“Normalcy” comes under question in a thoughtful first episode of The Plot Against America.
This recap of The Plot Against America Season 1, Episode 1, “Part 1”, contains spoilers.
What is normal? It’s a question many Americans were faced with in 2016 when progressive figureheads urged everyone to remember that “this is not normal.” The statement rests in an implicit understanding that for everyone, what had been happening up until then was normal, to which the Trump presidency was an aberration.
But “normal” is subjective, and often portrays a sense of privilege, or acceptance with how things are, despite the flaws of the world around you. Normal lies in a state of bliss. Sometimes we can become easily adjusted to comfort, that we mistake this brief period of well-being, for “normal.”
For American Jews, normalcy is always precarious. Ascendancy into the middle class has always been precarious. The twentieth century was a period where America opened itself up to Jews; we became white, and middle class. And for some, it was easy to forget that this “normal” was not the way things always were.
The Plot Against America Episode 1 spends much of its running time showing us what “normal” means to the Roth family of Weequahic New Jersey. The Wire creators David Simon and Ed Burn’s adaption of Philip Roth’s novel tells the story of the rise of racism in the United States through the eyes of a middle-class Jewish family. The trick of this first episode is in narrowing its focus on the Roths; how these changes affect their life, their idea of “normal.”
Minkie Spiro’s direction re-creates 1940s New Jersey with lived-in detail. She interweaves the personal with the political through the frequent depiction of the media; headlines, newsreel, and radio. Outside the house, the neighborhood gathers to discuss the events of the day.
Through film, radio, and gossip, we hear the words of Charles Lindbergh. The famed pilot, already a national figure, amasses a political following. His words are gut-wrenching; we hear a crowd cheer as he blames Jews for wanting to take the US into World War Two. “The choice… is between Lindbergh and war.”
To Herman Roth (Morgan Spector), middle-class Jew and FDR Democrat, Lindbergh’s pronouncements are outrageous. He is making enough money to be able to move out of Weequahic, into a bigger house. But moving up in the world also means moving out of the safety of the Jewish community.
To his wife, Bess (Zoe Kazan), the prospect is less than thrilling. As they drive past a gathering of beer-drinking Germans, she is reminded of her youth, where her home was known as “the Jew house.” Through the microcosm of the Roth’s marriage, Simon and Burns’ script navigates the plurality of Jewish-American experiences.
Bess is comfortable with their current neighborhood, which Spiro shoots with warmth and tenderness that allows the viewer to feel the homeliness the Roth’s feel. The streets and homes of Weequahic are laced with a nostalgic feeling as if this was once the American dream we could all aspire to live in. They feel safe here.
For young Philip, this is all he knows (the book is told through his eyes, but the series makes the wise choice to expand outward). When a Hasidic man appears at the door to raise funds for European Jews needing refuge in “the homeland,” Philip asks his dad what that means. Herman explains things in Europe are tough. But the Roth’s do not need another home. The subtext is not subtle, but sets the tone for the rest of The Plot Against America Episode 1: their “home,” “normalcy,” is less secure than they think.
Philip shares a room with his elder brother Sandy, a promising young artist who resents their living situation, refusing to answer the endless questions that Philip asks.
Bess’s sister, Evelyn (Winona Ryder), lives with their mother. She disbands a disappointing affair (with an Italian!) and resigns herself to spinsterdom before being introduced to the charming Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf (an always-welcome John Turturro, who I’m sure I’ll talk about more in the coming episodes).
Meanwhile, hotheaded cousin Alvin has been fired from his job at a gas station for stealing (a charge he vehemently denies). Later, he avenges a friend by beating up some proto-nazis, a move that is sure to have serious consequences.
In the most brazen directorial choice of The Plot Against America Episode 1, the aforementioned beating occurs in tandem with Herman watching a newsreel of Lindbergh’s speech. The punches are intercut with Lindy’s rhetoric. The message could not be more clear: political rhetoric and real-world violence are intertwined.
Hi folks! Thanks for reading. I’m really excited to be recapping this series, it’s one that I’ve been anticipating for a while, both because of my reverence for David Simon’s work and my fascination with Philip Roth (my college senior thesis was on American Pastoral). I’m thrilled to finally have a good Roth adaptation, and I’m delighted its one that makes such a concerted effort to delve into the thorny territory of Jewish assimilation (a major theme in Roth’s work). I will do my best not to reveal any plot details (no pun intended) that have not happened in the show yet, so you can keep reading along without reading it, but the book is an excellent read!
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Cole Sansom is a writer, filmmaker, and photographer based out of Philadelphia