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‘The Plot Against America’ Is Trademark David Simon

The Philip Roth adaptation takes a hard look at what America truly means, in the character-driven way that evokes Simon’s former series

HBO/Ringer illustration

The Plot Against America, the 2004 novel, occupies a strange place in the canon of author Philip Roth. The book is as autobiographical as any Roth roman á clef, if not more so: Its protagonist isn’t just a Jewish boy born in the 1930s and growing up in Newark’s Weequahic neighborhood, but Philip Roth himself. Yet the world this Philip Roth occupies is not our own; it’s an alternate history, one in which a Nazi-sympathizing Charles Lindbergh defeats FDR in the 1940 presidential election and keeps the United States out of World War II while targeting Jews at home. Some Roth trademarks, like a fixation on viscera and boys’ early brushes with sexuality, remain—they’re just used to draw readers deeper into the fantasy, an unusual mode for a typically realist writer.

The Plot Against America, the six-part 2020 miniseries that premiered on HBO on Monday night, occupies a similarly strange place in the canon of cocreator David Simon. The erstwhile journalist, who leads the show alongside former detective and The Wire collaborator Ed Burns, has one of the most consistent M.O.s in modern television. When you turn on a Simon show, you know you’re in for a methodical exploration of changing urban institutions through overlapping, and often opposed, personal experience. The Plot Against America partly fits the profile, with the Roth family as a way into what it might be like to live through the erosion of democracy and rise of state-sanctioned violence. But the Roth household is a much more intimate (at times claustrophobic) lens to explore such big-picture shifts than The Wire’s Baltimore police department or The Deuce’s cross section of the Times Square sex industry.

Simon’s attraction to the source material is not hard to ascertain. Both 2015’s Show Me a Hero and Simon’s 2000 series The Corner were based on books—the latter Simon’s own, the former Lisa Belkin’s reported account of a desegregation fight in Yonkers, New York. But The Plot Against America is Simon’s first attempt at adapting fiction, a challenge somewhat lessened by said fiction’s rapidly shrinking distance from reality. HBO ordered the series in November 2018, exactly two years after the election of Donald Trump and mere weeks after a mass shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue killed 11 congregants. Most of Simon and HBO’s core audience are concerned by the rise of a demagogic celebrity who fosters a climate of racist hatred. Simon has simply channeled that anxiety into art. (He isn’t the only one: Just last month, Amazon’s Hunters took a much more lurid and less nuanced approach to the hypothetical existence of Nazism in America.)

The Plot Against America is the kind of show that risks accusations of straining too hard for relevancy, trading its potential as original art for the easy hit of recognition—the narrative equivalent of an SNL cold open. “Do you have any idea what’s at stake in this coming election?!” shouts Philip’s father, Herman (Morgan Spector), eight months away from the 2020 presidential contest. At another point, a character scoffs “You’ll still end up with Wheeler,” of the equally reactionary vice president in the event his boss is somehow deposed. Lindbergh’s brief, ambivalent response to a shocking outburst of bloodshed conjures memories of Charlottesville. Discussions of whether or not Lindbergh is “presidential” or “means what he says” ought to come with a content warning.

Still, The Plot Against America is largely inoculated from such charges of forced relevancy by its origins a full 16 years in the past. (And, before that, an additional 65—Roth was inspired by an offhand comment in Arthur Schlesinger’s autobiography about isolationist Republicans considering a Lindbergh run, though they never followed through.) It’s not that Simon is retrofitting his story to make it seem more like real life. It’s that real life has caught up with Roth’s initial story, with Trump himself appropriating the old isolationist-nationalist slogan of “America First.” Revisitations of the novel became popular in the months following Trump’s ascent to power. They’ve grown only more justified in the years since.

Posthumously credited as an executive producer, Roth intended The Plot Against America as a ground-up view of creeping fascism, a vision Simon largely honors. The young Philip Levin (Azhy Robertson) and his teenage brother Sandy (Caleb Malis) are children, with children’s understanding of Lindbergh as a distant yet charismatic figure. Philip keeps a Lindbergh stamp in his budding collection, while Sandy doesn’t understand why spending a summer in Kentucky as part of the Lindbergh-sponsored “Just Folks” program is such an insidious threat. In a contemporary interview with Terry Gross, Roth described his Lindbergh as a “dim heroic statue,” a description Simon translates into a politician seen exclusively from afar and heard only through microphones and radio broadcasts.

The expanded purview of a TV show relative to a limited-third-person novel also gives Simon a chance to pursue his particular interests as well as those he shares with Roth. Philip’s aunt Evelyn (Winona Ryder) becomes involved with Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf (John Turturro), a collaborationist rabbi who offers his services as the Lindbergh administration’s token Jew. (Bengelsdorf hails from South Carolina, where his father fought for the Confederacy. Turturro wears a yarmulke and has a genteel Southern drawl: It’s a lot!) A well-meaning woman too blinded by love and star power to see the monstrous cause she’s abetting, Evelyn is a quintessential Simonian character, a woman whose motivations we can understand and empathize with but whose behavior the show refuses to condone. Ryder is terrific, putting her signature nervous tics to perfect use. Bengelsdorf, for his part, is a window into the inner workings of the Lindbergh administration, including a state dinner in honor of Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop and meetings presided over by Interior Secretary and known bigot Henry Ford. Simon and Burns are sparing enough with these scenes to preserve Roth’s emphasis on the everyday, but they also make the story their own in ways beyond changing the Roth surrogates’ last name.

Philip may now go by Levin, but his parents are still Herman and Bess (Zoe Kazan), a Metropolitan Life insurance salesman and a housewife on the steady climb to upward mobility when the action begins. Bess is not the psychosexual terror Roth made infamous in prior works like Portnoy’s Complaint, but a woman justifiably terrified by what’s steadily unfolding around her: the Just Folks effort to reprogram young Jews like her son; the defacement of Jewish cemeteries with swastikas while police look the other way; the involuntary relocation of urban Jews to the South and Midwest through job transfers, an effort euphemistically called Homestead 42. Bess urges Herman to move the family to Canada before it’s too late. He won’t listen.

Herman is The Plot Against America’s most tragic figure, and also its most recognizable one. America is, on the page, more of an idea than an ethnic identity, a fact that should in theory make it resistant to racist fearmongering, but in practice makes it all the more heartbreaking when it’s not. Herman’s faith in America makes him act like a mild-mannered institutionalist but talk like a zealot, maintaining his belief that norms and ideals will save the country even as everything and everyone around him insists otherwise. (“This is still America, and I want my day in court!”) He spends every night hunched in front of the radio listening to the sermons of gossip columnist turned resistance figure Walter Winchell, and every day railing against the man in the Oval Office. He is, in other words, an MSNBC dad, consumed by futile rage but unable to channel it toward solving problems far above his pay grade.

Herman’s naive form of defiance is in contrast with that of Alvin (Anthony Boyle), his headstrong nephew who enlists in the Canadian army to fight in Europe. There, Alvin loses part of his leg, and returns home to New Jersey physically and psychologically wounded. Under a neutrality pact between Lindbergh and Hitler, engaging in combat is technically illegal, so Alvin gets far from a hero’s welcome home; he’s harassed and scorned. Herman is able to maintain a faith that Alvin can’t, because it’s never tested quite enough to be shattered. Alvin went out of his way to face down evil; Herman simply tries to maintain dignity and grace in the face of it, a small ask that his country is increasingly disinclined to fulfill.

The Plot Against America seeks to answer no less grand a question than what this country means. It’s not subtle in the asking; Frank Sinatra’s “The House I Live In (That’s America to Me)” earns a prominent place in the soundtrack. But it’s a query on everyone’s mind. “Real America” is a concept often weaponized by the right wing against city-dwelling liberals, including the Lindbergh administration in its efforts to move Jews into the so-called heartland. The terrifying truth is that it’s a concept very much up for debate. Is the real America the authoritarian impulse and naked prejudice unmasked by Lindbergh, seething under the surface all along? Or is it the egalitarian vision of those who oppose him? I won’t spoil The Plot Against America’s ultimate conclusion, but that the issue needs pondering should be hair-raising enough.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.