The Plot Against America
In the novel The Plot Against America, Philip Roth paints a portrait of an America gripped by Fascism, its citizens enthralled by an aviation hero who validates the country’s worst prejudices by disguising them with nationalist rhetoric and loaded antiwar messaging. But Roth, a student of history as well as literature, properly characterizes this period as a slow process of normalization, one in which average Americans, those who believe they’re tolerant, fair-minded people who would never fall prey to the whims of a madman, slowly get used to the idea. Life trudges on even as the country changes, and for most people, it barely registers. However, for those most affected by the regime changes, the sociopolitical machinations of the world slyly invade their homes, bit by little bit, until, despite everyone’s best efforts to maintain normalcy, they can no longer be ignored.
In “Part 2,” writers David Simon and Ed Burns, alongside director Minkie Spiro, depict this slow build of anxiety through near-constant talk within the Levin home. It’s October 1940, and Charles Lindbergh will win the presidency in a month’s time, but Roosevelt partisans like Herman still hold on to hope that decency will prevail. Much of the episode takes place in the Levin living room, where the men sit and discuss the news of the day, only the conversation isn’t polite. Speech fills the house, takes up space, and lingers even if the camera leaves the room.
At one point, Herman and his brother Monty (David Krumholtz) hear bad news coming out of Europe on the radio and raise the possibility that Lindbergh might win in front of Bess. Bess walks outside to watch Sandy play in the street while the conversation continues in the house, shifting from Roosevelt to the location of Dakar, which the Allies unsuccessfully tried to capture. Bess walks back into the house, and Herman already has the encyclopedia open to learn about the Senegal capital. When Bess stands on the porch, it’s still possible to hear Herman and Monty talk, but it’s low in the mix and overpowered by the natural sounds of Weequahic. Yet it doesn’t matter. The point isn’t to follow the conversation from point A to point B; it’s to create the feeling of walking through a conversation that continues with or without you. When destabilizing events like WWII or Lindbergh’s impending election occur right outside your door, it eventually finds purchase in the living room.
Scenes like this repeat throughout “Part 2.” Later, when Philip nervously packs a bag in his room in case America gets bombed by the Germans, we can still hear sounds of Herman’s rants coming from downstairs. Alvin’s voice raises two decibels whenever he discusses Lindbergh or his new boss — Abe Steinheim (Ned Eisenberg), a rich gonif who doesn’t care about Fascism because his money buys him into the protected world of the goyim. It’s Bess who futilely attempts to maintain the peace within the home. Whenever she enters the living room, the men sheepishly quiet down, knowing that they’re upsetting her and possibly the children. In one scene, Spiro creates tension by having Bess chastise the men for talking politics, only to leave the room for the kitchen and then come back moments later with a vengeance when the men resume their loud argument. The camera stays with her as she moves through their space, but the voices dominate it more than she does. It’s only when Bess asserts herself that she regains control.
“Part 2” works as the series’ first showcase for Zoe Kazan, who plays up all aspects of Bess this week: the doting mother, the headstrong worker, the shrewd intellectual, the disapproving sister, and the desire-hungry wife. She’s one person to her children and another person alone with Herman, who’s turned on by his wife’s appearance for her job interview at a department store, and yet she’s another person out in the world among the folks who proudly wear “Leap for Lindy” buttons on their lapels. Roth has a history of portraying mothers in a cheeky, not so flattering light, but Bess is a notable exception. She upholds domesticity on both shoulders, knowing that if she buckles, Lindbergh’s America will come barging into her lovely home.
Unfortunately, it’s headed in that direction anyway. Lindbergh has infected the Levins quicker than any one of them could have anticipated. Herman stands strong against his Fascistic influence, but he’s unaware of how his family has been changing before his very eyes. Alvin can’t stand sitting idly on the sidelines as he chauffeurs a capitalist caricature around Newark just because he’ll pay for his education, so he flees to Canada to enlist and kill Nazis. Evelyn begins a burgeoning romantic relationship with Lionel Bengelsdorf, the conservative rabbi whose primary job is to “kosher” Lindbergh for the liberal goyim, i.e., quell their fears he’s an anti-Semite and give them permission to vote for him in November. Together, they attend both Lindbergh’s speech at the local airport and, later, a full-throated rally that looks eerily like one a certain mustachioed German dictator would hold, down to the vertical flags. After Bengelsdorf gives his support to Lindbergh, he and the Republican candidate shake hands, sealing the rabbi and Evelyn’s fates as a collaborator. Meanwhile, Herman and Alvin listen at home and fume.
The most troubling development involves Sandy, whose boyhood hero worship of Lindbergh combined with his proto-rebellious streak make him a perfect target for Fascist intervention. He bursts out of bed the morning of Lindbergh’s speech at Newark Airport, and gets there just in the nick of time to hear his 41-word speech. He briefly talks back to his father about the importance of staying out of the war, and rolls his eyes when he talks disparagingly about Lindbergh. He’s still sketching Lindbergh in private. “Who do you think is gonna fall for this stupid barnstorming stunt?” Herman sneers when he and his two boys watch the newsreel footage at the theater, blissfully unaware that one of his sons has already been hooked.
Then there’s Philip, whose slow introduction to the dangers of the world continues unabated. He gets another lesson in minor, creepy delinquency from Earl Axman, who schools him in the way of stealing coins from his parents and following strangers from Newark to other areas of New Jersey. He even parrots Earl’s received wisdom, e.g., poor kids play in the streets while rich kids play in their backyards. But that’s nothing compared to his terrified face when he watches footage of the Germans bombing London, a “new kind of war” different from the kind where soldiers shoot at each other from a safe distance. Philip still has the ability to quell the tension in the house by pleading with his parents to perform George Burns–Gracie Allen routines for the family, but that time will eventually come to an end. Those types of distractions can’t hold sway when Jews are in peril. There’s a new president in office, and, despite the good rabbi’s assurances, he’s coming for you.
Other Stars & Stripes
• There’s a few other early-’40s pop-culture references this week. When Evelyn presents Bess with a bold red lipstick for her job interview, she says that if it’s “good enough for [actress] Barbara Stanwyck, it’s good enough for Elizabeth Finkel Levin.” It’s Stanwyck’s favorite shade, according to Louella Parsons, an influential Hollywood gossip columnist of the era. Later, Alvin informs Herman that Hank Greenberg — first baseman for the Detroit Tigers and one of the most popular Jewish baseball players — “has an RBI double, so that’s one for the Hebrews regardless.”
• Those who have read Roth’s novel already know the role Seldon (played by Jacob Laval, featured in John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch) will later play. But for now, he’s just a sad, shy boy who only wants to play chess with Philip, who can’t wait to get rid of him.
• The episode closes with Frank Sinatra’s cover of “I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance With You.” In The Plot Against America’s timeline, Sinatra has already left the Tommy Dorsey band and struck it big with bobby-soxers as a solo act by October 1940.