In the first two parts of “The Plot Against America,” HBO’s six-episode adaptation of the bestselling Philip Roth novel, creator David Simon took his sweet time setting up the chess board. Sure, establishing the rules of an alternate historical timeline takes some thought and detail, but it shouldn’t use up one-third of your total storytelling time. Those tricks may have worked wonders for the “The Wire,” which artfully unmasked the futility of a few good actions against a rigged system, but so far the grandiose themes in “The Plot Against America,” such as the rise of fascism and the radicalization of everyday people, feel a lot less relevant than the alliances and rivalries of inner city Baltimore.
What’s left for the series to do then, in its remaining three episodes, is tell a good story. Thankfully, that modest goal seems attainable after the series’ third episode, which propels the Levins into the fray of the rising tide of anti-semitism. Rather than wringing their hands while watching from the sidelines, the show’s central family finally experiences firsthand the discrimination they’d been talking about in the first two episodes. While that may sound voyeuristic, it’s kind of the whole premise of the story, and a key element of imagining Roth’s parallel past.
As our adorable bellwether of things to come, young Phillip (Azhy Robertson) opens the third episode with a nightmare. Haunted by visions of his precious stamp collection turning to Hitler memorabilia, Phillip tumbles out of bed breathless and afraid. A trip to the doctor confirms that all the Jewish kids are having trouble sleeping for the same reason, which doesn’t exactly assuage his mother’s (Zoe Kazan) mounting fears. Meanwhile, his father Herman (Morgan Spector) is kind enough to scrub clean the Jewish graves that have been vandalized with swastikas, but naive enough to be thinking about buying real estate.
On the other side of the Atlantic, cousin Alvin (Anthony Boyle) has arrived in London after having defected to Canada to fight for Queen and country. He’s having luck with a British shiksa, but must field odd questions about his belief in God and why he “chooses” to be Jewish. Clearly, things aren’t perfect even amongst the good guys.
Though Alvin’s storyline has been getting plenty of screen time, it still feels quite ancillary to the plot. He’s gone from beating up Germans in New Jersey to deciphering radar plans in London, picking up a new set of acquaintances along the way. Where are his nogoodnik friends like Shushy Margulis (Steven Maier) for context? He’s a compelling character, but not compelling enough to carry a whole B-plot (or is it a C-plot?) without any support. It’s hard to care when his shiksa girlfriend leaves him in the hospital without so much as a waking goodbye, seeing as we only met her 50 minutes prior.
Though “Plot” seems intent on following Evelyn’s (Winona Ryder) and Rabbi Bengelsdorf’s (John Turturro) tepid and troubling romance, Episode 3 solidifies the immediate Levin family as the show’s bread and butter. When a family trip to Washington, D.C. goes ahead despite Bess’ sensible pleas to cancel, a few unpleasant incidents finally threaten to burst Philip’s stubbornly constructed bubble of blind optimism — or at least hatch some cracks in the veneer.
Spector’s undeniable charisma begins to stretch thin, purposefully so, as Herman defies his wife’s wishes over and over again to laugh in the face of danger. “We’re not in Berlin,” he assures her when she begs him to stop shouting his political views so loudly. Of course, Jewish Berliners in the 1930s didn’t think they were “in Berlin” either.
The show bangs us over the head with it, but Herman very obviously represents the “it could never happen here” mentality that defined post-war American Jewish thought up through today. With this in mind, watch what happens to this character: When will he be proven wrong, and how painful will his reckoning be? How the show handles this catharsis will be its greatest challenge, as Herman is the closest parallel to the average American’s current political anxieties. His comeuppance, or lack thereof, will justify whether this was in fact the right time for “The Plot Against America.” While we wait for the answer, at least the story is finally heating up.
“The Plot Against America” airs new episodes Mondays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.