THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA “Part 5”: Real Heroes, Real Villains

Involuntary relocation forces the Levin family to face previously unexplored aspects of their lives and familial relationships. As the proverbial storm rages, innocence is lost as each member of the family desperately tries to maintain a grip on individual identities in the face of forced cultural assimilation. In the penultimate episode of The Plot Against America, David Simon and Ed Burns continue to display their mastery of film craft, leaving no stone unturned, and no character blameless.

Episode Summary

Herman (Morgan Spector) delivers the news to his family that the Levins have been chosen by his company to move to Kentucky as involuntary participants in the “Homestead 42” program. Bess (Zoe Kazan) suspects that their forced admission into the program is the result of petty revenge on the part of Evelyn (Winona Ryder), angry at Bess’ refusal to allow Sandy (Caleb Malis) to attend a Presidential event in the previous episode. Herman refuses to submit to the authorities on the matter and instead takes a new job as he tries to put together a lawsuit.

Meanwhile, Alvin (Anthony Boyle) is working to find his place in this new America. He works through a series of odd jobs before landing a position with a pinball machine manufacturer. With the loss of his leg, Alvin seems to be less concerned with politics than before, and more like a simple citizen just trying to make his way. This doesn’t stop the FBI from continuing to tail him, as well as the Levin family as a whole.

THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA “Part 5”: Real Heroes, Real Villains
source: HBO

This continued persecution convinces Herman to dig his heels in further, and attend a rally given by the controversially progressive presidential hopeful Walter Winchell (Billy Carter). Anti-Semitic agitators attack the crowd, and Herman returns home bloodied. Terrified, Bess gives him an ultimatum: either he stops with his political activism and refusal to back down even in the face of life-threatening danger, or she will take the children and move to Canada. All the while, young Philip (Azhy Robertson) watches, terrified, as his family, and his country, fall apart before his eyes.

The Tragic Loss of Patient Consideration

I’ve seen quite a few reviews on the various episodes of The Plot Against America that speak negatively about the show’s pacing. Comments about the show’s supposedly “boring” clip speaks to a growing problem in society’s collective consideration of filmic material. In stark contrast to much of contemporary film, content with skipping the humanity inherent in storytelling in order to deliver the next big explosion or supposedly dramatic event, David Simon and Ed Burns stand apart as storytellers that focus on character and story first.

We’ve become so apathetic in our consuming of filmic art that we’re no longer willing to meet the storyteller halfway: to do the extra work of putting ourselves in the character’s shoes. To do so requires spending ample time with them as people, rather than being spoon-fed poorly delivered exposition, as has become the norm. God forbid an artist expect the viewer to think!

The worst tragedy resulting from this collective loss of patience is the accompanying loss of purposeful immersion in the given story. One of the greatest tools we have in sharing cultures, morality, and the lessons of life is storytelling. More and more, audiences sit back and cursorily stare with eyes glazed over as the images flash before them, unwilling or unable to do anything more than watch. We’re increasingly losing our ability to lean forward and immerse ourselves in the lives, culture, morality, and lessons being presented. To truly appreciate the story being told, viewers must willfully invent themselves, and tragically, we seem to be losing our ability and interest in doing so. Simon and Burns, far from being incapable of delivering exciting stories lacking a speedy tempo, are in fact part of that dying breed of brilliant storytellers masterfully wielding the craft appropriately: with the expectation of patient consideration on the part of a discerning audience.

Heroes and Villains

Throughout Part 5, viewers are presented with compelling pictures of life on either side of a culture war as real as the one raging between the Axis and Allied powers on the other side of the world. At the beginning of the episode, Herman, exhausted but refusing to back down, delivers news to his family of their forced relocation. The scene is incredibly crafted: Herman, who has previously been furious about things like this, for the sake of his sons, quietly delivers the news, and tries to make it sound like a good opportunity, in order that his children can feel safe. Part of his demeanor is, of course, intentionally ironic and even sarcastic. Sandy, who is supportive of the program, picks up on this, and leaves the room. Young Philip, who can tell that his father is attempting to sugar-coat the situation, is left confused and afraid.

Bess and Herman basically switch ideological places at the beginning of this episode. Herman is clearly tired, and burned out from anger. This news seems to makes something in him snap, and his demeanor changes to one of intense calm. Bess, on the other hand, is burned out from fear, and anger is beginning to erupt. When Herman offers to apologize to Evelyn, Bess is the one to tell him “don’t you dare.” However, her fear returns later in the episode as Herman decides he will not back down, and instead further entrench his position by sueing the government, and attending the Winchell rally.

THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA “Part 5”: Real Heroes, Real Villains
source: HBO

Throughout all of this, the moral high ground is clear on a macro scale. On the individual scale, however, each character plays both hero and villain. Herman is a hero in that he’s standing up for his beliefs, and for equality as a whole, but the villain in that he’s doing so at the risk of his family’s safety. Bess plays the protagonists to his antagonist in that way, threatening to take the kids and leave if he doesn’t get his priorities straight. She herself plays the villain, however, in her closed-mindedness toward what is outside her community. Of course, to be fair, her fear his increasingly justified.

That being said, however, one of the most intriguing scenes in this episode came in an argument between Sandy and the rest of his family. Having briefly lived in Kentucky as part of the “Just Folks” program, Sandy is genuinely excited at the prospect of the family’s relocation there, and views his parents’ trepidation on the subject as pointlessly obstinate. Indeed, he makes a fantastic point during this scene, sarcastically emulating his parents’ words in order to call out their confirmation bias: “Everything right with America is right here in Newark, New Jersey, and everything wrong is everywhere else.” Indeed, he sounds a lot like the well-spoken man-of-the-world Rabbi Begelsdorf (John Turturro), who in another scene says, speaking to Bess, that even as a Jew, he’s “comfortable living everywhere in America,” rather than remaining in what he calls an “insulated” Jewish community.

These are good points, of course; going outside one’s own comfort zone, and trying to learn more about what is beyond your own culture is a very good thing. But there’s a difference between voluntarily traveling and immersing oneself in new cultures, and being forced to do so. Indeed, the latter option smacks of cultural assimilation, the implementation of which carries the implication that you and your culture are not worth the meager costs of preservation.

That’s what these marginalized communities feel. Voluntary exposure to new cultures should be encouraged through education, not forced via thinly veiled bigotry in the form of involuntary public or private programs. Bengelsdorf and his real-world counterparts may describe such programs as opportunities “to absorb American Jewry into the mainstream,” replacing “Jewry” with whichever culture is in question. But in the end, what it boils down to is relocation based on religion, culture, or race, no better than Trump’s call for travel bans or other restrictions based on those criteria. Besides, if any culture needs to learn to expose itself to other ideas, it’s the dominant one, currently WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants).

THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA “Part 5”: Real Heroes, Real Villains
source: HBO

Indeed, even Benglesdorf, champion and hero of exposure to other ideas and cultures, but a villain to the preservation of his own culture, learns a harsh lesson, one given by the ultimate villain, both of the show, and the real world at large. When asking for extra funds to increase wages and thereby encourage families to accept their involuntary relocations, he’s told in no uncertain terms that what is right will always take a back seat to business. The justification he’s given for holding back those funds amounts to what we would currently consider “right to work”; an idea that has done more to sabotage the rights of American workers than nearly any other legislation to date.

“This is how it happens. Everyone is afraid.” – Bess

The Plot Against America presents a bleak reflection of modern society. As we toil away in the name of personal preservation and comfort above all, we leave behind the only tools we have for true progress. Even as Trump claims to have absolute power, it seems that fewer and fewer everyday citizens are willing to stand up for what is right. Why was it dangerous for Herman to attend a peaceful rally for a presidential candidate? Simply because there were too few people willing to stand up for what is right, leaving the balance of power in the hands of those who would use that power to perpetuate violence.

Today, we’re doing the same thing. With so few willing to stand up for what is right, we leave the balance of power in the hands of people like the President and his cronies. “This is how it happens. Everyone is afraid.” Bess’ words are stark, but true. No more excuses. Take action. And above all, when the polls close in November, be sure to have done your part to vote the monster out of office.

The Plot Against America: Part 5 aired on April 13th, 2020, on HBO. The series is currently available to stream on HBO NOW and HBO GO.

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