionary tale on many different levels, but one of the most elemental messages it sends is that nostalgia can be dangerous. Lindbergh, who became a beloved American celebrity because of his transatlantic flying skills and the tragic kidnapping and murder of his infant son, campaigns based on a reputation he established in the past, as well as an America First mindset that encourages the country to go backward rather than move forward. Every sketch that Sandy draws and every stamp that Phillip pastes into his book represents a desire to hold onto an image of history, to freeze a moment from the past for the sake of posterity. Even the color palette of The Plot Against America, filtered in sepia tones evocative of an old photograph, is at odds with the brutal, devastating things depicted through that lens. It’s yet another reminder in this excellent series that the way we see things and the way they actually are do not always line up, and when they don’t, it can be incredibly dangerous.

The Plot Against America Is a Devastating Alt-History Drama