Television loves to play the game: What if this part of history happened differently? What would the world look like? It can be a fascinating exercise, and for HBO’s The Plot Against America, the question is, what if Charles Lindbergh (yes, the father of the Lindbergh baby), an anti-Semite, became president of the United States instead of FDR winning his third term, and as a result, the U.S. never got involved in World War II? This six-part mini-series wrapped up on April 19, and as captivating as I found the show, I also found myself unable to make it to the end.
Focusing on a family in a tight-knit Jewish community in New Jersey, the show is able to portray how the ripple effects of Lindbergh’s (Ben Cole) presidency affects its various members. It’s a smart way to structure the series. It gives weight to how the political actions of the new president, who sees fit to make deals with Hitler, impacts individuals, especially members of the Jewish nation. The Levin family is composed of nuanced characters, with diverse political views, including some who find themselves swayed by the handsome aviator president and his ability to keep America out of the war.
The show is engaging, and one of the things it does best is build a sense of dread over how much worse the situation can and will get. When the Levin family goes to visit D.C., they encounter anti-Semitism around every corner. The hotel turns them out, the police refuse to do anything about it, all while the Levins endure bullying and slurs from passersby. Lindbergh continues to meet with Hitler and starts selling the Nazis ammunition. Members of the Jewish communities in the country start immigrating to Canada.
What’s scary is you don’t know how bad things will get, or how far they’ll go, but you know it’s not going to get any better. Oh yes, the series builds dread excellently, and if that’s your cup of tea, then this is probably the show for you, but it’s not currently something I can stomach.
Sure, the coronavirus plays a part in this. Many people are looking for escapist television right now. They don’t want a show where the premise is that everything will only get worse, and we don’t know how bad it’s going to get, because that’s the reality we’re living in right now.
However, I suppose my difficulty in getting myself to sit down and watch the full series may be more personal.
All Jews have to live with the certain reality that any country could turn against us at any moment, and we may have to flee for our lives again. Sure, the Holocaust is the best example, but this has been happening to the Jewish people over and over again for millennia. In a time with rising anti-Semitism — hate crimes against Jews are at an 18-year high— this show hits far too close to home.
I find myself dwelling on parts of an episode hours after I’ve seen it. I’ll be sitting at dinner spiraling into a dark hole thinking about young Philip Levin’s (Azhy Robertson) nightmares of the Nazis coming for them. The family doctor tells mother Bess Levin (Zoe Kazan) that only Jewish children have been having fight or flight dreams since the election. Bess quakes with fear as her husband, Herman (Morgan Spector), argues with passersby in D.C. who yell slurs at the family, and I find I need to pause the episode, and that I, myself, am quaking as well.
The long line of cars of Jewish families with their belongings strapped to their cars make their way to Canada, and I think about how Jews are starting to flee France in our current day, because the violence against Jews there has gotten so bad, or how we American Jews may very well be making our own way to Canada one day. Rabbi Bengelsdorf (John Turturro) happily plays the token Jew connected to the Lindbergh administration, validating it, and I think about how prominent Jews make excuses for Trump’s own blatant anti-Semitism (including his own family members). As he scrubs swastikas off of Jewish graves, Herman says that there were always racists living among them, Lindbergh’s presidency just gave them an excuse to come out, and I think… how terrifyingly appropriate.
The show is based in the early 1940s, but it feels like it can happen at any moment. I suppose for the outsider, it’s just entertainment, but for Jews, it feels very applicable to reality. The truth is, I don’t see anti-Semitism ceasing to rise in the near future, and while the show is an extreme example, history is full of extreme actions against Jews, so I don’t think that it’s crazy that I watch the show with my heart in my throat.
I’m not going to tell you it’s a bad show. In fact, I think it’s really well done. It’s from the creators of The Wire, David Simon and Ed Burns, and the quality of the storytelling shows it. It even feels reminiscent of Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle— a series that imagines an America that lost World War II, and one which I happen to love. But it feels like the wrong moment in time for this series to be airing. People need something to hope for (even High Castle, as dark as it was, was built around hope), and there is no hope in The Plot Against America, only dread.
Header Image: Azhy Robertson, Zoe Kazan, Morgan Spector and Winona Ryder in The Plot Against America. Via HBO.