The Plot Against America excels at conveying the passage of time, how communities and people slowly but perceptibly change parallel to their country. Only four months have passed between the past two episodes, but whole personalities have shifted, new ideas have taken root, and old divisions have grown stronger. The Lindbergh administration has dug its heels into America, and many have either embraced its vision with open arms or tacitly accepted it. In September 1940, no one would have dared to openly heckle Roosevelt with anti-Semitic slurs at Shepsie’s newsreel theater. But by September 1941, Herman has to sit quietly while the man behind him calls Roosevelt a “Jew lover,” lest he possibly face physical retribution.
It’s not just strangers who feel comfortable espousing their bigotry in public. Members of Herman’s family have also changed their tune, such as his brother, Monty, who has softened his opposition to Lindbergh, partially because his business is booming. Monty uses Alvin as a cudgel against Herman’s liberalism: If Alvin had only stayed in America and not gone to war for his principles, he would still have a leg. It’s a view shared by Rabbi Bengelsdorf, who pledges his loyalty to Lindbergh at Friday dinner and insists that America doesn’t require its citizens to sacrifice life or limb for a European war. “I guess Alvin counted himself a citizen of the world,” Herman shoots back. “And a Jew,” he adds.
Even though he’s right, Herman unintentionally uses Alvin as a tool for his ideology as well. No one really wants to ask Alvin how he feels, possibly because they’ll find that his staunch heroism has been replaced by bitter resentment. (“They’re all angry in some way. But not like him,” a Canadian nurse informs Herman.) When he returns to New Jersey, he makes darkly sarcastic jokes about his condition and stares pensively out the window in Philip and Sandy’s room. He plays craps with his old friend Shush, who now knows Newark mobster Longy Zwillman. Unfortunately, it’s the same Longy Zwillman who has friends in the FBI, who don’t take kindly to Alvin’s wartime efforts and conclude that he’s a Communist set on infiltrating America. He gets Alvin fired from working at Monty’s warehouse when a G-man leans on Herman’s brother.
The FBI has taken an active interest in the entire Levin family: An agent stops Philip on the street to ask him some “innocent” questions about Alvin’s patriotism and his father’s interest in Hitler, and, later, they catch up with Herman as he picks up pastries in the morning. The presence of the FBI forebodes a dangerous trend in the country, one in which the federal government starts cracking down on “undesirables” or “agitators.” Hitler doesn’t need to come to America to beat down and shoot Jews when Lindbergh’s government does the job for him. Meanwhile, Herman watches cars filled with Hasidim driving to Canada as a preemptive measure, and Bess persists in trying to push her husband in that direction. The rabbi at Bess and Evelyn’s mother’s funeral might claim that all Jews are Americans, but the country itself might have a different idea.
Though if you ask someone like Sandy, he might say that it’s people like his mother and father, two narrow-minded “ghetto Jews,” who are responsible for such discord. After spending the summer in Kentucky, Sandy has become a proud proponent of Just Folks, even going so far as to become a “lead recruiter” for the program, much to the pleasure of Evelyn and Rabbi Bengelsdorf. Herman and Bess may hold their tongue about that, but they won’t stay silent when Sandy wants to attend a state dinner honoring German minister Herr von Ribbentrop at the behest of Evelyn and First Lady Anne Lindbergh. Appalled by his son’s stance, he forbids his son from attending, which sends him right back into the arms of Evelyn and Bengelsdorf. “It’s just a great opportunity!” Sandy insists, without realizing he’s slowly morphing into just another opportunist like his aunt and her fiancé.
Still, episode writers David Simon and Reena Rexrode don’t characterize Sandy as a traitor to the tribe or a self-loathing Jew or anything like that. He’s a 15-year-old boy who likes being in proximity to great power and wants to make his own decision. His love of Just Folks and his no-big-deal attitude toward Lindbergh’s association with Nazis folds into his teen rebellion. He doesn’t care about von Ribbentrop or Göring or Goebbels; he just wants to piss off his father, whom he sees as a dictator who won’t let him do what he wants. When Herman leaves the home, Bess slaps Sandy across the face for suggesting that his father is worse than Hitler, which might be what was coming to him but will only drive him further away from his parents’ values. All Sandy sees is his parents refusing to let him meet the president. All Herman and Bess see is their son cozying up to ideas he doesn’t fully understand.
As the nation turns and people change into different versions of themselves, all the trauma and the strife trickles into Philip’s mind like a leaky faucet. Every minor and major event collapses into one terrifying timeline; their small Weequahic neighborhood and America as a whole slowly meld into one entity. Earl Axman moving away to New York after her mother’s breakdown takes on the weight of his community changing before his very eyes. Seldon’s father losing his battle to throat cancer becomes an image of his father being wheeled out of his own house, another victim of Jewish heritage in a time and place when it’s unacceptable. Alvin’s severed leg and Sandy’s bruised face are reminders of the violence that’s seeping into their home. It’s why Herman comes close to striking his very young son when he discovers that Philip has snuck into Shepsie’s theater to watch footage of his aunt dancing with von Ribbentrop. The world has evolved into a dangerous place. Any slip-up can potentially cost someone their life. This is not a game.
Other Stars & Stripes
• It’s worth noting that in Roth’s book, Herman actually slaps Philip across the face outside the theater for seeing the newsreel without permission, drawing an implicit connection between the consequences of his rebellion and Sandy’s. It’s possible Simon and Rexrode wanted to soften Herman’s reaction to Philip’s misbehavior.
• Similarly, the anti-Semitic abuse Henry Ford flings at Evelyn and Bengelsdorf at the state dinner was invented for the adaptation. Alas, that detail rang false for me. At best, it feels like a cheap way to engender sympathy towards the two power-hungry turncoats, i.e. no matter how many Jews they sell out to curry favor with Lindbergh, they’ll still be Jews.
• With that said, I did like Evelyn’s comeback to Ford: gai kaken oifen yam, which literally translates to “Go shit in the ocean,” but is synonymous to “Take a hike” or “Beat it.”