A brilliant performance in HBO's alternate-history miniseries should not be overlooked by the TV Academy.

By Darren Franich
July 10, 2020 at 09:00 AM EDT
The Plot Against America
Credit: Michele K. Short/HBO

The Plot Against America (TV Show)

There's a three-minute shot from The Plot Against America that I can't get out of my head. It's one side of phone call that's reaching across a nation on fire. The anti-Semitic President Charles Lindbergh has presided over a creepingly fascist government, which has led the United States to the precipice of self-immolation. Zoe Kazan's Bess, the ever-concerned matriarch of the Levins of Newark, has received an extremely concerned phone call from Seldon (Jacob Laval), the little boy who used to live next door, before a mysterious federal program resettled him and his mother to Kentucky. Seldon is frightened, for reasons I won't spoil. Bess is also frightened, because she's seen the country go downhill all around her. Her children are in danger. Her community has been shattered. At one point in the call, a gunshot blasts outside her window.

It's an indelible image of parenting under impossible duress, and Bess works hard to maintain her cheerful Adult Voice exterior while the world descends into chaos all around her. The camera begins the scene in a distant long shot. By the end of the scene, we're staring right up into Kazan's face. You can feel Bess restraining every negative emotion behind a grasp toward positivity, begging Seldon to serve himself some corn flakes as she tries to figure out how to help a scared little boy hundreds of miles away.

There's a lot to love and admire about The Plot Against America, which adapts Philip Roth's 2004 novel into a vibrant piece of 2020 political art. Creators Ed Burns and David Simon clearly sparked to the book's contemporary resonance — here's another populist president dogwhistling white supremacy while palling around with dictators — but the series is mainly a remarkably intimate family drama. And Kazan's performance is a towering achievement, revealing hidden layers of moral resolve behind Bess' modest facade.

It's an earned slow burn. For most of the series, Kazan is the quieter-by-default half of the Levin marriage. Her husband, Herman (the equally great Morgan Spector), is ambitious and proud, not afraid to loudly declare his anti-Lindbergh opinions as the administration begins encroaching on Jewish citizens' civil rights. Bess is his nervous counterpoint, the first to suggest a move north to Canada. Part of that is her protective parental impulse. But Bess also grew up through anti-Semitism, the only Jew in her neighborhood. "People would walk by our apartment and point," she recalls. "It wasn't that I was mistreated, I was just ignored and alone." That line comes in the series' first episode, when things haven't gotten even remotely as bad as they will get. It's a reminder that even the good old days were bad for most people, and the first inkling that Bess is struggling — in a deep, lifelong, existential way — with the demons that threaten to destroy Plot's America.

"Fear presides over these memories, a perpetual fear." Those are the first words of Roth's novel. I don't think anyone actually says the words "perpetual fear" in the miniseries, but you can feel that mood in every frame. And it comes across most of all in Kazan's delicate performance. At times, it's a portrait of old-fashioned Mom Strength, a woman balancing her sons' struggles and her husband's impotent rage as she goes back to work in the midst of a national nightmare. Kazan exudes an anxious power, and it's a role that has taken on new resonance in our own year of perpetual fear. What parent in 2020 can't relate to Bess, trying her best to keep her kids safe from the monstrosity of history? This year's Emmy race for Best Actress in a Limited Series/Movie features a lot of high-powered contenders repping buzzy titles. It promises to be a great lineup, and I hope voters will find room for Kazan's quietly tense star turn.

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The Plot Against America (TV Show)

  • TV Show
  • David Simon
  • HBO