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Series / The Plot Against America

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The Plot Against America is an HBO Alternate History Mini Series created by David Simon and Ed Burns of The Wire and Generation Kill. It is based on the book of the same name by Philip Roth.

The miniseries focuses on the extended Levine family, middle-class Jews from New Jersey who struggle against antisemitism and xenophobia in the wake of Charles Lindbergh's successful 1940 presidential campaign on an isolationist, "America first" platform.


This miniseries provides examples of:

  • Adaptational Alternate Ending: In the book, the main difference is that Evelyn isn't ostracized by her family. The reason is that Philip ultimately couldn't let his parents kick her out of the basement and started sneaking her food. When his mother finds out, Evelyn and Bess manage to strike a truce while the latter takes care of the former. Here, this doesn't happen. Bess disowns Evelyn, who never apologizes or regrets her role.
  • Adaptation Expansion: The biggest change from the novel is expanding its point-of-view from Philip's perspective, devoting equal time to Philip's parents, Alvin, Evelyn and Rabbi Bengelsdorf.
  • Adaptation Name Change: Author Philip Roth named the characters in his original novel after himself and members of his real family. He asked that the characters be renamed for the show because they would not be under his personal authorial control.
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  • Adaptational Heroism: In the book, Alvin is ultimately a wastrel. In the series, he's very flawed but also a sympathetic and ultimately decent person. Co-creator David Simon said that it didn't seem fair for the character who most strongly opposes fascism to be a worthless human being.
  • Adult Fear:
    • As antisemitic riots erupt nationwide, Bess grows fearful for their former neighbors, Seldon and his mother, in Kentucky. The worst is confirmed when the mother fails to return home. Bess dispatches Herman and Sandy to retrieve Seldon.
    • During a gas station stop on the return back with Seldon, Herman spots two Klansmen there while both boys are in the station.
  • An Aesop: Every American is an American.
  • Age-Gap Romance: Evelyn is clearly much younger than Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf (the actors are fourteen years apart, though he looks older on the show). Nobody really comments.
  • Age Lift: The show makes Evelyn the older sister rather than the younger sister to emphasize that she's a desperate Old Maid.
  • All Jews Are Ashkenazi: All Jewish characters are of German or Eastern European extraction, and they all throw around a lot of Yiddish.
  • Alternate History: The series centers on one starting with Charles Lindbergh successfully winning the Presidency against Franklin Roosevelt in 1940, maintaining US neutrality and steadily enacting many thinly veiled antisemitic policies which push the country into the Axis camp, with American Jews struggling to endure it.
  • Aluminum Christmas Trees: There is, in fact, a long history of Jews in the American South, and Bengelsdorf factually brings up Judah P. Benjamin, a Southern Jew who spent a large portion of the Civil War as the second-most powerful man in the Confederacy. Before the mid-19th century Charleston, South Carolina (where Bengelsdorf is from) had the most American Jews (and was the largest Jewish community of North America period), until more immigrated from Europe. Only later was it surpassed by New York City.
  • Anti-Villain:
    • Evelyn and Rabbi Bengelsdorf by supporting American policies that ultimately hurt American Jews. In their rise to power, they get full of themselves and start abusing their authority over others. In the end, however, they are doing what they think is best, and Bengelsdorf tries to use his influence with Lindbergh to mitigate his more extreme policies. It's hard not to feel sorry for them when their government allies turn on them and twist their work into weapons against Jews.
    • Charles Lindbergh wants peace in America, which is an understandable goal. He's very careful to never say anything bad about Jews, but he still sees them as less American than gentiles. His policies and antisemitic underlings ultimately start turning America into a proto-Nazi Germany.
  • An Arm and a Leg: Alvin loses a leg while fighting Nazis.
  • Author Appeal: Co-creator David Simon is Jewish and has a documented interest in politics, so the story obviously hits a lot of his buttons.
  • Bilingual Bonus: You only get to know what Evelyn's Yiddish curse means if you know Yiddish (or look it up). It means, "Go shit in the ocean!"
  • Bittersweet Ending: The Levine family has deep fissures that will probably never fully heal, and people have died along the way, but America seems to be back on track with a strong presidential race in Roosevelt's favor, though the results of the election are not shown.
  • Borscht Belt: In the first episode, Herman and Bess perform a Burns and Allen routine for the family, which is of the borscht belt style.
  • Both Sides Have a Point:
    • Usually the case when Herman and Alvin butt heads. Herman tries to be an upstanding man of honour and is endlessly and understandably frustrated that Alvin keeps running with lowlives and choosing the short-sighted, aggressive path at every turn. On the other hand, it's also easy to see Alvin's point about Herman being self-righteous and refusing to even listen to Alvin's side of the story, as well as being more fond of loudly condemning the evils of the world than actually doing anything about them.
    • Likewise, Herman and Bess. Herman's refusal to live in fear or be intimidated away from his rights as a citizen is perfectly admirable. However, as Bess keeps pointing out, for all his ranting about how America is full of Jew-haters, it never seems to occur to him that he and his family might be in real danger.
  • Calling the Old Man Out: A lot of the conflict in the show is between Sandy and his father Herman. Sandy admires Lindbergh and dismisses his father's concerns over being Jewish in the 1940s. He frequently accuses his parents of being overprotective and paranoid, insisting that the world outside of their Jewish neighborhood is perfectly safe. He's proven wrong by the end of the series, as the government increasingly abuses American Jews while domestic antisemitism ignites into riots.
  • Canon Foreigner: David Simon added the character of Bess and Evelyn's mother to represent the generation who actually came to America and raised families in their new home. Her funeral makes note of this.
  • Category Traitor:
    • Rabbi Bengelsdorf is an outspoken supporter of Charles Lindbergh, who has a history of antisemitic remarks, sympathy towards Nazism and strong opposition toward intervening in World War 2. He faces heavy criticism within the Jewish community, but the Lindbergh administration uses him to make gentiles feel better about supporting antisemitic policies.
    • Evelyn joins Bengelsdorf in his campaign and even dances with the Nazi Foreign Minister at a gala.
  • Central Theme: Is turning a blind eye to something horrible happening the same thing as being an active participant in it?
  • Chekhov's Skill: During his brief Canadian Army service, Alvin's minor technical skills get him assigned to a mission involving an aerial tracking system. This later leads to him finding himself secretly recruited by a spy cell to monitor Lindbergh's final flight.
  • City Mouse: American Jews in New Jersey are city mice who balk at the thought of moving to small towns in places like Kentucky and Montana. Sandy and his friend on the farm even refer to each other as "city mouse" and "country mouse."
  • The Conspiracy: It's strongly indicated dissident American officials working with British intelligence plotted Lindbergh's assassination. Evelyn also claims the Nazis coerced Lindbergh into enacting antisemitic policies and keeping America neutral, though it's unknown if she's right.
  • Conspiracy Theorist: Evelyn and Bengelsdorf turn into this near the end of the show to explain what happened, causing disdain or sadness from other people.
  • Cultural Cringe: Sandy develops a major case of it through his idolization of Charles Lindbergh. He dives head-first into Rabbi Bengelsdorf's plans to assimilate Jews into gentile society and harangues his father for resisting those efforts.
  • Day of the Jackboot: A major point of the series is to show just how close America really came to embracing the racist, fascist ideologies of the Nazis. Charles Lindbergh says all the right things about how he has no enmity for the Jewish people and simply wants to keep America out of war, but his policies and underlings set about slowly pushing America down a path to Nazism.
  • Dirty Cop: Cops are openly racist and even assassinate some local mobsters who are trying to protect a Jewish neighborhood during riots. They also stand by without intervening as Walter Winchell, a Jewish candidate for US President, is assaulted by antisemitic protesters and then assassinated.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?:
    • In the final episode, an American pogrom against Jewish neighborhoods and businesses very clearly recalls Kristallnacht. One shot of a pile of shoes outside of a looted store is a reference to famous images of the shoe piles left over at Nazi extermination camps.
    • It's quite easy to see the parallels between the trials of Jewish immigrants to be recognized as "real Americans" and the trials of more recent immigrant groups such as Mexican-Americans. Characters also note Lindbergh's "America First" campaign, which was also a slogan used by the 2016 Trump campaign to express a similar sentiment.
  • Evil Chancellor : Rabbi Bengelsdorf is compared to Rasputin by the media for his supposed hold over the first lady. It's a smear.
  • Fat Bastard: The antisemitic bullies who antagonize Herman in Kentucky and Washington D.C. are both large, overweight men.
  • Flyover Country: New Jersey Jews have a very low opinion of life in the Midwest, seeing the region as a Jew-free region filled with antisemites and KKK. While not everyone in the Midwest is antisemitic, there are certainly a lot more KKK than in New Jersey. By contrast, people who don't hold these views call the heartland "the real America."
  • Foreshadowing: The first episode has Alvin tear his buddy Shushy away from abusing a slot machine. Alvin will eventually get a job fixing slot machines and get involved with their owner's daughter.
  • Foreign Queasine: Given a playful spin. After braving scenes of shocking antisemitism in Kentucky, New Jersey Jews Herman and Sandy stop at a gas station in Flyover Country and must eat bologna and mayonnaise sandwiches on white bread, the quintessential gentile food. They regard their sandwiches dubiously, and Herman quips, "They're trying to kill us!"
  • From Bad to Worse: Alvin comments to the dissidents/spies that as bad as things are under President Lindbergh, Vice President Wheeler succeeding him might be worse. After Lindbergh's disappearance, Alvin's terribly correct.
  • Gatling Good: It's never commented on, but when Alvin is shown the radar equipment it's in a room full of absolutely huge Gatling cannon, the inference being these are what's used to shoot down Lindbergh's plane.
  • Greedy Jew: Deconstructed by Abe Steinheim, the "macher" who briefly employs Alvin. He lectures a simple barber that people need to make lots of money and then use that money to make even more money. However, Abe believes that money is the only means that Jews have of ensuring their survival in a gentile's world.
  • Hate Sink: Henry Ford is the closest thing the series gets to an actual villain on-screen. He makes an antisemitic remark at a government gala that makes an actual Nazi look good by comparison. He's also responsible for turning Rabbi Bengelsdorf's (already misguided) Americanization plan for Jews into a weapon against them.
  • Historical Domain Character: Charles Lindbergh and his wife Anne Morrow Lindbergh become president and first lady. Politician Burton K. Wheeler becomes his vice president. The antisemitic Henry Ford gains a seat on his cabinet. Anti-Nazi broadcaster Walter Winchell starts a presidential campaign against Lindbergh. Mayor Fiorello La Guardia becomes a voice of protest against Lindbergh. Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop makes a diplomatic visit to America.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade:
    • In this reality, Walter Winchell graduates from firebrand newscaster to political candidate who personally faces down fascist thugs and racist cops to oppose Lindbergh's Nazi-friendly policies. He doesn't live long enough to become a villain in the 1950s, when his full-throated support of McCarthyism put him very much on the wrong side of history.
    • Ann Morrow Lindbergh heroically stands up to stop the US from going fascist with a radio address and is wholly respectful of Jews. The real woman held fascism to be the wave of the future and praised Hitler in a letter. It's impossible to say how she'd have reacted to such an event for sure of course, but these views are left entirely unmentioned in the series, though they had become infamous by then (particularly among Jews).
  • Historical Villain Upgrade:
    • The show does an inverse on Charles Lindbergh as it does to Winchell. Lindbergh goes from a heroic aviator with outspoken isolationist views to an outright Nazi collaborator who also supports "Americanization" efforts that effectively treat Jewish Americans like aliens. He's eventually assassinated in an effort to put America back on track. In real life, Lindbergh went on to pledge his full support to the American war effort and later served substantially in the Pacific theater. He was also horrified by the revelation of Nazi extermination camps. Though he did have some Nazi sympathies it seems, he'd balked already at Kristallnacht and denounced the Nazis' persecution of Jews.
    • Burton K. Wheeler, Vice President here with Lindbergh, is also given this treatment. He's made out as even more openly antisemitic than Lindbergh, who enacts martial law. In reality, though Wheeler (like Lindbergh) opposed US intervention in the war and was possibly slightly antisemitic, he wasn't an American Nazi as the series makes out. He supported the war after Japan had attacked, and opposed martial law when it had been imposed in his home state of Montana during World War One. Wheeler overall was known for progressive views.
  • I Have No Son!: Her family disowns Evelyn for aiding the Lindbergh administration at the end of the series.
  • I Have Your Wife:
    • Evelyn claims Lindbergh only enacted antisemitic policies and keeping America neutral because his son was really kidnapped by the Nazis rather than killed, and used to coerce him into doing so. Like in the book, it's left unknown if that's true or simply an excuse she cooked up herself.
    • Rabbi Bengelsdorf also uses this when trying to cajole members of his congregation to aid him in fighting to protect Lindburgh's reputation. It's obvious they don't believe a word of it and the last sight of the Rabbi is being cut off and bluntly told "we have to talk" with the obvious implication he's about to be kicked out of his own temple.
  • Irony: After American cabinet member Henry Ford shoots a racist slur at Evelyn, an actual Nazi diplomat walks up and very politely requests a dance with her.
  • Jewish and Nerdy: Seldon is a small, bespectacled, nasal-voiced Jewish kid who likes to play chess and won the math competition. He's a friend of Philip's, but Philip ditches him whenever there's something more interesting to do.
  • Jews Love to Argue: After a political broadcast, the Levines and their Jewish neighbors assemble out in their front yards to discuss it and argue politics.
  • Kick the Dog:
    • Alvin's brief boss Abe Steinheim is introduced abusing his automobile's siren to get to the deli faster, then cuts in line and makes condescending remarks to the proprietor while being treated as a VIP. He's a real big-headed jerk. All of this is used to show why Alvin hates him immediately and refuses to go down the traditional path to financial success.
    • Henry Ford's racist insult to Bengelsdorf and Evelyn reveals that, however much Lindbergh himself decries prejudice, his administration is filled with antisemites who see Jews like Bengelsdorf simply as useful idiots.
    • When Herman travels to Kentucky to meet his son, he stops at a gas station and switches the radio station to Walter Winchell. The attendant, having realized that Herman is a big-city Jew, drops Herman's change onto the sandwich he'd just purchased and sneers at him. This confirms Herman's fears that Flyover Country is not a safe place for his family.
  • Kosher Nostra: Jewish gangs are still pretty powerful in the 1940s. The local New Jersey outfit is led by Waxey Gordon.
  • Maligned Mixed Marriage: In the first episode, Evelyn's affair with Angelo is maligned by her family as much for the fact that he's not Jewish as that he's married.
  • Meal Ticket: It's implied that Alvin is most interested in Minna because her father is successful. When first introducing her to his family, Alvin only talks about her father's businesses.
  • My God, What Have I Done?:
    • Philip knows it was his talk with Aunt Evelyn that resulted in Seldon's mother getting transferred to Kentucky.
    • Alvin reacts this way believing he was involved (albeit in a very minor way) in Lindbergh's mysterious disappearance. This leads Alvin to take refuge with Minna and just focus on making money.
    • Subverted with Bengelsdorf and Evelyn, who remain blindly believing that they — and Lindbergh — bear no responsibilities.
  • Nerdy Nasalness: The nerdy Seldon has an extremely nasal and high-pitched voice.
  • Nice Guy: In spite of being a series mostly centered on antisemitism, there are a number of notable gentiles who treat Jewish characters kindly. The farmer family from Kentucky welcomes Sandy to their home and helps Seldon. The tour guide in Washington D.C. behaves with perfect respect toward the Levines, tells them they are within their rights to be angry at the antisemitic hotel staff, and even stands up for Herman against a bully. The Levines' new Italian neighbor stays with the family while Herman is away to protect them against rioters and gives Herman a gun to protect himself. Even First Lady Anne Morrow Lindbergh shows nothing but respect to Jews and is personally responsible for shutting down the chaos of the Wheeler administration.
  • Old Maid: Evelyn is older than Bess, but has not married. Her desperation for a respectable Jewish suitor is why she's so quick to accept the advances of Rabbi Bengelsdorf.
  • OOC Is Serious Business:
    • The normally demure Evelyn is so shocked by Henry Ford's antisemitic slur that she snaps a Yiddish curse at him that she doesn't even understand.
    • After Sandy tells his father, "You're worse than Hitler," Bess slaps him across the face and screams at him. Sandy is clearly stunned by his mother's uncharacteristic fury.
  • Persona Non Grata: By the conclusion, Rabbi Bengelsdorf has been abandoned by his congregation, and Evelyn has been disowned by her family.
  • Polite Villains, Rude Heroes: Bengelsdorf is always utterly polite and pleasant as he argues eloquently for Lindbergh's policies. In contrast, Herman is a hothead who always says precisely what he thinks about everything.
  • Reassigned to Antarctica: Rabbi Bengelsdorf institutes a nationwide plan to "absorb" Jews into "real" America by getting companies to reassign their Jewish employees to small communities in the heartland, where there are no other Jews but are a lot more antisemites. Several Jewish characters choose to quit their job rather than move.
  • Rewarded as a Traitor Deserves: While he would hardly call himself a traitor, it's clear how Rabbi Bengelsdorf is willing to go along with Lindburgh and the plans to "relocate" Jews, which he sees as a good thing. When Lindburgh is killed, Bengelsdorf is stunned when the new President paints him as a "modern Rasputin" influencing Mrs. Lindburgh, part of the "Jewish plot" against the President and is held by the FBI.
  • Riddle for the Ages: What actually happened to Lindbergh? It's implied that he was shot down, but was he? And if so, did he survive? Also, was Evelyn telling the truth about him being coerced into his policies?
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here!: Once Lindbergh is elected president, many Jews openly discuss fleeing to Canada. When Alvin arrives back in America from Canada, the train station is filled with visibly Jewish travelers heading the other direction. The Levines actually look into it but are told that they don't have the right credentials or connections to become citizens. At the height of antisemitic fervor, Shepsie packs up all his belongings and drives through the night to Winnipeg, where he has a brother.
  • Shiksa Goddess: Alvin has a dalliance with a blond, gentile British girl while training in the Canadian military.
  • Shown Their Work: There are black families strolling along the National Mall among white families. Even though Washington D.C. was a very segregated area (as the Levines themselves find out), federal land such as the National Mall was not segregated, so it was one of the few places where black families could rub shoulders with whites.
  • Super-Fun Happy Thing of Doom: Rabbi Bengelsdorf's mission uses benign names to hide its true intention of stripping American Jews of their cultural identity because they're seen as aliens who are not American enough. He runs the Office on American Absorption, tasked with "absorbing" Jews into American society, even though they're already Americans. One initiative to indoctrinate boys by sending them to Midwest farms is called "Just Folks." His plan that is ultimately twisted into forced relocations is called "Homestead '42."
  • Tagline: "Freedom is never completely won. But it can be lost." This is a quote from David Simon's father.
  • Tempting Fate:
    • When Evelyn notes that the government gala will be attended by Henry Ford, a rabid antisemite, Rabbi Bengelsdorf states confidently that Ford will behave himself because Bengelsdorf has the president's ear. When the couple approaches Lindbergh and Ford, however, Lindbergh almost immediately wanders away and Ford spits a nasty antisemitic slur at them before stalking off. This is the first indication that Bengelsdorf's position is not as solid as he's led himself to believe.
    • During a government meeting, Bengelsdorf states confidently that his Americanization plan for Jews will be entirely voluntary. This is still America, after all. However, the plan almost immediately turns involuntary, as businesses are cajoled into relocating their Jewish employees, forcing them to either lose their job or move to a distant community with no ultimate benefit.
  • Those Wacky Nazis: Discussed but rarely seen. The Levines watch the spread of Nazism across Europe feverishly while lamenting the Nazi-friendly policies of President Lindbergh. Only one Nazi is actually seen, the Foreign Minister. Ironically, he behaves with perfect courtesy to the Jews at the gala and even dances with Evelyn, while American officials like Henry Ford show open derision toward them.
  • The Scrounger: One of the members of the shady cabal Alvin becomes involved with introduces himself as "having worked in logistics" for Roosevelt's war department, and has successfully smuggled radar equipment and a great deal of anti-aircraft weaponry away from official channels.
  • The Un-Reveal:
    • Evelyn doesn't know what her Yiddish curse "gay kocken offen yom" means. Rabbi Bengelsdorf whispers the translation into her ear, which makes her smile, but the audience doesn't hear it.
    • In the end, Herman tunes his radio to hear the results of the election, but the show ends just before the announcer reveals what's happening. This is a big departure from the novel, which gives lengthy details about how the country veers back on track to where it was in real life.
  • Villainous Breakdown: After Lindbergh disappears and the Wheeler administration turns against him, Rabbi Bengelsdorf becomes increasingly rattled and starts spouting conspiracy theories to the leaders of his congregation, who just look sad for his current state.
  • Wham Shot: After Alvin deploys in the Canadian military, episode 2 ends with a shot of Alvin lying in a hospital bed. The camera pans across to reveal that his right foot has been amputated.
  • Yiddish as a Second Language: Since this is the 1940s, most Jewish characters speak a smattering of Yiddish. Evelyn curses at Henry Ford in Yiddish, but doesn't know what it means.

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