The second episode of HBO’s new alternate-history miniseries The Plot Against America ends with a scene that feels viscerally like reliving 2016’s election night in America. It starts as a lighthearted gathering, with the Levin family and a close friend sitting in a living room while the results come in for the 1940 presidential election. Politically outspoken patriarch Herman Levin (Morgan Spector) has been talking for months about how badly President Franklin Delano Roosevelt will crush his Republican challenger, Charles Lindbergh (Ben Cole), since FDR is an accomplished statesman and Lindbergh is a Nazi sympathizer with no political experience. Herman expects to sit with his family and watch his vindications roll in.
In Herman’s eyes, FDR isn’t taking the race particularly seriously. Herman understands he’s living in something of a bubble in his predominantly Jewish neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey. While almost everyone he knows is a loyal Democrat, he’s heard some people are drawn to Lindbergh because they’re dissatisfied with America’s uneven economic recovery from the Great Depression, and they find Lindbergh’s “America First” rhetoric appealing. Yet the political realities don’t really set in until the night drags on. Herman’s kids fall asleep as reports begin to suggest not a landslide victory for Roosevelt, but a very close contest. Eventually, Herman is left alone with the horrifying realization that America isn’t what he thought it was.
Based on the 2004 novel The Plot Against America by Pulitzer Prize winner Philip Roth, HBO’s new series is set in a world where Lindbergh, a famous pilot and anti-Semite, runs a barnstorming populist campaign against Roosevelt, based on a promise to keep America out of World War II. While the story has obvious parallels to Amazon’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel The Man in the High Castle, which imagines what would happen to America if the Allied Powers lost the war, Roth’s work is a far more poignant, harrowing story that speaks to our dark political moment and the fragility of American ideals.
Created by David Simon and Ed Burns, the team behind The Wire, The Plot Against America is a much closer adaptation of Roth’s work than Amazon’s series, which stretched Dick’s novel to four seasons by adding a host of new characters and science-fiction-driven storylines. The Man in the High Castle also trafficked in particularly sensationalist, action-driven plots of the kind used in The Handmaid’s Tale and Hunters. All three shows blunt their criticism of fascism by telling fantastic stories of unspeakable atrocities and brave resistance fighters.
Simon and Burns instead stay true to Roth’s focus on the lives of a single, ordinary family, keeping the consequences of Lindbergh’s election thoroughly grounded. The Levins are first shown sitting down to Shabbat dinner, completing the ancient rituals involved in the festive family meal, then launching right into a conversation about baseball. It’s an authentic look at the Jewish American experience, showing a group that considers themselves fully integrated into the fabric of their country, until other people start accusing them of having divided loyalties. Here, it’s Lindbergh accusing Jews of being warmongers who want to drag the U.S. into conflict to protect their European brethren, but it feels horrifyingly close to President Trump saying American Jews really owe fealty to the Prime Minister of Israel.
While The Man in the High Castle showed Washington, D.C., being nuked, and everyone with a degenerative disease being killed in the name of eugenics, The Plot Against America manages to present a terrifying vision of what the United States could become using much more mundane, realistic threats. Simon and Burns do a fantastic job of ratcheting up tension through plots with strong parallels to America’s present and recent past. While the show focuses on the Jewish experience, Herman’s decidedly mixed interactions with the police also evoke questions about who America’s laws really serve, the kinds of questions the Black Lives Matter movement has raised. Other moments bring to mind the assassination of civil rights figures, and 2018’s mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.
The Republican establishment chides Lindbergh for his anti-Semitic remarks, but doesn’t do anything to stop him. He deflects criticism by earning the endorsement of the conservative Southern rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf (John Turturro of Do the Right Thing and Miller’s Crossing). Lindbergh is an extremely minor character in the miniseries; Turturro does most of the heavy lifting as the primary villain. When he criticizes his liberal, city-dwelling fellow Jews as not being willing to integrate into the “real America” found in the rural Midwest, and promises that he’s educating the president on “Jewish issues,” it’s hard to tell how much he believes his own rhetoric, or what he’s willing to compromise in the name of power. Watching his conviction falter as Lindbergh fails to speak out against a rise in anti-Semitic vandalism and violence feels like a dramatization of the reaction of Trump’s Jewish advisers in the wake of his response to neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Zoe Kazan of The Big Sick delivers a stunning performance as Herman’s wife, Elizabeth, a pragmatist managing her family’s disparate reactions to events and her own rising sense of panic. Herman remains stubbornly idealistic, even as his friends and neighbors flee to Canada, his young son Philip (Azhy Robertson) starts having nightmares, and his teenage son Sandy (Caleb Malis) buys into all of Rabbi Bengelsdorf’s rhetoric. Watching Elizabeth’s stoic matriarch exterior crack into a fit of rage is cathartic, but she shines even more in the scenes where she deals with crises by demonstrating a cool confidence while tamping down her own terror.
Given that The Plot Against America is such an intimate story, it’s a shame that many of the characters still feel thin. Winona Ryder never brings much depth to her portrayal of Elizabeth’s perpetually unlucky-in-love sister Evelyn Finkel, who thinks she’s finally found a way to shine through her romance with Bengelsdorf. Evelyn spends most of the miniseries looking wide-eyed and spouting vapid platitudes as a one-note villain. Herman shows a similar lack of self-awareness as he puts his family into increasingly more dangerous circumstances while holding up like an impenetrable shield his notions of what America should be.
Philip brings some charm to the story as a nerdy, sensitive kid who escapes the rising tensions by hanging out with his quirky friends, but the plots involving Herman’s hot-tempered nephew Alvin (Anthony Boyle) often feel disconnected from the narrative and tone of the rest of the series.
The threats are subtler and more insidious in The Plot Against America than they are in The Man in the High Castle, but the acts of resistance and goodness also feel more authentic. Simon and Burns build suspense throughout the series by keeping audiences guessing during fairly mundane interactions. A stop at a gas station to use the bathroom might involve encountering a member of the Ku Klux Klan, but the late-night knock on your door might just be a new neighbor coming over with bundt cake. When a restaurant customer addresses Herman with anti-Semitic remarks, the restaurant’s owner jumps in to defuse the situation, and offers the Levin kids free ice cream as an apology. Hate and human decency don’t manifest in world-shaking events, but in small, powerful moments.
The Plot Against America shows that the greatest threat to American democracy is complacency. Our ideals don’t need to dramatically be destroyed by external forces; they can just be slowly eroded from within. Evil doesn’t need to invade America — it’s always been here, and keeping it from spreading requires constant vigilance.
The six-part miniseries The Plot Against America premieres on HBO on March 16.