Nobody wants to go to war in a stomach-churning second episode of The Plot Against America.
This recap of The Plot Against America Season 1, Episode 2 contains spoilers. You can check out our thoughts on the previous episode by clicking these words.
“Everybody knows,” repeats Herman Roth. Everybody knows that Lindbergh is a proto-fascist, a rabid antisemite, and a friend of Hitler. “Everybody knows,” Herman yells throughout the second episode of The Plot Against America. His myopia causes him to dismiss Lindbergh’s rise. He’s stuck thinking that every American sees, believes, and knows exactly what he does.
Political rhetoric frequently takes advantage of the small divisions within communities; the way that each of us has different backgrounds, different values. We’re all blinded by something, and the trick of politicians like Lindbergh is to take advantage of those cultural blind spots.
Take Evelyn (Winona Ryder); her predilection for Rabbi Bengelsdorf and her trust in him endows her to overcome her internal conflict. Lindbergh is antiwar, but also anti-Jew. Bengseldorf (Turturro, playing the character as with the mannerisms of a southern gentleman) assures her worries, claiming that he sat down with Lindbergh and convinced him that Jews do not have dual loyalty to their European brethren. For the Rabbi, the path forward is to become American, divorced of history and those relatives currently being persecuted.
For Sandy Roth, and many young Americans Lindbergh is a heroic pilot. He rushes out of the house to see Lindbergh land his plane. It’s now October 1940, and Lindbergh has become the Republican nominee. The episode’s opening scene cross-cuts between Lindbergh’s view from the air and Sandy’s from the ground. Minkie Spiro, who directed the first three episodes, shoots Lindbergh’s exit from the plane from behind; we see a silhouette and a roaring crowd. He’s a rock star; it’s clear that Herman is in the minority.
Lindbergh’s message is compelling: “the choice is between Lindbergh and war.” It clearly strikes a chord with most Americans. Bess and Evelyn’s mother tells Bess of her tendency to agree with Lindbergh: “war is no good,” she says. “Lindbergh is worse”, Bess replies. But not everyone sees things the way the Roths do. Everywhere he goes, Herman speaks out against Lindbergh. “Everyone sees what he is”, he tells the baker. But if everyone sees, then why does he need to keep saying that?
Only Bess is able to reason with him. “To everyone else, he’s a hero,” she tells her husband. Zoe Kazan is excellent in the role, frequently conveying layers of depth with minimal dialogue. The threat becomes real to her after she finds a job at a department store where she deals with blonde, blue-eyed customers who only ask if the store sells Lindbergh scarves. (Normally the show does well to avoid direct comparisons to present-day events, but the idea of a politic move having a signature item of apparel seems a little too on the nose.)
Bess’s newfound employment is a shock to young Philip, who fears the disruption of his lifestyle. “Who’s going to make us snacks,” he worries. But he also worries about his family’s economic position. Earlier, Philip joins his friend Earl on a game where they follow people back to their homes. Philip sees the neighborhood that this wealthy man lives in and realizes that his family’s life is not as great as he realized.
More than anyone else, Philip is afraid of war. Herman takes his sons to see a newsreel which shows the German bombing of London. Philip is shocked. “This is a new kind of war,” his elder brother tells him, as Philip slowly sinks back into his seat.
The only one who doesn’t fear entering the war is Alvin. Back living at the Roth’s, he works as a driver for the wealthy Abe Steinhem. Steinhem (Ned Eisenberg) represents the minority of Jews who have gained previously unimaginable financial heights. When he enters a deli, everyone stops to focus on him. He’s even promised to bribe Rutgers into accepting Alvin. But the Steinhem is rude, and a swindler and Alvin suddenly terminates his employment by telling Steinhem, “Go f*** yourself.” Alvin is fiery, but with a strong moral compass, and the only one who seems to match Herman’s distaste for Lindbergh.
Later in the episode, they listen in disgust as Lindbergh hosts a rally. He frames the war as a class conflict, with “robber barons” taking advantage of the working class. He’s a populist through and through, and even though the statement has much truth in it, it’s easy to see both why this gives Jews uproar, and why he seems reasonable.
But what shocks Alvin and Herman most is Rabbi Bengseldorf. Invited to speak at the rally, the rabbi feigns speaking on behalf of jews and denying any attachment to Europe. “He’s koshering Jews,” cries Alvin. “Don’t you understand. He’s talking to the goyim. He’s giving them permission… to vote for Lindbergh and not be antisemites.”
It’s Alvin who we see in the movie theater, watching the Holocaust occur in realtime. And it’s Alvin who travels to Canada at the end of the episode, enlisting in order to “kill Nazis.” Never one to sit on the sidelines, Alvin sees direct action is the only way forward, even if it’s just to make him feel less helpless.
The final scene of the episode depicts the election. A montage shows Herman become more and more disheartened as he listens to the radio and hears more and more states being called for Lindbergh.
In the stunning final shot, Herman is in a movie theater watching Lindbergh’s victory speech. He looks horrified as the people around him applaud.
Everybody knows, indeed.
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Cole Sansom is a writer, filmmaker, and photographer based out of Philadelphia