A stomach-churning episode rackets up Herman’s stubbornness in the face of a hateful world.
This recap of The Plot Against America Season 1, Episode 3, “Part 3”, contains spoilers. You can check out our thoughts on the previous episode by clicking these words.
When things get bad — as they did for Jews in Nazi Germany, as they have for migrants in the US, as they have and will have to many more groups around the world — there are two ways you can react. You can see what’s going on, acknowledge how terrible it can be, but still hold your ground, refusing to believe that things could get worse. Or you can see the danger and choose to get out before the inevitable occurs.
These diverging attitudes are exhibited by Herman and Bess Levin in The Plot Against America Episode 3, and boy does it put strains on their marriage.
Herman is no longer parading the phrase “everybody knows.” He cleans gravestones that have been defaced by Swastikas and still trusts that the rule of law is on his side. “How many Jews do you think there are on the Newark police force,” a friend asks him. “These assholes, they’ve always been here. But now they have permission to climb out from under the rocks.” It’s a line that nods towards the present era, but when delivered by Herman, it shows his inability to see the forest for the trees.
Everyone around him considers moving to Canada. Bess tries to apply for citizenship. But Herman stubbornly refuses. “This is my country,” he insists, unable to see that his country has been taken over by those who do not want him around.
His refusal to stand down is a product of masculine instincts and a relatively safe upbringing, in sharp contrast to Bess’s. We know that Bess grew up the only Jews in her neighborhood, she knows how to be the outlier. Herman has grown up in the comfort of a Jewish neighborhood, which accounts for both his myopia and his stubbornness.
This all comes to the fore in the centerpiece of The Plot Against America Episode 3: a family trip to DC. Whether they’re confronted by a police officer, a hotel clerk who kicks them out of their room, or Lindbergh supports at the Washington monument, Herman refuses to lower his voice, refuses to back down. And always, beside him, Bess cowers, terrified. Her eyes brim with tears.
“Herman, I can’t go on like this,” she tells him. What Herman feels as his duty to stand up to rudeness, Bess feels approaching danger, and her instinct is to keep her head down. In a series of scenes, each more gut-wrenching than the last, the Levin’s face antisemitism. Minkie Spiro ratchets up the tension with small moments: the way their tour guide looks down whenever Herman brings up FDR or the way the police officer pronounces “Levin,” after they get kicked out of the hotel.
Herman can only think of the slight against his family and chooses to escalate each situation. Bess implores him to pull back; she fears the worst.
And she’s not wrong to think that. Through radio and newsreel, we hear that Lindbergh has shaken hands with Hitler and plans to open “relocation camps.” Noted antisemite Henry Ford is allowed to sell vehicles to the Nazis. The worst is yet to come.
Afraid of Everyone
But there is one Jew who is not afraid of Ford. Rabbi Bengelsdorf introduces his “Just Folks” program. Taking influence from the Native American boarding schools, he intends to “further and better assimilate our people into the fabric of America,” through the ominously named “Office of American Absorption.” It’s a common tactic used by those who wish to pray upon certain groups; insist they are not “American” but need to be taught how.
Unfortunately for the Levin family, Sandy is enticed by the opportunity to visit the country, even if he just wants to draw pictures of the animals. This leads to an argument with his father. Herman sees the program for what it is — an attempt to distance Jewish children from their parents. Sandy sees his father as ignorant, “You’re scared of anywhere you haven’t been, and anyone who’s not Jewish.”
But if anyone’s really scared, it’s little Philip. He has a nightmare where his stamps become swastikas. Bess takes him to the doctor, who claims that “Since the election, only Jewish kids are having fight or flight dreams.” It’s a heartbreaking concept — how children can be traumatized by political events — and I’m glad Simon & co. wrote it in. I just wish Philip wasn’t so shortchanged for the rest of The Plot Against America Episode 3, existing mostly to provide reaction shots for the arguments that follow.
If anyone gets too much screen-time, it’s potentially Alvin, who is given a lot of plot that suffers from being disconnected from the rest of the story. In the second half of The Plot Against America Episode 3, he is sent on a mission to steal a prototype radar from the Nazis. We don’t see the actual mission (presumably for budgetary reasons, another thing that makes the plotline feel limp), but he loses a leg in the process.
Luckily, Alvin is given a chance to shine in the first half of the episode. He goes home with a girl who sees the war as a fun adventure, rather than a matter of life or death. “Before the war, every day was the same. now it’s like we’re living on the edge of a knife.” “Helluva thing,” replies Alvin.
When she blithely asks about being Jewish, he tells her “You make it sound like a choice.” Alvin explains to the ignorant goy. Judaism is not a mere religion, but a heritage: “I’m Jewish because my father was a Jew. And his father, a Jew, and his father and his father and all the way back.” “I’m a Jew because I was born a Jew and this whole ******* world wishes I wasn’t. They want us gone, all of us. And they drive themselves crazy because, after all this time, they still can’t get rid of us.”
It’s a poignant scene, one that digs into the heart of Alvin’s rationale. We see not only what it is to be Jewish, but how many of the Allied fighters are ignorant of that meaning. We Jews have a history of facing genocide. Our resilience is a badge of honor many of us wear with pride.
Another Round of Coffee
For Herman, this badge is what makes his stubbornness acceptable. And it comes in full play during the Levin’s final outing in Washington. Over a meal, Herman shares his love of Walter Winchell with their guide and is confronted by a larger man. He gets up, always willing to become the “Loudmouth Jew” others accuse him of being.
Luckily for Herman, the waitstaff are not bigoted and tell the aggressive goy to stand down, offering the Levin’s free coffee and ice cream. But an opportunity to gloat does not pass by Herman unaware. He takes the opportunity to burst into song. It’s painful to watch; after everything we’ve seen, we’re sure something horrible will happen.
But nothing does. Bess and the kids begin to smile, and as he finishes, the entire restaurant applauds. Faith in humanity restored, Herman agrees to allow Sandy to spend the summer in Kentucky. On the one hand, we hope that Herman is right; but everything we’ve seen so far makes it hard to believe so. As Sandy’s train moves into the distance, Herman and Bess seem to doubt his prior convictions.
The dread of the inevitable hangs over the scene, and the entirety of The Plot Against America Episode 3. Even though I’ve read the book, and (in theory) know what happens, Ed Burns’ script and Minkie Spiro’s direction have left me more anxious than ever before.
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Cole Sansom is a writer, filmmaker, and photographer based out of Philadelphia