The Plot Against America
If there’s a takeaway from The Plot Against America, the novel and miniseries, it’s that history doesn’t exist outside of any person’s lived experience. It isn’t an abstract idea that’s exclusively consumed in classrooms or textbooks. It comprises actions and choices, beliefs and emotions. It’s something that people participate in, contribute to, and live through. It’s often ugly and rarely beautiful, because it showcases a society’s true colors, which are never clean. Life, in all of its smallest, most insignificant facets, continues, but it moves through a historical context from which it can never be divorced.
“Part 6,” the stunning conclusion to David Simon and Ed Burns’ adaptation, follows the violent final months of the Lindbergh presidency and how the Levin family copes with the inevitable nationwide pogrom tacitly endorsed by the country’s fascist leader. Written by Simon and directed by Thomas Schlamme, “Part 6” plays like a slow-motion car wreck long in the making, mining palpable dread from small gestures and loud motions. Each member of the Levin family is forever changed by Lindbergh’s reign of terror, a two-year nightmare from which America will never fully recover.
Simon sets the mood immediately. It’s September 1942. Winchell is still on the campaign trail, but each rally has been plagued with violence. Herman hears about anti-Jewish violence around the country on the radio while he’s making deliveries for his brother. Rabbi Bengelsdorf desperately tries to get Lindbergh to speak out against the violence via his wife, Anne, to no avail. A new Italian family, the Cucuzzas, has moved in downstairs where the Wishnows used to live. Meanwhile, Alvin has been recruited by an international cabal of insurrectionaries who don’t want to see the United States go to hell. “It went to hell,” Alvin responds. “It’s there.”
However, it takes Walter Winchell’s assassination in Louisville, Kentucky, to shift the country into high alert. Suddenly, Lindbergh is nowhere to be found. At Winchell’s funeral service in Temple Emanu-El, Mayor of New York Fiorello La Guardia openly asks the large crowd, “Where is Lindbergh?” During a press conference, Rabbi Bengelsdorf reads a prepared statement from Anne Lindbergh stating that the president will deliver an address in Louisville later that day. Sandy, who refuses to attend Winchell’s funeral with the rest of his family, rushes over to Evelyn’s house to ask why all of this violence has happened. Together, Sandy, Evelyn, and Rabbi Bengelsdorf listen to Lindbergh’s address on the radio, where he only talks about America’s peace and prosperity and doesn’t mention Winchell or the anti-Jewish violence whatsoever. That brief, noxious statement will be the last public words anyone hears from Charles Lindbergh.
But Lindbergh’s eventual disappearance isn’t the most immediate concern of the Levin family. The person whom they’re most worried about is young Seldon Wishnow, who’s stuck with his mother in Danville, Kentucky, right as the Ku Klux Klan has all but taken control of the state. As someone who has read Roth’s novel, I knew ahead of time that Simon and Burns would likely adapt the scenes when Bess calls Seldon to comfort him over the phone, as they’re some of the most vivid and affecting moments in the book. Still, that knowledge did not prepare me for how devastating it would be to actually watch Zoe Kazan and hear Jacob Laval perform those scenes. It captures, in miniature, a mother’s capacity to love any child in need and a lonely, abandoned kid’s terror knowing that death might be around the corner. There are two phone calls between Bess and Seldon, each one day apart. I couldn’t make it through either without crying.
The first features Bess calling the Wishnows, getting Seldon on the phone and instructing him to have his mother call her as soon as she gets home, but poor Seldon only wants to know if Philip will come visit him, because he doesn’t have any friends at school and his birthday is next week and he just wants to play chess. Bess tells Philip to tell Seldon he misses him. Philip does as he’s told and then hands the phone back to his mother, walking away from her fearful and ashamed. What’s happening isn’t his fault, but you can almost feel the guilt emanating from his body anyway. If he didn’t go speak to his Aunt Evelyn, the Wishnows would still be in Newark.
But it’s the second phone call that represents the highest peak of The Plot Against America. It’s captured in one take, with Schlamme’s camera slowly pushing in on Kazan, from one end of a hallway to another. Seldon calls Bess in hysterics because his mother hasn’t come home. He hasn’t eaten dinner. It’s very late. He instinctively knows that she’s been killed. Bess, doing her level best to remain calm even though she knows he’s probably right, tells Seldon not to think like that, that his mother probably had some car trouble and that she’ll be home very soon. She tells him to put the phone down and go see what’s in the refrigerator to eat. Just then, gunshots ring outside the Levin home. Bess sinks to the floor and waits for Seldon to return to the phone. There isn’t any dinner, but there’s cereal and milk. Bess tells him, with pitch-perfect maternal excitement, that he gets to have breakfast for dinner, and to pick out his favorite cereal. (It’s Rice Krispies.) She then tells him that she’ll call him back at 10:30 if his mother hasn’t returned home. “Bye for now, Seldon!” she says in an elated voice that’s barely masking her own fear. Bess knows that if they don’t do something, Seldon might not make it through the night.
So Bess springs into action. She asks Sandy — who has finally turned his back on his opportunist aunt, seeing her and Rabbi Bengelsdorf for what they really are following Winchell’s assassination, and subsequently ripped up his Lindbergh drawings — how far the Mawhinneys are from Danville. Herman, armed with a gun from Mr. Cucuzza, and Sandy then jump in the car to go pick up Seldon from Danville and bring him back to New Jersey, right as the country burns. They drive through the night, hindered by roadblocks and armed citizenry, but finally make it to the Mawhinney farm, where Seldon has been safely sheltered. They haven’t yet told him that the Klan burned his mother alive in her car. As they make their way home, Herman and Sandy spot Mrs. Wishnow’s burnt automobile on the road. Sandy jumps into the back seat with Seldon and makes up a game that forces him to look at his feet so he doesn’t see the wreckage.
While Seldon bears the brunt of the national chaos, no one is spared, not even Rabbi Bengelsdorf or his wife. On the radio, Secretary Henry Ford says that Mrs. Lindbergh is under the influence of a “Jewish Rasputin” and that Bengelsdorf exerts “undue Jewish influence” on her. The FBI wakes up Evelyn and the rabbi in the middle of the night to detain Bengelsdorf under suspicion of plotting against the government. In a panic, Evelyn rushes over to the Levin house because she’s afraid the government will arrest and torture her because she knows the truth: Lindbergh is alive, and the Germans are blackmailing him into being a fascist, because they’ve kidnapped his son, the one who was abducted and murdered a decade prior. Unswayed by her conspiratorial ramblings, Bess kicks her sister out for good. “I will always love you, but I will never forgive you,” she firmly informs her before Evelyn shuffles along, distraught and alienated from her family for good.
Evelyn isn’t the only one splintered from her family. After performing some minor air-traffic surveillance on behalf of the insurrectionary group, Alvin is told to drive to a secluded location where he will take a second car back to Philly. When he enters the second car, he finds the keys and a newspaper in the visor. The headline reads that Lindbergh and the Spirit of St. Louis have gone missing. Suddenly confronted with the sheer scope of his actions, that he might have played a small role in a potential plot to possibly kill or “disappear” the president, Alvin panics and rushes back to Ben and Minna Schapp. He asks if he’s “family” and persuades them to be his alibi without telling them what he’s been mixed up in. Soon after, Alvin marries Minna, joins the Schapp empire, and becomes the upwardly mobile Jewish citizen he once despised.
It’s understandable why Alvin makes this transition. He fought for America and the Jewish people, lost his leg overseas, was labeled a Communist by the American government, and participated in a revolutionary plot that may or may not have rid the country of Charles Lindbergh. He wants to disappear into money and stability for good. But Herman doesn’t see it that way. Alvin and Minna come to dinner, and the Levin family listens to Alvin obnoxiously talk about boxing and his car, all while he smokes a fancy cigar. Herman asks him if he even cares about the Jews or the upcoming election or if he just cares about money. Two years have passed, and Herman and Alvin are now on opposite sides of an old argument. Alvin, brimming with rage, asks Herman if he ever did anything for the Jews other than sit by the radio and complain. Herman can’t ever comprehend what Alvin lost by defending his principles, and though it doesn’t wholly compare, Alvin can’t understand what Herman experienced trying to protect his family. They come to blows. Bruises are sustained, and glass is shattered. The Levin family has been permanently ruptured. While Bess and Minna tend to their husbands, Sandy sits on the stairs in silence. Seldon goes upstairs to comfort Philip, who shrinks away from the world.
There’s a reason this scene comes at the episode’s end, one of our final glimpses of the Levin family. Lindbergh might be gone, but the chaos remains. Newark shop owners can wash away the swastikas and graffiti on their shops, clean up the broken windows, and sweep away the rubble, but they can’t erase the memories of them being targeted. Anne Lindbergh can give a speech on the radio that attempts to restore unity and democracy to the nation, but America has seen its darkest side and can no longer look away. Seldon might have made it back to Newark safely, but neither him nor Sandy nor Herman will likely ever forget the time when they were stopped by a hooded Klansman, near a burning Jewish convenience store just outside of Kentucky, who could have easily killed all three of them with the approval of the state. As much as Evelyn and Rabbi Bengelsdorf preach their conspiracy theories about Lindbergh’s disappearance and his dip into violent fascism, it doesn’t change his association or the fact that history proved them wrong. These wounds are permanent, and no salve will ever soothe them.
In a final montage, set to Frank Sinatra’s “The House I Live In (America to Me),” which became a national hit after appearing in a 1945 short film of the same name created to oppose anti-Semitism following the end of WWII, we see America on another election day. It’s November 1942. Thousands of people wait in line to cast their vote, but there’s no romance in democracy. Some people learn they’ve been purged from the roll. Shadowy figures take some ballot boxes to an undisclosed location to burn the ballots. Herman and his family listen on the radio as the results slowly start to pour in. We don’t hear the outcome, but we know that even if the righteous prevail, it will be in spite of the strongest efforts within the nation to keep it suppressed. Corruption persists. Fascists still live among us, even if they go by a different name. The American experiment continues to fracture, bit by little bit, every single day. And all the while, history trudges along, affecting the Levins of the world as it has since time immemorial.
Note: This recap has been corrected to reflect that the episode takes place in 1942, not 1940. We apologize for the error.