By Kyle Fowle
March 16, 2020 at 10:00 PM EDT
Michele K. Short/HBO

The Plot Against America, David Simon and Ed Burns’ adaptation of Philip Roth’s famous novel, begins in Newark, N.J., in 1940. Boys are playing War in the street, and American involvement in WWII is on the horizon. The news is dripping in every day; the Nazis are advancing, they’re moving into France. For now, though, America remains untouched. In fact, the entire country finds itself wondering if the United States even needs to get involved.

Let’s back up though. The focus in the early going isn’t political, but rather personal. We’re introduced to the Levin family. There’s Herman (Morgan Spector), arriving home from work and kissing his wife Bess (Zoe Kazan). They have two kids, Sandy (Caleb Malis) and Philip (Azhy Robertson). They’re also sharing space with a nephew, Alvin (Anthony Boyle), and Aunt Evelyn (Winona Ryder). At the dinner table, they talk about the topics relevant to Jewish people living in Jersey: Palestine, the Nazis, and the Yankees.

Roth’s novel, while fiction, draws from his childhood experience with antisemitism, and “Part 1” is tremendous at putting us in the shoes of young Philip and allowing us to see the world through his eyes. When the family goes for a drive through Union, looking at a house they might buy if Herman accepts a promotion, they’re confronted with not only glaring neighbors, but also a crowd of drunken patrons on the patio of a German pub shouting obscenities at them. The Levins are surrounded by other Jews in their neighborhood, but Union is a different story. And that’s the microcosm of America, really, where, as one character says, “There’s a lot of hatred out there.”

Those encounters leave Bess wanting to stay where they are. Herman doesn’t initially agree, but he comes around to it. Maybe it’s the newsreel footage he’s seeing, of France surrendering to the Nazis after only six days; maybe it’s the announcement that fascist supporter Charles Lindbergh will be running for the Republican nomination to challenge FDR in the next election; maybe he’s just trying to keep his home life stable. He sees that something bad could be coming, and for now he’s staying put.

“Part 1” does a good job of balancing the family drama with the political, and the period detail makes the show feel very lived-in already. The most fascinating dynamic for me through this episode is the one between Bess and her sister Evelyn. They spend a lot of time talking about what they want out of their lives, and how to care for their aging mother whose mind is slipping. There’s no bickering here, no harsh back and forth. Rather, they clearly share a special bond, and both Ryder and Kazan are magnetic right from the jump. I absolutely love a specific line reading from Ryder, where Evelyn is recovering from the realization that her married suitor won’t leave his wife, and that she may never end up married. “Where did all the boys go?” she says, wistfully. “There used to be so many.”

“Part 1” is also great at portraying the experience of being a child struggling to understand the world. Young Philip can’t fully comprehend the antisemitic barbs thrown at the Levins, and he’s perhaps even more baffled by a friend who calls his mom by her first name and is allowed to eat all the cookies he wants. One particularly stirring scene sees many of the adults in the neighborhood out at night, gathered on their front lawns talking about Lindbergh’s new campaign and the swift movement of the Nazis through Europe. They’re hopeful nothing will come of this, that FDR will do the right thing, but there’s also this creeping feeling of dread. They may joke about Lindbergh standing no chance in the election, but they also know that nothing’s for sure during times of crisis.

The premiere ends with a beautiful bit of crosscutting that underscores the rising tension in the country. While Herman watches Charles Lindbergh give a stump speech positioning himself as the anti-war candidate (rather than the pro-fascist candidate, of course, because it’s all about the messaging and perspective), his nephew Alvin heads into the night with some friends to beat up some Germans in Union as revenge for an earlier antisemitic attack. After beating the men down they get back in the car and let out screams of catharsis. In this moment, they’ve won, and they have control.

I don’t think that’s going to last long.

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