Over the course of his television career, David Simon has singlehandedly raised the bar for what to expect from a TV show. His projects, from “The Wire” to “Treme” to “The Deuce,” share a pervasive yet subtle complexity; these are entertaining, character-driven tomes that transform granular research into vivid portraits of myriad systemic injustices. “The Plot Against America,” Simon’s six-episode HBO limited series based on Philip Roth’s eponymous novel, has sadly not reached similar heights.
Working for the first time from fictional source material, “The Plot Against America” has felt curiously devoid of the energetic frisson that marks Simon’s prior work. Roth’s allegorical alternative history has much to say about society, but it is still — thankfully — a work of fiction. Simon began his professional life as a journalist, and his work has always been in conversation with non-fiction. He seemed obsessed with reflecting the real world as genuinely as possible, while animating his sagely prophets and Machiavellian players with poetic flair.
While elements of “The Plot Against America” bear similarities to the rise of the Alt-Right, the story is still mostly a thought experiment. What’s more, it’s one we’ve already seen play out. We’ve been watching the plot against America for the last four years, except instead of newsboy caps and vintage cars we got MAGA hats and tiki torches. While HBO is recreating scenes of Jews burnt in their cars, Zionists are firebombing Palestinian cars — they don’t need another example of anti-semitism, especially a fictional one, to fan the flames.
Sticking to the script, however, the final episode of “The Plot Against America” builds on the momentum of Episode 5, which came a day late and a dollar short but paid off in the end. The series finally picked up steam with its final two chapters, propelled by a fiery performance from Zoe Kazan and a few scenes that finally started to sound like David Simon wrote them. The series finale is lacking in the kind of chef’s kiss of dialogue that has gotten Simon dubbed a “genius,” but serves up a satisfying melange of gut-wrenching drama and poetic justice.
The episode opens with a swell of anti-semitic crimes, such as the looting of synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses. We learn that radio personality Walter Winchell, amidst a challenge to Charles Lindberg’s presidency, was shot in the head at a campaign rally. The news blasts over the radio, a ubiquitous presence in the show throughout, as we see Herman (Morgan Spector) packing potatoes into a truck, a far cry from his insurance-selling days. With the uptick in violence, his new Italian neighbor drops by with a grim double offering: fruit cake and a six-shooter.
Mercifully, Bengelsdorf (John Turturro) finally pays the piper for his Lindberg sycophancy. This leads to a killer scene between Bess (Zoe Kazan) and Evelyn (Winona Ryder), who weren’t given nearly enough time to go at it. After her husband is arrested in the middle of the night, Evelyn shows up to the Levin’s house expecting sympathy from her sister. Bess promptly kicks her out, incredulous at Evelyn’s selfishly putting the family in even more danger than she already has. Her final words to Evelyn, while appropriately stinging, lack poetic subtlety, but Kazan manages to eke out a tremendous performance nonetheless. (It’s also another reminder that it’s a shame these two didn’t have more to do.)
It’s too bad the clunky final brawl between Herman and his nephew Alvin (Anthony Boyle) lacks a similar emotional heft. The timing of the scene, which starts with a joyful dinner and ends with Alvin slugged through a table, feels out of place. It’s unclear how much time has passed at the start of the meal, which at first feels like a celebratory reunion. If a relative peace had been restored, why the fighting? Is it meant to signify the rifts of trauma cannot be healed so quickly, or that it’s back to business as usual for the bickering family? Upstairs, Phillip (Azhy Robertson) is crying.
The series ends with a menacing montage to the tune of Frank Sinatra crooning “That’s America to Me,” as citizens vote in a fictional 1942 election. We see ballots burned and voters turned away from polls as Herman and Bess anxiously await news of the results from their trusty radio. We hear of “some conflicting results early on,” as the screen fades out on red radio waves. It doesn’t matter that the formal ending is ambiguous — we all know how this story ends.
“The Plot Against America” is available to stream on HBO Now.