HBO’s The Plot Against America is being described in multiple quarters as another one of those alternate history dramas. To an extent, that’s true. It dabbles in the same “what if” scenarios as something like Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle or to a lesser extent HBO’s own Watchmen. But to relegate Plot to that currently very popular sub-genre of dramatic entertainment is to belittle its excellence. The Plot Against America is the best case scenario of this alternate history entertainment. It introduces a divergence in our history as a “what if” scenario, yes, but it uses that alternate history to brilliantly explore interpersonal relationships and an era eerily reminiscent of today’s political environment.
In something like The Man in the High Castle the twist is the thing. It’s all about Nazis and the Japanese occupying America. It’s an alternate history spy series, and that’s largely all it is. Based on the celebrated novel by Philip Roth, Plot, on the other hand, explores all aspects of the socio-political ramifications of that divergence in history. In the series, famed aviator Charles “Lucky Lindy” Lindbergh challenges Franklin Delano Roosevelt as a Republican candidate for President of the United States and wins on a platform that advocates against American involvement in Europe as the Nazi influence spreads across Europe. His victory emboldens a nationalist (“America First”) movement in which ethnic families are persecuted and racial tensions threaten to tear the country apart.
The series funnels all of its observations through the Levins, a working-class Jewish family living in Newark, New Jersey. Herman Levin (Morgan Spector) is the socially conscious, politically active father of the family whose love and dogged allegiance to America – a country that has perhaps abandoned his people – threatens the security of his family. Bess Levin (a flawless Zoe Kazan), his wife, doesn’t suffer in silence exactly, offering her contrarian opinions and going out on her own to help build an escape fund. Her spinster sister, Evelyn Finkel (a welcome Winona Ryder), has a pathological need for love, overriding her internal moral compass. Nephew Alvin Levin (Anthony Boyle) seeks to find a way out of America to contribute as he can, through combat.
Plot focuses on people first. Human interaction drives the drama of the series. Because of that, it has already become saddled with the “slow burn” mantle. I suppose that’s true. To fully appreciate the shifting tensions of this 1940s era alternate America, you have to put events into play. Those events fully pay out in a tremendous and heart-stopping finale. Not the “heart-stopping” events of something like The Man in the High Castle, but events that seem to have tangible threats against the characters we love. It’s a dense, thoughtfully constructed and immensely entertaining series that deserves all of the love coming its way.
Zoe Kazan has, in my mind, never shown this kind of focus and range. She’s completely flawless in the role, growing Bess as a doting and protective mother and a more-modern-than-not wife. She’s literally never been this good. It’s a toweringly fantastic performance that will likely not be topped over the rest of the Emmy season. Winona Ryder gets a lot of attention in her role, and she’s good in it, although I will admit that I’ve always been a huge fan of hers. I’m thrilled to see her given another role outside of Stranger Things that stretches her acting skills again. I think she’s completely fine in the role, although I could have done without later scenes in which she reacts to main events with a slack-jawed, bug-eyed cadence. She was directed that way, but I’m not sure why. It doesn’t suit her.
For my money, the second-best performance comes from Anthony Boyle. I knew very little of him outside of his Tony-nominated role in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. His role as the rabble-rousing, troubled youth is a staple of historic dramas of this type, but as the story progresses, he becomes a damaged person, physically and spiritually. Where many performances here traffic in subtlety and reserve, his is the brash, eye-catching performance – likely to be Emmy nominated. That will be alongside John Turturro as a rabbi from South Carolina deeply involved in the Lindbergh administration. Both are showier performances that anyone else in the series. Both will be recognized by the Television Academy.
The Plot Against America reminds me of classic miniseries like War and Remembrance and The Winds of War. They look at America and American values through an historic lens. Here, the scale is much smaller than with either of those two older productions. We focus on the Levin family, and for me, that works perfectly. They weave in and out of the broader political scene in ways that feel natural and fluid. But we never lose site of two main facts: this is a human story first and foremost, and this is a human story set in the past that has tremendous relevance to our modern socio-political world.
It’s another feather in the HBO cap of brilliant drama serving as political allegories, and I am all here for it.
The Plot Against America starts tonight on HBO at 9 pm ET.