Violence surrounds the Levin’s in the final episode of the miniseries.
This recap of The Plot Against America Season 1, Episode 6, “Part 6”, contains spoilers. You can check out our thoughts on the previous episode by clicking these words.
“It can happen here too,” goes the saying. For many Americans, fascism is a distant concept; something that plagues Other Places. For some, the 2016 election stoked fears that it Could Happen Here. And for certain members of communities of color, that which many fear is not too far from reality.
What Simon does, in adapting Roth’s novel now, in 2020, is show not that “It could happen here,” but “it could’ve happened here.” The creep towards fascism is not new; its roots have existed for a long time, and always lying below the surface (fitting for a country founded on genocide). The myth Simon dismantles is one of the US as the prevalent force against injustice in the world, the beacon of hope among fascism. When Europe tilted towards demagoguery, the US was always on the verge of doing so. Antisemitism has always been around.
As the miniseries’ final episode opens, the worst has already come true. Herman, working at the grocery, listens to reports on the radio. Synagogues have been torched; anti-semitic protests are sweeping the nation.
He rushes back to his family, his anxiety reflected in Thomas Shlamme’s use of handheld shots. Bess is constantly looking out the window, noting two suspicious men outside, and praying for her husband to return home.
The camera circles Bess as Herman arrives, draws the blinds and tells her that the men outside are gangsters who are likely there to protect them. “Lindbergh is teaching us what it is to be Jews,” Bess says. “Like it or not, we only think we’re Americans.” Herman refuses to get in, saying that this is all a test — “They think one more push, one more shove, we’ll move to Canada.”
Canada seems to be doing well for Shepsie, who sends a letter to Bess. She lets Philip have the stamps, and runs to show them off, only to find his friends have moved out, replaced by an Italian who calls him “paisan” and hands him a mezuzah, take down from the house. The neighborhood is changing.
Later, the Italian man comes to the Levin household to give the family gift: a delicious looking bundt cake, and a gun. I love the showing of solidarity between “ethnic whites” which reminds us of the path that assimilation has taken over the twentieth century.
As soon as Bess learns of Winchell’s assassination, she rushes home to call the Wishnows, realizing how close they are to the scene. She manages to get through to Seldon, who doesn’t quite get the reality of the situation. Over the phone, Bess tries to reassure him, but she’s buckling under the weight of current events. She hands the phone off to Philip, asking him to tell Seldon he misses him. Philip is brought close to tears, fearful of what he has done. Philip is sidelined for most of the finale, relegated to giving the occasional look of horror at his parents’ panic. Azhy Robertson makes the most of the scene, conveying guilt and terror simultaneously.
Luckily, the tragic events have brought the Levin’s together; they go to Winchell’s funeral, and Sandy joins them. The news has even changed Bengelsdorf and Evelyn’s attitude; they listen to his speech where he fails to even mention what has happened.
Meanwhile, Alvin is recruited by an anti-fascist group, who guilts him into using his skills to help them. They take him to a remote radar station, which he monitors briefly, before being told to pack it up. When Lindbergh’s plane disappears the following day, it’s uncertain whether Alvin was responsible or his recruitment was purely coincidental.
Thrown into turmoil, the country only becomes more violent. Those in power take it out on those not — in this case, the Jews.
The unimaginable becomes reality when Bess picks up the phone to hear Seldon on the other end. His mother has not come home. The camera slowly pushes in on Bess, looking trapped in the corridor, as she tries to reassure Seldon, with increasing difficulty as she herself starts to break down.
Outside, Herman sees that the two mafia men have been murdered. Dead bodies on his doorstep have shown him how wrong he was. He tells Bess that she was right, they should have moved Canada: “I can’t live here any longer not knowing what will happen tomorrow.”
Herman and Sandy travel to Kentucky, who has been picked up by the farmers that Sandy lived with. In the South, tensions have simmered to horrific violence. Seldon’s mother was burnt alive in her car by the Klan. It’s reassuring to the Levins, how this fate narrowly avoided them, but still horrific. Seldon’s fears are realized; he is now an orphan.
Their return journey is filled with the klansmen, who have set fire to Jewish-owned businesses. At a roadblock, a hooded man stops them. Herman reaches for the gun but is spared from using it.
Unfortunately for Bengelsdorf, it turns out that sucking up to a government of antisemites eventually bit him in the ***. Under Wheeler’s government, he is accused of being a “Jewish Rasputin,” and is arrested in the middle of the night.
Evelyn turns to Bess, who has nothing but spite (“Why don’t you call von Ribbentrop,” she tells her sister). When Evelyn shows up at her house, Bess forces her out, saying, “I will always love you. But I will never forgive you. Don’t come back here. Ever.”
But the sun still rises. A series of Kristallnacht-esque scenes play as we hear Mrs. Lindbergh claim she was unlawfully detained by Wheeler. She pleads the country to be at peace again and to replace Wheeler.
The Levins are in one piece and one big family. Of course, now that the country is more settled, Herman and Alvin return to each other’s throats. Despite the appearance of calm, nothing will ever be the same. The violence is off the streets and into their homes.
Meanwhile, Rabbi Bengelsdorf tells everyone who will listen that Lindbergh is still alive. The whole presidency was the product of blackmail; the Nazis captured his son and forced him to run for president. He is dismissed as a conspiracist. The book seems to give more weight to this theory, and I like how the show sidelines it. Who knows, it could be true? But it doesn’t matter. Regardless of his motivations, Lindbergh unleashed the torrents of hatred that had always existed, bubbling below the surface.
The show ends with an election. Sinatra plays again as citizens line up to vote. Many have been purged from the voter roll, and many of the ballots are destroyed. So much for democracy, eh.
It’s a fitting ending for an expertly crafted miniseries that frequently became unbearable to watch. I’ve enjoyed seeing Simon’s take on the novel (and for once, a good Philip Roth adaptation). The show has a lot to say, but it succeeds mostly in conveying the feeling of terror that Levin’s fear. Rather than detailing the rise of fascism, Simon shows us how one family buckles under the weight.
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Cole Sansom is a writer, filmmaker, and photographer based out of Philadelphia