Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

It’s election night in The Plot Against America, and the unthinkable happens

Illustration for article titled It’s election night in iThe Plot Against America/i, and the unthinkable happens
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“Though on the morning after the election disbelief prevailed, especially among the pollsters, by the day after that everybody seemed to understand everything, and the radio commentators and the news columnists made it sound as if Roosevelt’s defeat had been preordained.” — The Plot Against America: A Novel by Philip Roth

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Whatever your opinion of the current U.S. presidential administration, it’s an indisputable fact that election night in 2016 blindsided a lot of Americans. It’s true that a few pessimistic leftist progressives had been saying for months that a Republican victory was inevitable. But most Democrats seemed to trust the pollsters, as well as their own sense of right and wrong. As the evening unfolded, a sick sense of dread spread across some households, exacerbated—both that night and in the days that followed—by the tone of giddy wonder struck by the broadcast media.

For decades now, the press has treated politics like a sporting event. And here, at last, was a true upset. Immediately, the pundits shifted into analysis mode, retroactively insisting the outcome was obvious. Meanwhile, the citizens with elephant pennants on their walls gloated mercilessly, as their neighbors in the donkey jerseys wept and stewed. It was a weird week. It’s been an even weirder three-and-a-half years.

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I have no idea whether David Simon and Ed Burns were inspired to bring Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America to television due to the uncanny similarities between the 1940 presidential race in the book and what happened in the real world in 2016. But there’s definitely a sense of passion and purpose to the miniseries’ second episode, which deals most directly with the run-up to election night. “Part 2” isn’t just a cockeyed nostalgia-piece from an alternate timeline. It’s saying something.

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Primarily, it’s about the two oldest men in the Levin household: Herman, who believes everything Walter Winchell tells him, and is certain that the Democratic incumbent Franklin Delano Roosevelt will crush the Republican upstart Charles Lindbergh; and his nephew Alvin, who has a generally sour outlook on the world ,and thus knows in his bones that fascism is about sweep America.

Herman and Alvin have similar values, but vastly different perspectives on what their country has to offer. A lot of this episode is about what divides them—with the prospects for Lindy being the major point of contention. Herman mocks Lindbergh’s boring, repetitive 41-word speeches, and talks about how Roosevelt just sounds presidential. Alvin though hears Rabbi Bengelsdorf deliver a ringing endorsement of the Republican’s anti-war platform and minutes later insists to Herman that this will be the turning point in the campaign. He delivers one of the most memorable lines from Roth’s novel, saying the Rabbi is “koshering Lindbergh for the goyim.”

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The Levins are also split on the issue of Alvin’s bullying boss, Abe Steinheim (Ned Eisenberg). To Herman, guys like Abe deserve respect, whatever their kinks. A successful and influential figure in the Jewish community, who employs kids from the neighborhood and helps them get college degrees, Abe is someone to admire, even if he’s demanding (and a little sleazy). Besides, to Uncle Herman, anyone who expects to make something of themselves is going to have to learn to endue an Abe Steinheim or two.

To Alvin though, his boss is a creep—no better than Lindbergh, really, even though he’s Jewish. To him, these powerful people are all rich, arrogant, and acting exclusively out of their own self-interest and bigotry. The scene in this episode where Alvin gets fed up and quits (with a hearty “go fuck yourself”) is in the novel; but Simon and Burns are more overt than Roth about why Steinheim matters. The Plot Against America is in a way about how a mass delusion takes hold; and here even the opinionated anti-fascist Herman Levin finds it all too easy to overlook a man’s flaws, just because he wants to believe that man ultimately stands for something positive.

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Illustration for article titled It’s election night in iThe Plot Against America/i, and the unthinkable happens
Photo: Michele K. Short (HBO)

The rest of “Part 2” is more or less as strong as the Herman and Alvin scenes… although, to be totally honest, the Philip material has yet to fully click. The sequence where Phil learns from his best friend how to follow strangers around comes straight from the book, but it’s mainly significant for the conclusion the boy comes to after sneaking around rich neighborhoods: that the Levins must be poor, because they live on a block where kids play in the street, not in big backyards. This is one of the most disturbing (and, for some, frighteningly familiar) ideas in The Plot Against America: that some happy, prosperous, patriotic Americans would suddenly feel they’re actually alien and undesirable to the majority of their countrymen.

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We see this recur throughout the episode: when Bess gets a job at a department store and waits on two shoppers sporting Lindbergh campaign buttons; when some of the patrons at Herman’s favorite newsreel theater applaud a Lindbergh speech; when Republicans start talking about “taking back America.” Meanwhile, despite their family’s objections, Sandy and Aunt Evelyn can’t help but be captivated by both Lindbergh and Rabbi Bengelsdorf, who seem so confident, so virile… so American. They both seem to be promising something that a lot of people—Jews and gentiles alike—hadn’t known they wanted.

Herman and Alvin though are united in their horror. Both haunt the newsreel theater, but take different messages from what they see. They look at scenes of a bombed-out London, and while Herman sees a warning—“Stop Hitler now!”—which he’s sure his fellow citizens will heed, Alvin sees a fight he knows he’s going to have to join on his own, since his Lindbergh-loving countrymen won’t.

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Still, they do both keep watching. In one of this episode’s most pertinent scenes, Herman almost walks by the theater, but stops and buys a ticket almost compulsively—kind of like how a lot of us today can’t stop ourselves from refreshing Twitter a dozen times an hour. In the novel, Herman describes the nature of this news-addiction to Bess, saying it’s a way of reminding himself of what’s really going on, while everyone else around him seems either ignorant or content. Herman rants:

“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.”

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Stray observations

  • Sometimes locations and performances in a movie or TV show don’t match what we might’ve imagined when we read the book. But sometimes an adaptation shows us things we hadn’t really considered. The look of the younger Levins’ bedroom in The Plot Against America—up the stairs, in a converted attic with no door—isn’t something I thought much about when I read the novel. But it’s such a distinctive space, and in no way generic. It reminds me of the kind of funky little rooms I spent time in throughout my childhood: bedrooms and playrooms and dens that friends and family built into corners of their houses that were otherwise hard to fill.
  • One of the subtler themes of The Plot Against America is that popular culture can unite us and brighten our spirits in dark times, but can also—unintentionally—delude us into thinking that everything’s proceeding as normal. I appreciate that the thoughtfulness of the depiction of radio and the movies in this miniseries thus far, whether it’s Evelyn talking about what shade of lipstick Barbara Stanwyck wears (according to Louella Parsons) or it’s Herman and Bess doing their Burns & Allen routine.
  • Next week brings one of the most tense and telling sections of the novel, where the Levins visit Washington. That’s chapter two of the book; and it’s episode three of this six-episode series. We’ve really only made it through the first chapter so far, in that the election of Lindbergh happens between chapters one and two of The Plot Against America. Simon and Burns have been shuffling some incidents and characters from later in the story and putting them earlier, but still: I’m very curious to see what eventually gets cut to squeeze eight more book chapters into the final three TV episodes.
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Lives in Arkansas, writes about movies, TV, music, comics, and more. Bylines in The A.V. Club, The Week, The Verge, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone.

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