Though “The Plot Against America” took its time to get going, it’s full steam ahead for David Simon’s Philip Roth adaptation by Episode 4 — but to what end? With just two episodes to go, the drama has certainly flared up: The Levin familial bonds are being pushed to the brink as Sandy falls increasingly under Lindbergh’s spell, with the help of Aunt Evelyn and her new boyfriend Rabbi Bengelsdorf. The lines have been drawn, and it’s not looking good for either side. While this was by far the most exciting episode so far, it still feels as though Simon is obligingly following Roth’s outline rather than forging his own path.
In both the novel and the series “The Plot Against America,” there’s an unmentioned but implicit rhetorical question reaching out from beyond the page and screen. To borrow from the musical “Cabaret,” one of the only pieces of pop culture to artfully grapple with this unthinkable dilemma: What would you do? If a fascist were elected president of your country, if your sister started dating one of his shills, if your son was secretly sketching his visage by flashlight — how would you behave? Would you flee to Canada, organize the resistance, or stick your head in the sand and hope for the best?
The fourth episode hones in on these questions with laser-like precision, enjoying the fruits of the preceding three episodes that felt, both in retrospect and in real time, mostly like set-up. Having returned from his “Just Folks” adventure in Kentucky, a Hitler Youth-esque recruiting tool of Rabbi Bengelsdorf’s (John Turturro) design, Sandy has quite literally become the poster child for assimilationist Jews. Evelyn (Winona Ryder) proudly features him in a brochure for the program, against Bess’ (Zoe Kazan) wishes.
Sandy’s transformation has been building since the pilot episode, which ended with him surreptitiously sketching Charles Lindbergh from of a newspaper clipping. Having planted the seeds deliberately, the show earns its most uncomfortable moment so far when Sandy spits at his parents, calling them “ghetto Jews — narrow-minded ghetto Jews.” His transformation is complete. When Bess slaps him across the face, it’s hard not to let out a silent cheer. (Your Jewish firstborn becoming a Nazi sympathizer may be the rare instance when a kid deserves a good wallop.)
Less effective is a Shabbas dinner argument between Herman (Morgan Spector) and Bengelsdorf, where Herman puts aside any last shred of civility to tell the Rabbi what he really thinks of his man Lindbergh. Maybe it’s the fact that only the men are talking while the women make sidelong glances of discomfort, but this shouting match feels more like drudgery than a dramatic zenith. It’s hard to say if that’s the fault of the actors, the script, or the direction; but the whole thing feels like an expository slog laying out two rather obvious positions that would have benefited from more tension and less yelling.
Yet another surprise in store during Episode 4 is the return of the prodigal nephew Alvin (Anthony Boyle), who lost his leg fighting on the front lines, sort of. After a few brief scenes of him snapping at his nurse to show how sad he is that he lost his leg, Alvin returns home to Newark — and with his own fancy FBI agent on his tail, no less. (Hello, “Oz” star Lee Tergesen! Say what you will about HBO, they know how to look after their own.)
Since their adorable angel child clearly wasn’t traumatized enough by the global rise of anti-semitism, the Levins move Alvin into Philip’s (Azhy Robertson) room where he stares wide-eyed at his cousin’s festering wound before bedtime. As if that wasn’t hard enough on the little peanut, his fun friend Earl (Graydon Yosowitz) is moving to the city, leaving him alone with the now-fatherless neighbor Seldon (Jacob Laval).
For all of Bengelsdorf’s blabbering at dinner, his steadfast belief in Lindbergh’s fundamental good nature may be tested soon — although will it be too late for him and Evelyn? The couple is tickled pink to be invited to a state dinner at the White House with German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop in attendance. After Evelyn wrangles Sandy an invite, Herman and Bess must drag him out of Bengelsdorf’s house kicking and screaming. The dinner is uneventful save for a hateful comment by Henry Ford (Ed Moran) that the couple laugh off as if it was light party banter. The writing is on the wall, but they’re too busy drinking in the view to see it.
“The Plot Against America” airs new episodes Mondays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.