"When do we stop being safe here?": How the U.S. resembles this HBO show's scary alternate history

Salon chats with stars Morgan Spector and Anthony Boyle about how the drama impacted their view of modern America

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published March 24, 2020 5:00PM (EDT)

Caleb Malis, Azhy Robertson, and Morgan Spector in "The Plot Against America"  (Michele K. Short/HBO)
Caleb Malis, Azhy Robertson, and Morgan Spector in "The Plot Against America" (Michele K. Short/HBO)

"Not to sound too absurd," Morgan Spector says midway through a recent phone interview, "but there is so much going on in the world today that feels sort of apocalyptic even beyond what's going on in our government."

Spector, who co-leads the ensemble cast of "The Plot Against America," dropped this observation on March 6 – 10 days before the miniseries debuted on HBO and before the nation's public awakened to the reality of the global pandemic forcing shutdowns of economies in cities across the country.

He wasn't wrong. But he wasn't talking about the terror that's made so many people retreat to the perceived safety of their homes. Back then, Spector was referring to humankind's inadequate response to climate change.

"We've already started to this sort of massive global refugee crisis, and I guess that I have the sense, which was only exacerbated by working on this, that soon we'll all be refugees," he said. "That eventually, we're all headed toward this fate of needing to ask this question perpetually: When is the time to move somewhere else?

"That question has really stuck with me," he added, "that gnawing anxiety of, 'When do we stop being safe here?' That has stayed with me."

Within the past year HBO became a viewing destination because of its disaster content. The channel's popularity peaked around this time last year because of a certain fantasy about dragons and mad queens. As that drew to a close, people who keep an eye on the industry began asking some version of the question, "Now what?"

The answer arrived in the form of "Chernobyl," a period piece about the world famous nuclear disaster of 1986 that holds striking parallels to the illness that has stricken the modern age – that of government incompetence and officials prioritizing maintaining an image of strength over their own people's safety.

Nearly a year later, David Simon and Ed Burns' adaption of Philip Roth's alternate history "The Plot Against America," in which Charles Lindbergh beat Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1940 election and ushered the United States into fascism, plugs into our ongoing worry about the rise of white nationalism, another radioactive unease actively threatening the survival of Western liberal democracy. 

READ MORE: "Democracy is never perfected": David Simon on his new HBO series "The Plot Against America" and the 2020 "s**tshow" election

That is before a novel virus emerged and temporarily pushed that apprehension to our collective back burner. "The Plot Against America" is a story of what happens when a nation becomes too complacent with its status quo of acceptable social inequality. When our perceived stability comes under threat, as we've seen, it's easy to pull inward, to erect walls and close doors, to place our fears on a scapegoat and reach for the false comfort of expelling those we vilify.

Roth wrote his novel in 2004, mourning in post-9/11 America. In drawing upon his experience of growing up in Newark, New Jersey to create Spector's character Herman Levin, a devoted patriarch and believer in the American dream, he presents a what-if scenario that changes a fundamental pillar of Americanness: What if we didn't come to the aid of the Allies in the 1940s? What if, in fact, we decided to emulate Adolf Hitler's fascism?

Herman and his wife Bess (Zoe Kazan) share their home with their two boys, Bess's unmarried sister Evelyn (Winona Ryder) and orphaned nephew Alvin, played by Anthony Boyle. And in early 1940, tension is high in their predominantly Jewish neighborhood as the Levins witness the rise of a right-wing celebrity that also happens to be a xenophobe, as he ascends to the highest office in the land.

Boyle and Spector absorbed the experience of working on "Plot" quite differently. One might chalk this up in part to a generational split, something Spector mentions about himself as he explains how previously he was able to pass through tough times "with a little bit of ironic detachment."

"Working on this definitely didn't afford me that luxury," he said, later adding, "because there are these moments when history becomes this overwhelming force and particular individuals, ordinary people can feel really powerless over that, I found it much easier to sort of empathize with."

But then, Spector is navigating these chaotic times as a 39-year-old American – a man whose past resume includes roles in "Homeland," "Allegiance" and "Pearson," all series in which he plays characters with some share of power and agency.

In contrast the 25-year-old Boyle comes to "Plot" as a relative newcomer to stateside audiences and a native of Ireland. And where World War II served as a defining event in the American narrative, for Boyle the war was something that he learned about in school . . . and that was pretty much it. "I wouldn't say it was a part of my identity at all," he told Salon in a separate interview. "It seems like something very distant, it was such a long time ago."

"I try not to allow what is happening in the zeigeist of the time factor into my work. I try to sort of let the work stand on its own," Boyle admitted. "But I think in America right now, it's such a charged time politically, I think that it sort of inevitably entered into the conversations that we were having because what we were shouting about had so many similarities to what was happening in the news that day."

For both actors, making "The Plot Against America" was a paradigm-altering experience for reasons that become apparent straightaway. Within the Levin household are personalities who absorb the shared experience of an existential crisis bearing down on them with very different responses. Herman wants to hold on to everything he's built for as long as he can, while Alvin struggles to find somewhere to place his rage.

In the first episode of the series, Spector's Herman entices the family with plans to move away from Newark to a nicer house in the suburb of Union. But during their drive, the Levins pass by a gathering of German fascists at a local pub that shouts slurs at them. Alvin, a character Boyle forms out of Roth's description of him as "the rawest of the raw," responds to this slight by returning to the suburb with s a few friends and committing a random assault on a couple of young men.  

"When you're trying to make a world as real as possible, you have to let in as much of a kind of relevant ambient anxiety as you possibly can, I think," Spector explained, adding that those efforts had a lasting effect on him, "because there is so much going on."

Separately Boyle admitted that working on the miniseries has made him more engaged with American politics. "I've been sort of glued to all these Democratic debates and the Super Tuesday stuff," he said. "I can't think of when was the last time I was that interested in America, but I think maybe it's because I've lived here for a bit and I've seen the current state of the office. Or maybe it's because that's what's happening now."

Don't forget, however, that these conversations took place nearly two weeks ago. Much has changed since then, and it might be curious to check in with Boyle today to see how his view has shifted.

Whereas the mode of thought Spector sheepishly referred to as absurd feels much more aligned with what so many Americans are contending with in a time that has forced us to draw further apart from one another, simply to survive. Watching "The Plot Against America" through this lens won't offer much comfort, but that was never the point. Instead, it is impressively rendered fiction as a sobering agent.

As for Spector, who will next be seen in "Downton Abbey" creator Julian Fellowes' "The Gilded Age" (which has been delayed due to the pandemic), it seems that playing Herman has at least prepared him psychologically for the world we're living in now.

"In terms of thinking about what it would be like to be in this the situation, it's much scarier," he offered in our interview. "Because I certainly feel like when the s**t really goes down, I'm not going to be a super spy. I'm not going to be like some kind of survivalist super soldier. I'm just going to be a person with a family that he loves, trying to protect them. And I think that's where Herman really finds himself. That's where the Levins, as a family, really find themselves."

"The Plot Against America" airs on HBO on Monday nights and is available on HBO Go and HBO Now.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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