Alvin (Anthony Boyle) in The plot against America final.
The end of the HBO miniseries The plot against America is quite different from the ending created by Philip Roth in his novel. In both versions of the story, which imagines an alternative political history of America in World War II, Charles Lindbergh defeated President Roosevelt in the 1940 elections. Lindbergh’s nationalist and anti-Semitic positions pushed the United States toward fascism, but in Roth’s book, a combination of fate and national indignation ultimately restores democratic government and the course of history: Lindbergh’s plane mysteriously disappears without a clear explanation – Roth floats several ideas, ranging from ‘a plane crash accidental to a Nazi plan of several years – and the novel ends when the FDR is re-elected.
In the adaptation of David Simon, the ending is more focused and more ambiguous. In the finale, which aired Monday night, Simon and his writing partner Ed Burns rope the young American Jewish head-to-head Alvin Levin (Anthony Boyle) in a conspiracy to bring down Lindbergh’s plane, the attaching more closely to the great political mechanisms of history. But Simon was not comfortable giving his adaptation the same clean, restorative conclusion that Roth ended up with. The series ends just before the election results are announced, leaving the audience on the verge of a historic turning point that never falls in one way or another. The finale also adds an element of deprivation of voting rights that was missing from Roth’s novel, making the election results even more unfair and uncertain.
When I spoke with Simon about the end of Conspiracy against America, he was happy to talk about his meeting with Roth, why he decided to rewrite the end of the book and how the show relates to his own family history. But what he wanted to say the most and what he always came back to was how much The plot against America is supposed to be around 2020 and the current threats to American democracy. “This is the only reason to spend money to film this,” he said.
Before Philip Roth’s death, you talked to him about changing the end of his novel. What about the late Roth that you knew should be reworked?
Obviously, the big thing we had to face was: how do you end the journey in alternative history? Where do you end up?
What Roth chose to do was let Lindbergh’s plane take off from Lexington and disappear. Bringing Lindbergh’s moment to a distinct end, and then making sure that history was actually restored with Roosevelt’s victory, felt a bit sudden and clean. I think he put it pretty well in the novel, that is to say that there was a lot of discussion very early on [Lindbergh’s] previous crashes. Then he disappears at some point during his barn campaign. Roth was superimposed on a certain distrust of primitive aviation in the novel. You are ready to accept it. But after people had watched six hours of television, making Lindbergh disappear was too deus ex machina.
I brought this to Roth at the only meeting I had, to say, “I’m a bit at sea here to find out how to make this work in the end.” At that time, I already had some ideas about using Alvin as an essential part of Julius Caesar superimposition, on what you do against a bully, what type of direct action is legitimate and what is not, what do you accept when your democratic processes fail. I didn’t want to do too a lot with Alvin, but I needed one of our POV characters to be able to see a significant dynamic by which Lindbergh is disappearing.
I had that in mind, but I’m going to be honest, I didn’t have the guts to walk up and say, “This is what I’m going to do. “[[[[Chuckles.]I indicated where I thought we might be having problems with the ending and asked him if he had any ideas. He went to this part of the book, reread this page and a half two or three times. He kept going back and forth, and I was sitting across from the coffee table of him, that great man of literature. Television piracy and the great man of literature. He rereads his work and he frowns and I wait. It seemed like an hour and a half, but it was probably about four minutes, and he closed the book and said, “This is your problem now. “
I took this as permission to at least try to do something. Ed [Burns] and I began to understand what they could do to bring down this plane, and what Alvin could possibly be watching. We worked on it for a long time, but by the time we were ready to put everything on paper, Roth had died. I guess I was spared the cruel moment of having to say, “I changed that, I hope you agree. There was a little part of me that said, “Okay, I saved that. But there were so many other things that I think went well with the project that, ultimately, I wish he was there to see what we did. I think he would have been okay with most things, maybe.
In the book, the idea that Alvin is involved in the Lindbergh plane crash is presented as Nazi propaganda, but my understanding of the miniseries is that we are supposed to see it as the very likely explanation of what happened.
We demonstrated a conspiracy of the British, and indeed a deep American state of people who understood the threat of fascism, who realized that the government was on the verge of ceding Europe to a totalitarian force that was decidedly undemocratic and deadly and dehumanizing . You know, it’s basically Julius Caesar. People had the same choice as Cassius and Brutus, and some of them choose that choice. We thought it was an interesting thing to look into.
Frankly, each of us has gone through moral moments in history, moments when the law itself was against moral choice – and it could be anything you would have done in Germany in 1944, or if you looked at the store windows broke and Jews were killed at Kristallnacht, what would you do if you were at Harper’s Ferry with John Brown – we all said: What would I say and face absolute moral injury? We all like to believe that we would get up and go all out for the right thing, but it’s incredibly difficult. Especially when the law tells you, no, no, the Nuremberg laws are the law, or the Jews are not citizens, or slavery is the law of the land. We all imagine being transported into times when we would have to speak or act against an established order, and we all try to imagine ourselves as heroes or dissidents, and the fact is that very few people reach the level of heroism, or even dissent.
The purpose is to discuss this process of how we deliver a republic that works for a totalitarian state – how it happens gradually, how it happens without anyone having a final moment. Some people make rebel, and what is the legitimacy of that? This is what makes Shakespeare’s play work. And by the way, it can also make a legitimate ignoble political act appear. Witness John Wilkes Booth Thinking He Had Acted Julius Caesar. He added a level of political sophistication that seemed higher than “the plane chose to disappear this time.”
The most of Conspiracy against America has a clear resonance with current events, but the decision to make the end ambiguous rather than follow Roth’s clarity on the restoration of democratic order seems to be the most direct appeal in our contemporary time.
Absolutely. The dial turns very bright orange.
You also add a layer of voting rights at the end: it is unclear whether the number of people who vote will outweigh the systematic disenfranchisement efforts of the Lindbergh government.
Right, [Roth’s] the electoral process definitively restores the Roosevelt administration. I felt like we had to recognize the open questions about our republic that are before us right now. The verdict on Roosevelt and Lindbergh and isolation and America first – history has had that verdict before. Lindbergh was wrong, and from Pearl Harbor until 2016, the phrase “America First” was used to ridicule completely and completely. I no longer need to discuss 1940.
Looking at our own fundamental problems with our electoral process right now, the lack of confidence that each of us can have that the popular will is going to be transmitted through the American voting structure, we said, “We are coming to an electoral year . We have to comment. We need to be very candid about the meaning of this election. So we finished without feeling the need to say, “… and then America was restored.” The only reason to spend money on filming [this show] is that this generation faces a fundamental threat to the standards of our republic and to self-government.
You mentioned that this show is very close to your own family history. Your father was one of your models for Herman Levin, and many of the pictures on the walls of the Levin house are from your own family.
I have not done [the show] so that I can write American Jews in a middle class. I did it for obvious political importance. But for the first time in my writing life, I was able to channel a certain socio-religious culture which is second nature. I didn’t have to look for the tone. Not only does Philip Roth present it beautifully in his work, but I could draw from a memory tank of my parents and grandparents.
Have you watched any of the series with your children?
My son is in New Orleans, and I couldn’t watch him with him. But we watched it with Georgia Ray, yes. She needs some explanation. She is 9 years old. But she has captured a lot, and she is very involved with the Levin family.
The ambiguity of the end seems like a heavy thing to watch with your own 9 year old child. How was it?
I do not know. I think she has the ability to see something a little darker now.
But, okay, we were trying to figure out what the catchphrase was, the catchphrase. We were struggling with. Some things were too dead for the political moment, and some were not enough, and I found something my father said to every Passover Seder in my memory. If you opened his copy of the Haggadah, he would have written it. And he said, “Freedom can never be completely won, but it can be lost. Then he would explain that, and in the explanation, I came to understand citizenship. What he would say is that self-governance is really difficult. Churchill, no great Liberal, nevertheless said that democracy was the worst form of government until you considered all the alternatives. It’s never perfect, it’s never perfect. There is always someone who does not receive the same promise of freedom as everyone else. Certain freedoms are betrayed and must be saved. The work is never finished. We’ll never get to the point of dusting off our hands and saying, “Well, there you are, we’ve finished our republic.”
Every day, you have to get up and kill snakes. Every fucking day. The day you think you are done and you stop, or you assume the freedoms on the page are going to exist, no matter who is in power, it is the day you start losing it. The only way to govern yourself is to say, “It’s hard to handle, it’s complicated, it takes persistence, and tomorrow will be the same as today.” This can often seem impossible. But what is certain is that if you don’t do the job, you will lose it. We are at this point, where I look around and say, “How many citizens do we really have? Citizens not only with rights, but with responsibilities. This, for me, is what the last 45 seconds require.
It must be difficult to ask this question and then watch it with your own child without having an answer for it.
It’s Sisyphus, right? But nevertheless, it is the only task that counts. Ed Burns and I are storytellers. Roth was a storyteller. And this year, in 2020, with the coming of these elections, this is the story that we wanted to tell the most. I’m glad we said our song because the time has come to speak.
This interview has been edited and condensed.