There’s something fascinating about a what if scenario regarding our past. What if the tragedy on 9/11 had been prevented? What if the space race never took off? What if World War II ended differently? While the latter has already been explored in Amazon’s The Man In The High Castle, The Plot Against America takes this WWII-centric idea and puts a slightly different spin on it, asking a very different question. What if Charles Lindbergh had defeated Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940 and gained presidency?
Based on the book of the same name, The Plot Against America is a slickly produced, gorgeously shot historical thriller that gets off to a leisurely start, with a lot of background information for our characters used to pad the hour-long run time out.
Our tale takes place in Newark N.J. of June 1940. A group of boys play a game in the street until Selma calls the boys in for dinner. Cousin Alvin admires Sandy’s drawing skills, sketching him as a gangster and prompting him to rattle off some pop culture references of the time period. As the Rabbi arrives to greet them all in this cramped house, the Levin family say grace as we learn they’re all Jews.
After dinner, the family discuss their everyday lives (and the Yankees, of course) before Herman falls out with Alvin over his attitude. When the morning rolls round, Herman treats the family to a road trip, where he shows them a brand new house on the market, one that’s been knocked down in price considerably. His wife Bess tells him it looks nice, but struggles to hide her uneasiness as they drive past a pub full of fascists nearby.
In the evening, Bess and Herman discuss the scenes at the pub and the growing hostility they face as Jews. Upstairs meanwhile, their children Sandy and Philip discuss what being a Jew means in 1940.
From here, we learn more about each of the family members and just what they do in the community. Herman heads to work in the morning where his colleague warns that Lindbergh running for office could be the spark needed to fuel more racism in the country. As they sift through the different film reels, in the auditorium Alvin jokes around Hitler potentially hitting the UK soon given how quickly France caved to the German war machine.
That evening, Herman and Bess listen to Lindbergh deliver a speech on the radio about the Jews, riling Herman and the rest of the Jewish community up. Concerned that this will provoke anti-Semites to come out in their numbers now, an enraged Herman speaks to his neighbours in the street and they discuss the possibility of Lindbergh running for Presidency and what would happen if he actually won.
Herman visits the Esso garage some time later and apologises for Alvin’s behaviour, given he no longer works there. The owner tells him Alvin has been stealing from him which is why he was fired. After coming to a financial agreement, Herman and the garage owner discuss the latest news surrounding the Presidency, as things start to heat up politically.
While Sandy is drawing a horse, Alvin approaches him with his friend Shushy and they talk about his drawing. Sandy turns the attention to that of the garage, as Alvin tells him he didn’t steal anything, he was just helping a friend out.
That evening, the bubbling tensions blow over as Herman confronts Alvin as he comes home and they discuss him losing his job and the stealing allegations. Despite Bess pleading with her husband to calm down, things spill over into a messy flurry of words which prompts Alvin to collect his things and storm out.
In the aftermath of this, Sandy and Philip discuss Alvin telling them he’s innocent but stop short of mentioning any more when their Father arrives and discusses what happened. He promises to find Alvin and apologize before promptly leaving.
Alvin meanwhile, visits Shushy at the bar and finds him bruised and swollen thanks to a gang beating him for being a Jew. Shushy offers Alvin a bed for the night and having had enough of these attacks, they take the law into their own hands and head out together, following a couple of men who leave the bar and eventually beating them down to the ground.
As they do, the scene jumps back and forth as we see news reports of Hitler’s Third Reich and the oppression of the Jews, while Shushy and Alvin beat down the drunks at the bar. As the episode closes out, Sandy continues to sketch in his room under the covers in the dead of night.
With some good world-building and some interesting characters, The Plot Against America gets off to an intriguing start. Although a few of the scenes feel a bit too slow-paced, despite the good tracking shots, the ending certainly sparks things into life and leaves plenty on the table for the second episode. The visual design of the entire series is fantastic and when it comes to the production design, this HBO series has pulled out all the stops to make things as authentic as possible for this time period.
Only time will tell whether the story will follow suit though and having not read the book, I’m intrigued to see what direction they take with this one, along with seeing whether this is faithful to the book or not. Although the sub-plots involving Philip and Sandy don’t really do much this episode, especially Philip’s trip to Louise’s house, it seems likely that this will may become more important later on down the line. For now though, the series gets off to a good start and leaves things wide open for the rest of the series.