Everyone has to pay the piper eventually, even upstanding American fathers just trying to do right by their families. Herman Levin (Morgan Spector) may not be the picture of paternal devotion — who could be with a son threatening to join the Hitler youth? — but he’s come pretty close to everyman perfection so far. By the fifth episode of “The Plot Against America,” however, Herman’s stubbornness and indecision is finally threatening to unravel the very fabric of the thing he purports to care about most: his family.
That’s thanks to his wife Bess (Zoe Kazan) finally speaking her mind. Not that she hasn’t tried to before, but by episode’s end she’s made her demands so clearly they’ll be impossible for Herman to ignore.
The penultimate episode of the otherwise sleepy series finally has some pep to it, thanks to Kazan being given more to do than cook dinner and fold laundry (though she still manages to sneak in a few loads). This is the first episode that gives Kazan enough screen time to really strut her stuff. It’s a shame that it came so late in the game, and the show suffered for it, as she brings some much-needed fire to this late chapter.
Creatively, the Levins are meant to be a typical 1940s American family, but that’s no reason to sideline Bess’ character. And while creators David Simon and Ed Burns may be following Philip Roth’s lead, a slightly less faithful adherence to the novel would have benefitted the series, especially in regard to its women characters.
The episode begins in 1942, with The Levins receiving word that they will be re-located to Kentucky as part of Rabbi Bengelsdorf’s (John Turturro) newly-formed “Homestead ’42” program. The second stage of the Rabbi’s youth-centered “Just Folks” program, Homestead relocates Jewish families to small cities in “real America” in order to remove them from their “isolated” communities — a forced assimilation that mimics the European ghettos in reverse.
Director Thomas Schlamme has some artful tricks up his sleeve in this episode, that combined with a livelier script leads to the series’ best episode yet. Schlamme frames black sheep Sandy (Caleb Malis) menacingly; he stands in shadow at the doorframe while the rest of the family huddles in the living room discussing the move. Another stylish flourish comes when we see Herman’s FBI tail reflected through the vintage car window, his translucent visage appearing suddenly like an omnipresent bogeyman.
Bess pays a visit to Bengelsdorf, who is soon to marry her sister Evelyn (Winona Ryder), to beg him to reconsider their enrollment in Homestead. It is then that she learns the family has been flagged by the FBI due to her nephew’s defection, which didn’t do much for the war effort except lose the kid his leg. The scene stands in stark contrast to Herman’s shouting match from the previous episode. Bess is controlled but firm, and both characters have more to do than spout ideology. This scene is an actual scene, with both characters wanting something, revealing something, and leaving some things left unsaid.
Though he got the family into this mess, Alvin (Anthony Boyle) still feels supplementary to the plot. At least his post-war exploits are mildly entertaining. He appears to have landed a job at a pinball machine factory, putting his Newark know-how to use by catching a glitch and saving his new boss some money. The boss’ nervous daughter has caught his eye, and while it seems a little late for a budding romance, here we are.
That famous Simon subtlety makes an appearance here, with a few moments of satisfying textual connections. Alvin’s new paramour suggests Epsom salt for his stump, and the same remedy is later suggested to Herman, whose hands are ripped raw from the new job he’s had to take. It’s these kind of nuanced parallels that made “The Wire” so brilliant. Or the black sense of humor displayed by Shepsie (Michael Kostroff), Herman’s friend who is fleeing to Canada, when he quips glibly, “Next year in Jerusalem.” Herman replies: “Or Saskatchewan.” When Alvin notices an agent tailing him, he says, “Fucking G-men. Always looking for another pound of flesh,” before hobbling away on his prosthetic leg.
OK, maybe it’s not that subtle, but it’s smart and it shows someone was paying attention. Instead of lethargically plowing through plot points like some kind of obstacle course, Simon seems to have finally tapped into a groove. Instead of a Roth novel onscreen, “The Plot Against America” finally feels like a David Simon show. Unfortunately, the hour may be too late for a turnaround.
“The Plot Against America” airs new episodes Mondays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.