The ending of HBO’s miniseries The Plot Against America is quite different from the ending Philip Roth created in his novel. In both versions of the story, which imagines an alternate political history of WWII-era America, Charles Lindbergh defeats President Roosevelt in the 1940 election. Lindbergh’s nationalist, anti-Semitic positions drive the United States toward fascism, but in Roth’s book, a combination of fate and national outrage eventually reinstate democratic government and the course of history: Lindbergh’s plane mysteriously disappears without a clear explanation — Roth floats several ideas, ranging from an accidental plane crash to a yearslong Nazi scheme — and the novel ends at the moment FDR is reelected.
In David Simon’s adaptation, the ending is more purposeful and more ambiguous. In the finale, which aired Monday night, Simon and his writing partner Ed Burns rope the young Jewish-American hothead Alvin Levin (Anthony Boyle) into a conspiracy to bring down Lindbergh’s plane, tying him more tightly into the big political mechanisms of the story. But Simon was not comfortable with giving his adaptation the same clean, restorative conclusion Roth ended with. The series ends right before the election results are announced, leaving audiences on the verge of a historic tipping point that never falls one way or another. The finale also adds an element of voter disenfranchisement that was absent from Roth’s novel, making the election results even more unfair and uncertain.
When I talked with Simon about the end of Plot Against America, he was happy to talk about meeting Roth, why he decided to rewrite the book’s ending, and the show’s connection with his own personal family history. But what he most wanted to say, and what he kept returning to, was how much The Plot Against America is meant to be about 2020 and current threats to American democracy. “It’s the only reason to spend the money to film this,” he said.
Before Philip Roth’s death, you spoke with him about changing the ending of his novel. What was it about Roth’s ending that you knew would need to be reworked?
Obviously the big thing that we contended with was, how do you end the journey into alternative history? Where do you end it?
What Roth chose to do was have Lindbergh’s plane taking off from Lexington and disappearing. Bringing the Lindbergh moment to a distinct end, and then having history effectively restored with Roosevelt’s victory, felt a little bit sudden and clean. I think he set it up pretty well in the novel, which is to say there was a lot of discussion early on about [Lindbergh’s] earlier crashes. Then he disappears at one point during his campaign barnstorming. Roth was layering in a certain wariness of early aviation into the novel. You’re willing to accept it. But after people watched six hours of TV, to have Lindbergh disappear was too much of a deus ex machina.
I brought this to Roth in the one meeting I had, to say, “I’m a little bit at sea here with how to make this work at the end.” At that point I already had some ideas about using Alvin as an essential part of the Julius Caesar overlay, about what do you do about a tyrant, what kind of direct action is legitimate and what is not, what do you agree to when your democratic processes fail. I didn’t want to do too much with Alvin, but I needed one of our POV characters to have eyes on some meaningful dynamic by which Lindbergh disappears.
I had that in the back of my mind, but I’ll be honest, I didn’t have the courage to walk in and go, “This is what I’m going to do.” [Chuckles.] I pointed out where I thought we might have some problems with the ending and I asked him if he had any ideas. He went to that portion of the book, reread that page and a half two or three times. He kept going back and forth, and I was sitting across the coffee table from him, this great man of literature. The TV hack and the great man of literature. He’s rereading his work and he’s frowning and I’m waiting. It felt like an hour and a half, but it was probably about four minutes, and he closed the book and said, “It’s your problem now.”
I took that as permission to at least try to do something. Ed [Burns] and I set out to figure out what they might do to bring down that plane, and what Alvin might plausibly have eyes on. We worked at that for a long while, but by the time we were ready to commit anything to paper, Roth had passed away. I guess I was spared the gutty moment of having to say, “I changed this, I hope you’re okay with it.” There’s a little part of me that went, “Okay, I’m spared that.” But there was so much else that I thought went well with the project that, in the end, I wished he’d been around to see what we did. I think he would’ve been okay with most of it, maybe.
In the book, the idea that Alvin is involved in Lindbergh’s plane crash is presented as Nazi propaganda, but my understanding of the miniseries is that we’re supposed to see it as the very likely explanation for what happened.
We demonstrated a conspiracy of the British, and of effectively an American deep state of people who understood the threat of fascism, who realized the government was about to cede Europe to a totalitarian force that was decidedly anti-democratic and lethal and dehumanizing. You know, it’s basically Julius Caesar. People had the same choice as Cassius and Brutus, and some of them take that choice. We felt that it was an interesting thing to examine.
Frankly, every one of us has, upon experiencing moral moments in history, moments in which the law itself was arrayed against a moral choice — and this could be anything from what would you have done in Germany in 1944, or what if you were watching shop windows smashed and Jews killed on Kristallnacht, what would you do if you were at Harper’s Ferry with John Brown — we’ve all said, What would I say and do when faced with an absolute moral wrong? We all like to believe that we would stand up and be full-throated for the right thing, but it’s incredibly hard. Especially when the law is telling you, no, no, the Nuremberg Laws are the law, or Jews are not citizens, or slavery is the law of the land. We all imagine being transported to moments where we’d have to speak out or act against an established order, and we all try to imagine ourselves as heroes or dissidents, and the fact is very few people rise to the level of heroism, or even to dissent.
The whole purpose is to discuss this process of how we deliver a working republic to a totalitarian state — how it happens gradually, how it happens without anyone having a definitive moment. Some people do rebel, and what is the legitimacy of that? It’s what makes Shakespeare’s play work. And by the way, it can also make a vile political act seem legitimate. Witness John Wilkes Booth thinking that he’d acted out Julius Caesar. It added a level of political sophistication that seemed superior to “the plane chose this time to disappear.”
Most of Plot Against America has clear resonance with current events, but the decision to make the ending ambiguous rather than to follow Roth’s clarity about restoring democratic order seems like the most direct call to our contemporary moment.
Absolutely. The dial turns a very bright orange.
You also add a voting-rights layer to the ending: It’s not clear whether the number of people voting will outweigh the systematic disenfranchisement efforts made by Lindbergh’s government.
Right, [Roth’s] electoral process restores the Roosevelt administration definitively. I felt like we needed to acknowledge the open questions about our republic that are in front of us right now. The verdict on Roosevelt and Lindbergh and isolationism and America First — history’s already had that verdict. Lindbergh was wrong, and from Pearl Harbor on until 2016, the phrase “America First” was held up to complete and utter ridicule. I don’t need to argue 1940 anymore.
Looking at our own fundamental problems with our electoral process right now, the lack of faith any of us can have that the popular will is going to be conveyed through the American voting structure, we said, “We’re coming on an election year. We need to comment. We need to speak very bluntly to what this election means.” So we ended without feeling the need to say, “…and then America was restored.” The only reason to spend the money to film [this show] is that this generation is facing a fundamental threat to the norms of our republic and self-governance.
You’ve mentioned that this show is very close to your own family history. Your father was one of your models for Herman Levin, and many of the photos on the walls of the Levin house are of your own family.
I didn’t do [the show] so I could write Jewish-Americans in a middle-class setting. I did it for the obvious political import. But for the first time in my writing life, I’ve been able to channel a certain socioreligious culture that’s second nature. I didn’t have to research the tone. Not only does Philip Roth lay it out beautifully in his work, but I could draw on a reservoir of memory of my parents and grandparents.
Have you watched any of the series with your kids?
My son is in New Orleans, and I haven’t been able to watch it with him. But we’ve watched it with Georgia Ray, yeah. She’s needed some stuff explained. She’s 9. But she’s captured a lot of it, and she’s very engaged with the Levin family.
The ambiguity of the ending feels like a heavy thing to watch with your own 9-year-old. What was that like?
I dunno. I think she’s got the capacity to see something a little bit darker now.
But, okay, we were trying to figure out what the slogan was for the show, the tagline. We were struggling with it. Some things were too dead-on for the political moment, and some things weren’t on enough, and I came up with something my father said at every Passover Seder of my memory. If you opened his copy of the Haggadah, he would have it written in. And he said it: “Freedom can never be completely won, but it can be lost.” Then he would explain that, and in the explanation, I came to understand citizenship. What he would say is, self-governance is really hard. Churchill, no great liberal, nonetheless said that democracy was the worst form of government until you considered all the alternatives. It’s never perfect, it’s never perfected. There’s always someone who’s not being delivered the same promise of freedom as everyone else. There are some freedoms that get betrayed and have to be rescued. The work is never done. We will never get to the point of being able to dust off our hands and say, “Well, there it is, we finished our republic.”
Every day, you’ve gotta get up and kill snakes. Every fucking day. The day you think you’re done and you stop, or you assume that the freedoms there on the page are going to exist regardless of who’s in office, that’s the day you begin to lose it. The only way to self-govern is to say, “This is unwieldy, this is complicated, this requires perseverance, and tomorrow’s going to be the same as today.” It can often seem impossible. But what’s certain is that if you don’t do the work, you’ll lose it. We’re at that point, where I’m looking around and saying, “How many citizens do we actually have?” Citizens not just with rights, but with responsibilities. That, to me, is what the last 45 seconds are asking.
It must be hard to ask that question, and then watch it with your own kid without having an answer for her.
It’s Sisyphean, isn’t it? But nonetheless, it’s the only task that matters. Ed Burns and I are storytellers. Roth was a storyteller. And in this year, in 2020, with this election coming, this was the story we most wanted to tell. I’m glad we said our piece because now’s the time to speak up.
This interview has been edited and condensed.