'The Plot Against America' Episode 1 Review: An alternate US history that promises to be a litany of horrors

HBO's latest offering 'The Plot Against America' decides to show viewers an alternate, chilling and calamitous timeline of an America, that in some ways, doesn't feel entirely too alternate


                            'The Plot Against America' Episode 1 Review: An alternate US history that promises to be a litany of horrors
Winona Ryder (Michele K Short/HBO)
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The world is in a state of panic and fear right now as the merciless coronavirus pandemic is in no hurry to slow down and continues to spread its wings in numerous countries.

There is a sense of dystopia and doom pervading countries, along with distrust and anger towards governments. Anxiety has been unleashed, and the frenzy is escalating by the day. History is being written as millions of lives turn upside down. 

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And into this tension-ridden world, HBO's latest offering 'The Plot Against America' decides to show viewers an alternate, chilling and calamitous timeline of an America, that in some ways, doesn't feel entirely too alternate.

David Simon and Ed Burns churn out a sobering adaptation of Philip Roth's 2004 novel that reimagines history where Franklin D Roosevelt lost the 1940's elections to Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh and the propagation of 'America first', leading to rigorous violence against the Jews.

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Hate is the poison that courses through this America, while the fascists continue stoking anti-semitic sentiments in grim glee. 

The story is told through the eyes of the Levin family. In the first episode, we are introduced to proud unionist Leftist Herman (Morgan Spector), his doting wife Bess (Zoe Kazan), and two kids Philip (Azhy Robertson) and Sandy (Caleb Malis).

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Herman has just received a promotion at work and is excited to look for a new and bigger house for his family. The first traces of uneasiness are seen when the family is driving through a neighborhood and are told by locals that Jews are not allowed to live there.

An angry Herman swears and calls them "Fascist bastards" — a term his younger son Philip cannot comprehend. The spectre of what's to come lies in Philip's question, "But this is our homeland, right?"

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His brother Sandy, an aspiring artist, explains to him that fascists are those who hate Jews. Philip asks naively, "Why?" Sandy answers, "Because they're Jews." Yet, these are all on the periphery for the moment.

They find a comfortable house and the boys excited to have big rooms. It's a portrait of normal family life — it includes dinners with aunt Evelyn (Winona Ryder), banter about Herman's mother-in-law, while doting mother Bess instructs her children to wash their hands before coming to eat.

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At night, the neighbors gather around to discuss the worrying popularity of Lindbergh. The rest of the episode paves the way for Philip's cousin Alvin who has been accused of thieving. His heart is in the right place, but sadly, as the final sequence indicates there is trouble waiting to engulf him. Sandy seems to be headed that way too.

On one hand, there is the hopeful idealism of Herman. And on the other, is Philip's naivety and innocence. The show masterfully oscillates between the two. Philip cannot understand the grueling situation completely, he is rather perplexed by his father cursing and swearing.

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He loves his stamps, and that's where his forte lies. The casting of Azhy Robertson is a gift for the series, and this is proved by the minutest signs of his body language or the way his eyes widen with bewilderment at the scenarios unfolding around him.

At times, the show leans into his adorable expressions and wide-eyed confusion. For instance, in one of the standout scenes, a friend forces him to look at lingerie. He is rather perplexed, and a little scared at the idea. 

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What are the women doing while the men have sharp and intersecting narratives? Well, to be honest, not much in the first episode. Evelyn was having a fling with someone, who is already married. He wants her as a mistress. Basically, very women-y problems.

Bess remains the dutiful and loving mother, with some chilling dialogues to expound on how she was isolated for being a Jew.  

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The first episode was an uneasily quiet one, with a few loud skirmishes here and there, but nothing drastic as yet. It remains to be seen how the story goes forth from here, and how hard it hits home. 

'The Plot Against America' airs on HBO on Mondays at 9 pm.

Disclaimer : The views expressed in this article belong to the writer and are not necessarily shared by MEAWW.