A disjointed episode finds drama in family conflict.
This recap of The Plot Against America Season 1, Episode 4, “Part 4”, contains spoilers. You can check out our thoughts on the previous episode by clicking these words.
When you’re a kid, it can feel like your parents are always against you. It feels like they don’t know best for you, projecting their own insecurities on to you. And frequently they are. Sometimes they really do know best, but it’s hard to tell when your whole life you’ve felt trapped by your parents’ fears. And sometimes it feels like they’re just narrow-minded when they don’t want you to go to dinner on the invitation of the first lady to welcome a prominent Nazi into the country.
Granted, that latter experience is neither a personal one, nor a universal one, but the central thread of this week’s episode of The Plot Against America. The conflict described above is the culmination of a brewing disagreement between the Levin parents and those who would stand with Lindbergh.
Sandy has just returned from his summer in Kentucky, where he is being used as propaganda for the program. He shows Philip his drawings, imploring his younger brother not to tell their parents about the pictures of pigs being slaughtered. When Philip reminds Sandy that they don’t keep kosher, Sandy reinforces the point. It’s a scary scene, one that rests on what we know of Sandy’s previous perceptions of his parents, and confirms that he has doubled down on those perceptions over the summer.
When Rabbi Bengelsdorf and Evelyn come to dinner, Sandy explains that he “learned a lot about our country.” Bengelsdorf relates to his own experiences growing up in the south, divulging his family’s Confederate history (now his politics make more sense).
Of course, Herman wastes no opportunity to challenge him and Lindbergh. Bengelsdorf has no interest in the old country, calling it a “Charnel house.” Herman counters by invoking his nephew. “Alvin encountered himself a citizen of the world, and a Jew,” he says, becoming more alike to his nephew each day of the Lindbergh presidency.
Director Thomas Schlamme (taking over from Minkie Spiro) shoots the conversation with wide shots that allow us to see Evelyn’s constant eye-darting to see everyone’s reaction. Bengelsdorf remains steadfast in his defense of Lindbergh. “He made some antisemitic statements, but he did so out of ignorance,” quite a (cough cough) a compelling argument
Bengelsdof seems to have his own plans to “integrate” the Jews. He has a meeting with a who’s who of business leaders, to discuss a relocation program called the “Homestead act.” He assures that it will be voluntary, and of course, that has never gone bad, right?
Later, Evelyn and the Rabbi are invited by the First Lady to “represent their community” at a state dinner to welcome a prominent Nazi to the US. Unsurprisingly, Mrs. Lindbergh tells them that “the Jewish leaders we’ve asked to attend this dinner have declined.” Evelyn does not see this as a sign but excitedly agrees, on the condition that they can invite Sandy.
Of course, Sandy accepts, much to Herman and Bess’s horror. They forbid his attendance, and he runs off to Evelyn’s. The Levins arrive to confront the Lindbergh-friendly party. Herman spares no fury, calling Lindbergh a Nazi, but he goes too far when he accuses Evelyn of “banging her way to the top.”
Back at home, the argument becomes nastier as Sandy accuses his parents of being “ghetto Jews”, “narrow-minded”, and, “worse than Hitler.” The last part stings and Herman pointedly leaves the house. Sandy thinks that his punishment has been spared, but as he tries to leave, his mother slaps him.
It’s a horrifying scene, the culmination of years of tension. The show has been excellent at allowing us to understand each character’s motivation (with the exception of Bengelsdorf). Sandy is a rebellious teenager, who has not experienced Jewishness the same way his parents have. We have seen Evelyn’s lack of romantic luck, which explains her willingness to fall for Bengelsdorf and his view on Lindbergh.
She doesn’t seem to be bothered by the Nazi flag hanging at the dinner, only shocked when the notoriously antisemitic Henry Ford refuses to hide his hatred. Von Rippentrop himself is charming, and Evelyn is excited to dance with him.
But Rabbi Bengelsdorf is far from the only Jew who is comfortable with Lindbergh. Herman’s brother Monty (David Krumholtz) argues that things aren’t so bad for them now. Herman responds to his brother’s callousness, claiming that he only cares “if the money is right.”
Herman’s support for Alvin has only grown, to the point where it’s clear he wishes that he himself could go off and fight. He drives up to Canada to visit Alvin in the hospital. On the way having an interaction with a gas station owner shows distaste for Herman when he tries to play Winchell over the station radio.
To say Alvin is not doing well is putting it mildly. He barely talks and has little will to left in him. In the middle of the night, as he hobbles to the latrine, he spills the contents of his bedpan all over him. It hardly seems like a new low.
Despite warnings that his involvement in the war may endanger him if he does so, he returns to New Jersey, a changed man. At the Levin’s house, he’s ashamed to be seen hobbling around, and his demeanor frightens Philip. He is offered a job working for Monty, who is pressured by an FBI agent to fire him, true to what he was warned about in Canada.
Said FBI agent has been making the rounds, visiting Herman as well as young Philip. While the show has made Philip much more peripheral than he was in the book, it nevertheless succeeds in demonstrating (heartbreakingly so) how traumatic turbulent times can be for a young child.
The episode begins with his grandmother’s funeral, where thematically on-the-nose platitudes are delivered, (“Our parents risked it all to become Americans, and now we all Americans”). He’s lost a loved one, his cousin returns a hollowed shell of a man, and his brother and aunt are constantly at war with his parents. Bess tries to hide it from him, but he always senses that something is wrong.
At least he has his friend Seldon to play with, put poor Seldon’s father (who’s coughing in the basement terrified Philip last episode). After the visit from the FBI agent, he comes home to find an ambulance outside his house with a body being moved between the two. He is horrified. He thinks his father is dead. Bess comforts him, telling him that it is Seldon’s father. But the pain is revealing; he senses that his family is in danger, even if his father does not.
Near the episode’s close, Philip sneaks into the movie theater to watch a newsreel of his aunt at the ball. Of course, he is caught, but when his father picks him up, Herman is far from happy. Philip, despite his fear, does not see the gravity of the political situation, and Herman, already on edge from the Sandy argument, comes close to slapping him. He stops, seeing the fear and naiveté of his son’s eyes. “This is not a game,” Herman tells him. Politics can make a family turn against each other in nasty ways. And can make a young child so horribly afraid.
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Cole Sansom is a writer, filmmaker, and photographer based out of Philadelphia