The Plot Against America
The escalation of events following the 1940 election of Charles Lindberg to the American Presidency lands with a climactic end to the series.
Spoiler Level: High
The finale of HBO’s adaptation of The Plot Against America ends with a thoughtful, thorough, and endlessly heartbreaking scene of hopelessness. Panoramic shots glide across an Americanized Kristallnacht in Newark, New Jersey. Shoes lie abandoned on a glass sprinkled sidewalk. Above it all, the voice of First Lady Anne Morrow Lindberg delivers a speech of unity and patriotism. The message is clear: it could have happened here.
This show, true to HBO’s standard, is just downright beautiful. It’s cinematic, it’s well designed, the acting feels natural, and the writing left me speechless on more than one occasion. It is indulgently and unabashedly artful in its creation and the content takes on an allegorical tone that feels not only relevant, but also necessary in a real-world political climate that frequently verges on satire. At first glance, it is among the more perfect shows to come out of the rise of a limited series format.
And yet, as I watched, something just felt off.
Make no mistake about it; The Plot Against America is not shy about its morals or its perceived place in current society. It doesn’t take too much work for the audience to understand why this story—one surrounding the successful election of an under-qualified celebrity with a following among certain extremist groups—might exist in the year 2020. It’s supposed to feel off. That’s the point. The show follows in the footsteps of its literary predecessor as an Orwellian dystopia.
It is not uncommon for these thought driven alternate realities to blur the line between fact and fiction, not by any sort of malicious deceit, but instead by choosing to focus on time periods that aren’t familiar to most of its audience. With 1984, it was a then-futuristic setting that readers couldn’t possibly know. With The Plot Against America, it is a post-war setting that most people haven’t thought about since 9th grade History, told from the point of view that unfortunately isn’t presented in many textbooks.
Maybe viewers know that Lindberg really was a leader of the America First Committee. Maybe they don’t.
Maybe audiences are familiar with Henry Ford’s depicted antisemitism. Maybe they aren’t.
If this story were set in the current day, it would be subjected to the opinions, apathy, and confirmation bias of those who are watching it. As a result, it would be a much harder task to get viewers (of any political affiliation) to the ultimate climactic lesson: it could have happened here. By taking a step back to the late 1930s, showrunners are able to more efficiently manipulate viewers’ emotions and tell a more effective story.
Maybe viewers know that Lindberd didn’t actually proclaim Hitler to be the greatest safeguard against communism, as seen in the show. Maybe they don’t.
Maybe audiences are aware that Henry Ford was never actually a member of the Presidential Cabinet. Maybe they aren’t.
This grey space between the known and unknown is precisely what makes The Plot Against America such a successful story. Uncertainty feeds the emotionality. Dystopian fiction plays an important role in societal self-reflection, certainly, but it must always—always—be met with critical and analytical consumption. Passivity in this process will only ever foster fear.
I suspect that this, perhaps, is what made my initial watch through feel so unsettling.
This show is very good at what it does. So good that at times I found myself feeling resigned and cynical towards my nation and humanity as a whole. With the end of each episode, I would watch as the Levins family endured the worst versions of their darkest nightmares, certain that—and this is a direct quote from my living room couch—“people are the worst.” It was happening. I could see it right there on my screen. America was, in fact, capable of these great and sprawling injustices. It had happened here.
But of course, it didn’t happen here. Not really.
I won’t go so far as to say that America isn’t capable of great and sprawling injustices. In fact, a cursory glance at our nation’s history proves that we’re really quite good at them. Nor will I say that it’s impossible for atrocities to be committed here, because recent headlines have made our achievable evils very clear. The truth is, we don’t need a fictional timeline to understand how terror played out in this era. It was already here.
Even so, in the 1940 election, the people voted Franklin D. Roosevelt into his third term. The events of The Plot Against America exist merely as speculation. As a what if. This show is absolutely worth the time it takes to watch, but please do not do yourself or your country the disservice of confusing any part of it with fact. Do not let it inform or reinforce your own biases, because it’s easy to do. It’s really easy.
Instead, I implore you to take part in a critical viewing of the show. Allow it to present you with questions, and then find a way to answer those questions. Utilize the empathy that the show instills in you. By all means, let this show wake you up, but don’t stick around for breakfast. Don’t make the mistake I made and let it lure you in by the thread of your own passivity.
It's a beautiful show that's a little too good at it's job. It joins The Handmaiden's Tale in my book of shows that scare any semblance of reason out of me. I was eating out of the palm of David Simon's hand throughout the entirety of this series, and while I applaud the artistic and immersive nature of the show, I won't be watching it again. Not because it was bad, but because it was so utterly good.
Amazing Science Fiction: The Plot Against America
Writing - 10/1010/10
Storyline - 9/109/10
Acting - 10/1010/10
Music - 7/107/10
Production - 10/1010/10
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