The Plot Against America
The second half of part three of The Plot Against America re-creates one of the most memorable, pointed sections from the novel: the family trip to Washington, D.C., in which Philip, Sandy, Bess, and especially Herman experience America’s Lindberghian anti-Semitic landscape firsthand. When they drive into the city, Bess and Herman are already on edge because they can’t find their hotel, which prompts a beat cop to bark at them about holding up traffic. With his parents flustered, Sandy tells the cop the name of their hotel, and he offers to show them the way. Herman thinks they’re getting the royal treatment, but Bess bursts into tears because neither of them know where they’re being taken. Herman assures her it’s just to the hotel. It doesn’t matter. Paranoia has found purchase in the heart of the nation’s Jews.
Both Roth in the novel and episode writer Ed Burns propose that the paranoia isn’t at all unfounded. As much as Rabbi Bengelsdorf doth protest, Lindbergh’s Nazi-sympathizing, anti-Semitic bona fides are fully on display, and, worse, he’s given tacit permission to the nation’s bigots to start terrorizing the country. Herman and Shepsie spend one afternoon washing gravestones defaced with Swastikas and profane graffiti. The Irish cops of Newark have no incentive to protect the Jewish community. Meanwhile, Philip has been having “fight or flight” nightmares of Hitler’s mustachioed visage and swastikas covering his beloved stamp collection, and Bess has taken cues from the rest of the neighborhood and devised a makeshift backup plan for the family to flee to Canada in case things get worse. Amid all of this low-boil unrest, Lindbergh not only publicly praised Hitler for being “the world’s greatest safeguard against the spread of Communism and its evils,” but also smiled and shook hands with the man like he was any other leader. America might publicly profess neutrality, but privately she’s in bed with fascists.
Yet all of that anxiety still resides in a semi-abstract space when compared to a stranger looking Herman in the eye and calling him “a loud-mouthed Jew.” While the Levin family tours the Lincoln Memorial with their tour guide, Mr. Taylor (Michael Cerveris), Herman starts spouting off about how America would rather have an airmail pilot as a leader instead of a great man like Roosevelt. Bess cautions him to quiet down because they don’t know where Mr. Taylor’s sympathies lie, but it’s not him the Levins have to worry about. It’s the rest of Washington, D.C., that looks at the Levins like interlopers, from strangers at the Memorial, who don’t take kindly to disparaging words about their president, to the owners of the Douglas Hotel on K Street, who would rather forgo the Levins’ deposit than let a Jewish family stay in their establishment for one more night.
It’s May 1941, and America’s love of Lindbergh’s brand of xenophobic populism has swept the nation, even so far as to infect the Levin family. Part three partly examines the personal dimension of ideology, how it mixes in with other quotidian human emotions like lust, fear, and rebellious angst. For Evelyn, her support of Lindbergh is wrapped up in her new relationship with Bengelsdorf, who gets off on his proximity to the president and how it inevitably forces avowed anti-Semites like Henry Ford to be polite to him. It’s a power trip for both of them, but especially for Evelyn, who feared being an old maid and will now soon marry a rabbi, hopefully before her mother, muddling through the late stages of dementia, passes. It’s why she pushes Sandy to sign up for the Just Folks program, a project spearheaded by Bengelsdorf that ostensibly sends city folk to experience rural life for a summer but actually seeks to assimilate urban Jewish kids into the mainstream Gentile fold. Herman balks at the idea because he views it as a Nazi-like effort to turn Jewish children against their parents. This only confirms Sandy’s worst suspicions about his father: He’s a narrow-minded man afraid of his own shadow who’s forcing his children to take up the mantle of his innate distrust toward the world.
Part three is at its best whenever Burns and director Minkie Spiro illustrate the nature of that distrust. It manifests in overt ways when the Levins are in Washington, but it courses through the safety of their Newark environment as well. All the Jewish kids in the Weequahic neighborhood are having nightmares similar to Philip’s just because they’ve been exposed to the fears of their parents. (“The kids, they miss nothing. But are we wrong to feel this way? Are they?” Philip’s doctor casually says to Bess.) Herman seethes at Lindbergh every day, barely keeping his rage in check while he’s out in public. Bess looks over her shoulder on her way to the Canadian consulate in New York. Before Lindbergh, the Levins were primarily considered Americans to the rest of the country, or at least it felt that way to them. Now, they’re an Other.
When pushed to explain his Jewish identity to his new paramour, Alvin says that he’s “a Jew because [he] was born a Jew and this whole fuckin’ world wishes [he] wasn’t.” It’s the most potent description of how personal identity becomes important as soon as the world only sees you through that lens. Alvin doesn’t believe in God and wasn’t brought up Orthodox, and yet the mere idea that people would think he’s less than them because of his father or grandfather disgusts him so much that he’s willing to risk his life abroad. The same impulse animates Herman’s refusal to leave America in spite of all evidence that it’s soon to be submerged in widespread hate. “Jew-haters want a country? They got plenty to choose from. This one they’re not getting,” he sneers.
But Herman’s unwavering belief in the United States sometimes ends up blinding him to new realities. It’s infuriating in all the obvious ways when the clerk at the Douglas Hotel assures Herman that he won’t be charged for a “missing bar of soap” in the room because he wouldn’t “haggle about something so small.” Such charged language indicates exactly why the Levin family has been ousted, but there’s just enough plausible deniability for the hotel not to be accused of discrimination. What’s more heartbreaking, however, is Herman waiting for the cops to arrive because he wants to believe they’ll see the injustice. When the cops inevitably defend the hotel, Herman tries to plead with them to see the obvious prejudice (“It’s because we’re Jewish. That’s what this is about.”), but they respond with knowing indifference. Morgan Spector’s face speaks volumes in this scene — you can almost see the trust in man and country evaporate in his eyes, only hours after he gazed upon Abraham Lincoln.
The next day, however, Herman’s stubborn righteousness not just protects Herman and his family but also gives him a new, misguided sense of optimism. While eating at a diner, a burly anti-Semite intimidates Herman after overhearing him discuss Walter Winchell, but he’s quickly subdued by the restaurant staff and Mr. Taylor. Sandy and Philip shrink in fear and Bess wants to leave, but Herman refuses to walk out and insists that everyone eat their meals and have a good time. Spiro infuses the scene with inborn tension: The sounds of the room become ominous, and nervous looks from other patrons surround the Levins, especially after the bully in question loudly talks about how “the Jews will find out soon enough.” But it’s Herman’s unwavering certainty that he and his family belong that cuts through it like a knife. After learning that Mr. Taylor taught at Wabash College, Herman bursts into “On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away,” an old 19th-century standard, which eventually draws positive attention from the entire diner. When he’s finished, the room bursts into applause, further embarrassing the anti-Semite, and briefly restores normalcy to the Levin family.
Herman sees the admiration he gained from the diners and the assistance from Mr. Taylor as proof that Lindbergh’s influence might not hold sway over the entire country, that there’s still hope for Roosevelt’s vision of the country. It’s why he decides to let Sandy spend the summer in Kentucky as part of the Just Folks program: His son has to see the world for himself, even the bad parts of it, and decide for himself what he believes. In a way, Alvin did the same thing, and it ended up costing him dearly. What will it cost Sandy?
Other Stars & Stripes
• An interesting tidbit we learn this week: Herman voted for Eugene Debs in the past and objects to money “mattering above all else.”
• Michael Cerveris nails his minor role as Mr. Taylor, who tries to deescalate every unsafe situation but never fails to provide the Levins with the utmost respect. It’s genuinely moving when Herman thanks him for the tour and Taylor tells him he was honored.
• The blatant dishonesty of the Just Folks program laid bare, courtesy of Herman: “So, this isn’t about making Jews less Jewish? It’s just about introducing city kids to the wonders of real American life. I’ll tell you what, Evelyn? Let’s make a deal. When the Just Folks program sends the first Negro child from Newark to summer with a white farm family, I’ll let Sandy go to Kentucky.”