By Alexander Wallace
Reading the original novel The Plot Against America, by Philip Roth, published in 2004, it can feel like it was meant as a commentary on our current times. You have a populist Republican president running against an established Democrat on a xenophobic platform, and a story following a minority that the Republican president despises. It is no wonder, then, that HBO decided to adapt it into a miniseries under the accomplished David Simon, best known for The Wire.
The series follows in the footsteps of a number of alternate history television shows started by Amazon Prime’s The Man in the High Castle. Other examples include HBO’s Watchmen and Netflix’s 1983. What makes this rendition of The Plot Against America stand out in that increasingly crowded field is how relatively low-key it is; there are no airships or sleek concordes or masked vigilantes. This is a very grounded series in its roots in 1940s Newark, and does not attempt to be timely in that sense.
It is timely, of course, in its denunciation of racism and of populism. David Simon made it obvious that he views it as a commentary on modern race relations; indeed, just hearing of its creation, I thought that was obvious. It is fortunate that Mr. Simon and his cohort are good storytellers, and understand that you need good storytelling and good issues, rather than just good issues (to paraphrase Robert Crossley in his afterword to Octavia Butler’s Kindred). The woes of the Levin family in a time of rising hate are legitimately emotional rather than maudlin, and delivers gut-wrenching moment after gut-wrenching moment.
This is a series driven by its characters, and in that department it shines. Morgan Spector has left a lasting impression in his role as the ever-so-conflicted Herman Levin, trying hard to square his patriotism with his status as the object of hatred for so many of his countrymen. Likewise, Zoe Kazan shines as the equally conflicted Bess Levin, Herman’s wife, who is constantly at odds with him as what should be done with the children, and whether they should leave the country or not. Anthony Boyle and Winona Ryder both deliver good performances as other members of the Levin family, as do Azhy Robertson and Caleb Malis as their two sons.
If there is any one actor that I thought truly stood out, though, it is John Turturro as Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf, a rare yet high-profile Jewish supporter of President Charles Lindbergh, whose own remarks show how much he despises Jews. Bengelsddorf’s entire arc is about how people can be swindled into supporting something that goes against their own core interests. In another work, he could be a tragic hero, too blinded by his own biases to realize that he is a sheep among wolves. Turturro gives a gravitas to Bengelsdorf that makes him seem almost credible as a representative of the supposed good things that Lindbergh brings to the presidency, until you are once more jolted into the brutal reality of American anti-Semitism. This portrayal expands on that of the original novel, and Lionel Bengelsdorf is much, much better for it.
The whole series is pervaded by this sense of all-consuming dread, apropos for a series about creeping authoritarianism. This is a tone that was delivered successfully in The Man in the High Castle and to a lesser extent 1983, and continues the streak of alternate history shows going for that tone. It is undoubtedly a commentary on the perceptions of social change of the past few years, and I don’t think what we have seen in our world is anywhere nearly as drastic as the show, but it’s a cautionary tale. Alternate history by the mainstream is increasingly used as such, and it is a trend that this show encapsulates in a sterling manner.
The show, again not unlike The Man in the High Castle, really lays into how traditional American values can be used to bolster authoritarianism. The show portrays fascism coming to American carrying a cross and wrapped in the flag, and in no better place is this exemplified than the introductory sequence that plays at the beginning of every episode, juxtaposing that interwar patriotic music sound, George Cohan-like,with images of fascism and war. There is also the scene in Washington where Joachim von Ribbentrop visits President Lindbergh, with the genteel sound of that romanticized interwar period, down to jazz performed by a white singer. It’s the sort of thing that reminds you that that interwar period was also the nadir of American race relations in the post abolition era, and that the country’s past still lingers.
In relationship to the original Philip Roth book, this adaptation is very faithful. It makes no Watchmen-like departures from the source material, instead knowing that Roth had made something good and used any small changes to enhance what was already there. The change that stands out to me is the expansion of the backstory of Lionel Bengelsdorf, making his actions seem even clearer here; there’s a great scene where he talks about the legacy of Judah P. Benjamin, among other things. The series also changes the ending, removing a major part of the book that, in my mind, undid the entire premise of the novel, and instead creating a more ambiguous ending that, in my mind, extended the themes of the novel in a way consistent with its premises.
The end result, therefore, is a series that does not descend into the maudlin platitudes to which the premise was vulnerable; instead it delivers a compelling, deeply disturbing viewing experience that does full justice to the original Roth novel. It is something that every alternate historian needs to watch, and it shows that, when done right, the mainstream can be trusted with our favorite genre.