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The Plot Against America Review: HBO Limited Series Is a Chilling Allegory for Our Times

It's about how it can happen here

Liam Mathews

The Plot Against America, HBO's six-episode limited series from The Wire's David Simon and Ed Burns, is an allegory in the vein of Arthur Miller's The Crucible. The way that Miller's classic play used the historical analogy of the Salem witch trials to comment on the then-present McCarthy era, during which the federal government persecuted suspected Communists supposedly occupying places of power in the United States, The Plot Against America uses an alternate-history version of America during World War II to comment on America's authoritarian rightward slide in the Trump era. It's a chilling and effective reflection of American life in the past five years and semi-paranoid fantasy of where the country could head, with a remarkable level of craft in its acting, writing, and direction.

The limited series is based on a 2004 novel by Philip Roth in which celebrity aviator Charles Lindbergh beats Franklin D. Roosevelt in the election of 1940 on a Nazi-sympathetic, non-interventionist platform -- views Lindbergh had in real life -- and gradually (but not that gradually) turns America into a fascist nation where Jews become second-class citizens. It tells the story through the eyes of the Levins, a working class Jewish American family in Newark, New Jersey, who watch as their government turns on them.

Roth wrote the book during the presidency of George W. Bush, but the limited series is clearly about the Trump era. The first two episodes follow the Levins observing Lindbergh's rise after entering the presidential race as a republican, giving a speech calling American Jews "war agitators" and "other people" with their own interests. He makes most of Newark's Jewish community nervous. "He's tapped into something," someone says. "If he says it, every other anti-Semite has permission," someone else says. And the community feels it, in bolder comments from the German Americans in nearby Union. Some people don't think Lindbergh could get elected, while others remember how he made people feel when he flew across the Atlantic and became an American hero, and they see how he knows how to articulate the hate and fear people are feeling. At the end of the second episode, Lindbergh is elected. Watching the episodes are like reliving Trump's ascent through 2015-16, when it didn't seem like he could win, until he did.

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The episodes after that aren't quite as reflective of the current moment, as the Trump administration has not imposed fascism in America, but they're still vivid depictions of not-unfounded fears. Anti-Semitism is still alive and well. Earlier this month a man brought a Nazi flag to a Bernie Sanders rally, the candidate who, if elected, would be America's first Jewish President. The later episodes are about what could happen, under the circumstances, and how people would behave.

In typical Simon style, the characters all represent ideas and speak in ways that articulate points of view. Herman Levin (Morgan Spector) is the patriot who believes it can't happen here and his country is better than this, like the MSNBC watcher who's still saying "this isn't normal." His wife, Bess (Zoe Kazan), who grew up in a neighborhood where her family were the only Jews, knows it can happen here. Their rebellious older son, Sandy (Caleb Malis), is sympathetic to Lindbergh, while their younger son, Philip (Azhy Robertson), is too young to fully understand what's happening but picks up on the adults' fear and anger. Herman's orphaned nephew, Alvin (Anthony Boyle), is an angry young man who goes to Canada to enlist in the army and fight Nazis. And Bess' sister, Evelyn (Winona Ryder), is an apolitical person who gets influenced when she begins a relationship with the charismatic and well-connected Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf (John Turturro), a Lindbergh collaborator who Herman says "would sell every last Israelite back to Pharaoh." The political disagreements drive the family apart.

The characters keep from becoming archetypes on the strength of the performances. Simon and Burns imbue the characters with just enough personal in the political for the tremendously talented and intelligent actors in the cast to flesh out into people that feel real.

The series also looks beautiful, with meticulous period detail and gold-tinted cinematography. Directorial duties are split between TV vets Minkie Spiro and Thomas Schlamme, and they make the most of the resources afforded to them by HBO.

The Plot Against America isn't a fun watch, especially in a time as uncertain as the present moment, but it's an edifying and moving one. It will make you think a lot about what's at stake as the world's governments move to the right.

TV Guide Rating: 4/5

The Plot Against America premieres Monday, March 16 at 9/8c on HBO.