May 1941. The war is starting to take its toll on Americans, even though President Charles Lindbergh has kept them away from the fight in Europe. The truth is, the trauma from this war goes beyond the front lines. The episode begins with Philip having a nightmare about the Nazis, as he flips through his stamp collection and sees the face of Hitler on every page. The episode ends with Alvin lying in a hospital bed, half of one leg missing. The ripple effects of war.
In the United States, Lindbergh's election has seriously changed things. As Hitler prepares to roll over Britain, and Lindbergh refuses to send any soldiers to stave off the attack, antisemites have come out of the woodwork. As Herman's friend Shepsie from the theater says, "They've always been here. But now they have permission." Hateful comments and violent attacks are on the rise. Herman spends part of his day cleaning Nazi graffiti off of Jewish gravestones. Presumably, the worst is yet to come.
And yet, Herman isn't eager to leave the United States. Shepsie is heading to Canada before things get worse and the border potentially closes, but Herman insists he won't let the Nazis run him out of his country. Bess has other ideas though. She visits the Canadian consulate behind his back and finds out that the family can be put on a priority immigration list because Alvin is currently serving in the Canadian military. She tells him about this plan, but he's having none of it. "It may be too early to leave," she says, "but it's not too early to have a backup plan." That seems to sink in, as Herman starts to wonder what might be best for his family if things continue down this road.
At the end of last week's episode, Alvin was on his way to Canada so that he could fight in the war. Now, he's in Britain, not so patiently waiting for a mission while also spending his time in bed with a woman in the service. He talks about how this is all personal for him because of his Jewish heritage, even if he's not a religious man. He's appalled by what's happened to his country, so he's doing his part to stop the spread of fascism.
Eventually, he gets what he wants: a mission to steal a pulse navigation system from the Nazis. It's a risky mission; two men are being sent in because there's a good chance one of them will die. We never get to see that mission. What we do get to see is Alvin's bravado slowly fade away. There's a brief moment before he's sent off where he seems to register the enormity of his situation. And yet, surely nothing prepared him for the outcome. Whatever happened on that mission, it went sideways, and now Alvin is missing half his leg and the Nazis continue to advance. Hell, Lindbergh even meets with Hitler to sign a paper saying the United States will remain neutral.
"Part 3" is a pretty fascinating episode, and arresting in the way it uses Roth's text to draw a connection between the show's universe and our own. There are clear parallels here, namely the way politics has consumed the everyday lives of the Levin family, filling what seems like every interaction with a sense of urgency and foreboding. Bess can barely stand it. Between Herman's nonstop talk and her fear for her family, she's coming undone. That makes the episode's lone joyous moment all the sweeter, as Herman serenades Bess in a diner in Washington moments after being confronted by an antisemite.
The Plot Against America is building its tension, and its world, wonderfully. There's the obvious dread in the form of Lindbergh, the increasingly present antisemitic confrontations, and the war itself, as filtered through Alvin's character arc. But there's also the more subtle, creeping dread, like the Rabbi's new "Just Folks" program that he's created at the behest of President Lindbergh, which is meant to "help assimilate" Jews into American life by shipping city kids into the country to live on farms. Herman knows what this means. Bess knows what it means. Evelyn might even know, but she's too enamored with the Rabbi, so she's promoting the program. Sandy gets excited and asks to go to a farm for the summer. Herman immediately says no, but changes his mind by the end of the episode.
His sudden change of heart is supposedly due to the fact that he wants his son to meet some new people and open up his world, but you get the sense that he's overcompensating and simply masking his fear. He's worried that America is crumbling; if he can safely send his son away for a summer, that must mean the America he loves is still intact. That must mean everything will be okay.
It's a heartbreaking final scene. Herman looking unconvincingly confident as he puts his son on the train, Bess looking truly worried about what might happen to Sandy, and Sandy himself suddenly going from ecstatic to nervous as the train pulls away.
There's a new reality in America. Some are quicker to accept that than others.