“Every day I ask myself the same question: How can this be happening in America? How can people like these be in charge of our country? If I didn’t see it with my own eyes, I’d think I was having a hallucination.” — The Plot Against America: A Novel by Philip Roth
Throughout The Plot Against America, the parallels between novelist Philip Roth’s alternate history of the early 1940s and our increasingly authoritarian modern world have been unmistakable. In the finale, the miniseries’ co-creators David Simon and Ed Burns go even further than Roth in imagining a United States where the distinctions between “fascist” and “free” are almost negligible. In both the book and its TV adaptation, the U.S. president’s election itself represents old prejudices that run deep and long. But the HBO adaptation suggests those divisions may become unbridgeable—and perhaps permanently—when the man in charge of the country tacitly approves of them.
I’ll get to Simon and Burns’ gut-punch of an ending in a moment, and to Zoe Kazan’s knockout performance in two scenes that justify this show’s entire existence. But first let’s talk about a few comparatively calmer moments, which represent The Plot Against America at its most optimistic—albeit just barely.
By the time this finale wraps, so much has happened that it’s easy to forget about the scene where Herman Levin is loading trucks on his brother’s dock, jovially ribbing one of his Italian co-workers. “What were your people doing when mine were building the pyramids?” Herman boasts. “Stealing chickens in Palermo,” his buddy jokes. This, in a way, is America at its best: a couple of guys who get along and work side by side, whatever their differences.
We see something similar later when Herman’s new Italian neighbors offers him the use of a pistol, after Democratic presidential candidate Walter Winchell has been assassinated in Kentucky. And we see it again when the Levins enlist Sandy’s old Kentucky hosts, the Mawhinneys, to help them bring Seldon Wishnow safely home as riots spread across the country. In both cases, simple, decent neighborliness wins out over distrust.
Still, it’s worth noting that while this miniseries began with Herman Levin asserting his Americanness above all, by the end circumstances have forced him into acknowledging—and to some extent even embracing—his status as an “other.” While living under an administration that seems to want either to assimilate or to annihilate him, his ethnicity’s no longer just something he can just joke about with the boys at work. He has to declare himself.
This is something Sandy learns too before this episode is over—and that his Lindbergh-loving patrons Aunt Evelyn and Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf grasp perhaps too late. After Winchell’s death, the Bengelsdorf faction tries to lean on their power and their self-righteousness, to little avail. The rabbi places urgent calls to his cohorts in Washington, but has trouble getting any reassurances that his people will be protected. Evelyn suggests Winchell’s to blame for his death, because he provoked the audiences at his rallies by insulting “a good man.”
But when the couple gathers around the radio with Sandy to hear what they’re sure will be a unifying Lindbergh speech from Kentucky, they’re disappointed that the president reverts to his usual stump points: The country is prosperous, and safe from the war raging overseas. Lindbergh apparently refuses to consider—let alone profess—the possibility that something’s rotting in America, just barely below the surface.
Ultimately, Lindbergh never has to confront his failures. Just as in Roth’s novel, the Lindbergh presidency ends abruptly once his plane disappears, shortly after leaving Kentucky. (Unlike in the novel, we see what appears to be an overt conspiracy to mess with Lindy’s navigation… with Alvin as a recruit to the cause.) The vice president, Burton Wheeler, assumes command, and becomes the dictator the Levins feared Lindbergh would be. Political enemies? Lock ‘em up! Even supposed political allies—like Bengelsdorf, dubbed “a Jewish Rasputin” by Wheeler’s minions—become suspect.
Aunt Evelyn, naturally, is confused and mortified by these turns of events. She was so sure her brother-in-law and sister were small-minded and unduly paranoid. But when she comes to their house and asks for their protection, Bess shuts her down, mercilessly. “Why don’t you call von Ribbentrop?” she snaps.
This is one of those jaw-droppingly great Zoe Kazan finale moments I alluded to earlier. Bess tells her sister she will always love her, but that family ties can’t be a free pass when Evelyn’s just helped facilitate what amounts to a war crime against American Jews. Bess’ anger is absolute and relatable. It’s the rapidly simmering rage many feel today when forced to share a holiday meal with a relative who didn’t vote the same way. (Give credit here to to Winona Ryder, so perfectly cast as the gullible, sweet-natured Evelyn.)
Kazan’s other bravura scene comes earlier, when during the Kentucky riots Bess speaks by phone with Seldon Wishnow, trying to keep him from panicking over the fact his mother hasn’t come home. While Bess hears gunshots on her own streets, she crouches on the floor of her kitchen and calmly coaxes Seldon into making a meal out of whatever his mom left in the house—Rice Krispies, milk, bread and orange juice—while she arranges to have the Mawhinneys come get him. If there’s one scene that exemplifies The Plot Against America, it could be this: An ordinary, terrified American, keeping a child from becoming overwhelmed by the enormity of the situation by emphasizing the mundane and unchanging. Even when everything’s falling apart, we still have Rice Krispies.
Because the book’s from Philip’s perspective, the details about Herman and Sandy’s trip to Kentucky to rescue Seldon are mostly new to the TV version—and powerful. We see Sandy staring at the burned-out car that belonged to Seldon’s mother, before an emboldened Ku Klux Klan killed her. We see the Levins endure an anxious moment in a grocery store, where a Klansman conducts some business while Seldon’s in the bathroom. We see Herman jokingly grumble about the baloney and mayo on white bread sandwiches the goyim foist on them, saying, “They’re trying to kill us.” (Sandy, comfortable anew with his Jewish identity, finds this hilarious.)
Much of the rest of the finale follows Roth, albeit in a more condensed fashion. Alvin irritates Herman by marrying a fatcat’s daughter, acting like he’s exempt from political struggles because he fought in the war and because he now has money and influence. Alvin mocks Herman for letting Winchell fight his battles on the radio rather than picking up a gun and killing Nazis. (“When the fuck do you people ever act? When it’s too late. All you people ever do is talk,” Alvin hisses. Then Herman socks him.) Evelyn and Rabbi Bengelsdorf, meanwhile, become like the 1940s version of QAnon, insisting that Charles Lindbergh was never an anti-semitic demagogue, but that all along he was secretly working to protect his child, who’d been kidnapped by German agents and raised as a Nazi.
The Bengelsdorf faction gets some cover from Anne Lindbergh, who after her husband’s disappearance is shut away in an asylum, then escapes and makes a speech to the nation declaring acting president Wheeler’s sweeping reforms illegal. She calls for new elections for the fall of 1942.
It’s here where Simon and Burns make a major departure from Roth. In the novel, Franklin Delano Roosevelt is reelected, and the timeline essentially restarts, with the Japanese attacking Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entering the war not long after FDR’s reinstatement. The two-year nightmare for Philip’s family almost immediately fades.
The TV version of The Plot Against America opts for ambiguity. As Frank Sinatra sings, “That’s America To Me,” we see multiple instances of election-rigging, with ballots burned and voters turned away at the polls. The miniseries ends with the outcome of the special presidential election of 1942 still in doubt. If you’re looking for a direct connection to 2020, here you go. There will be no definitive ending until the votes are counted this November.
This is a very David Simon way to wrap up this story: with the powerful exploiting every advantage available, and in the process making a mockery of what’s supposed to be a democratic system of governance. But this is also an apt dramatization of Roth, who in The Plot Against America wrote about the turning point in his youth, when he realized, “How the shameless vanity of utter fools can so strongly determine the fate of others.”
- “That’s America To Me” is famous for its inclusion in the Oscar-winning 1945 short film “The House I Live In,” which was made to shame bigots (and anti-semites in particular) in the wake of World War II.
- Thanks for reading these reviews, which were a pleasure to write even when—or perhaps especially when—this miniseries became painful and difficult to watch. If nothing else, David Simon’s shows effectively make audiences uncomfortable, forcing us to think through the complexities of any situation. And no matter what Alvin Levin may believe, thinking is always a good first step, before acting.
- Stay safe out there, everybody. May God bless the United States of America.