“What happens now?” 8-year-old Philip Levin wonders after Charles Lindbergh wins the 1940 presidential election in the HBO mini-series “The Plot Against America.” Later on, as the shadow of government-sanctioned anti-Semitism falls over his family and their Newark neighborhood, he’ll ask, “What does it mean?”
Philip — whose name, in the 2005 book by Philip Roth, was Philip Roth — is a sensitive, curious child, perhaps a novelist in the making, and more the observer of the story than its protagonist. His questions have a double significance: They cross the mind of anyone watching a narrative unfold on television, and also anyone who feels caught up in the plot of history, especially at a moment of crisis.
Like, say, now. From the perspective of the locked-down present, the road ahead looks even more forked than usual. Not only is the course of the coronavirus pandemic uncertain, but its possible social, political and economic consequences seem to point in wildly divergent directions: toward greater solidarity or intensified conflict; away from entrenched inequalities or deeper into authoritarianism; back to normal or through the looking glass.
Eventually, we’ll know how it all turned out. But even then we might still be — we might already be — haunted by the sense that things could have gone differently, for good or ill. The real question Roth was asking in “The Plot Against America” is “What if?” At a time of great uncertainty, that can be an oddly reassuring question as well as a scary one, if only because it can help to be reminded that uncertainty is nothing new.
Philip Levin’s early-1940s world, to those of us peering into it from our early-2020s vantage, looks both familiar and outlandish. The clothes and the cars, the cigarettes and the household arrangements evoke a period encrusted with mostly benign nostalgia, a hinge moment between one era and another, when Americans listened to Franklin D. Roosevelt on the radio and Pearl Harbor was just around the corner.
The ingenuity of Roth’s novel and the mostly faithful television adaptation created by David Simon and Ed Burns lies in the way this easy familiarity is twisted into terror. The series is at times almost unbearably suspenseful because most stories set in the years just before World War II are the opposite. History is by definition spoiler-free. (Unlike this article, which will divulge information about “The Plot Against America” and several other movies and television series.) We never stop arguing about what it means, but we pretty much agree on what happened next.
But “The Plot Against America” isn’t history. Its characters, an extended, fractious family of lower-middle-class Jews, are trapped in an alternative timeline in which the unthinkable has become commonplace. A bigoted celebrity with no political experience, running on an “America First” platform (and possibly in the employ of an undemocratic foreign power) spoils the hopes of the Democratic Party for a third consecutive term in the White House. An admirer of Hitler (as the historical Lindbergh notoriously was), the new president initiates policies that undermine the standing and the confidence of America’s Jewish citizens, who are exposed to open prejudice, stigmatization and, ultimately, violence. Somebody name-checks Sinclair Lewis’s cautionary 1935 best seller, “It Can’t Happen Here.” Roth, Simon and Burns reply: But suppose that it did.
Counterfactualism of this kind has never found much favor in the historical profession. And it isn’t always welcome in popular culture, either. Earlier this year, HBO canceled “Confederate,” a proposed series from the creators of “Game of Thrones” about what America might have looked like if the North hadn’t won the Civil War. But there is a lot of what-if in the air these days, as the notion of multiple timelines migrates from science fiction into more conventionally realistic narratives.
Before Roth’s “Plot,” the most significant work of American prose fiction to grapple with an opposite past was probably Philip K. Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle,” which also imagined that fascism, rather than being defeated in the 1940s, had triumphed. The television adaptation, running for four seasons on Amazon Prime, was an early example of the current vogue for alternative history in film and television.
Quentin Tarantino got there first. With “Inglorious Basterds” (2009), “Django Unchained” (2012) and last year’s “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” Tarantino, in spite of his taste for nihilistic violence, has become a leading purveyor of happy endings and lucky breaks, a master of upbeat what-iffery. What if Hitler and the Nazi elite had been knocked off in June 1944, done in by two scrappy overlapping conspiracies rather than millions of American, British and Soviet soldiers? What if the enslaved people of the antebellum South had collected their payback directly from their oppressors, rather than waiting for the Civil War? And what if, Charles Manson’s followers had never made it to Sharon Tate’s house on Cielo Drive in August 1969?
What happens is that the audience is treated to a consoling fantasy, a momentary release from the fatalism that weighs down real historical knowledge. The hedonism of succumbing to this kind of dream is linked to the masochistic pleasures of dystopian nightmare-mongering. The alternative past and the dystopian future are explicitly connected in “Watchmen,” which ran on HBO last fall and which wove history both real (the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre) and fanciful (the presidency of Robert Redford) into a wildly inventive, thrillingly revisionist critique of the superhero genre.
It’s a commonplace that chronicles of the grim future — of ecological catastrophe, technological domination, totalitarian politics — project the anxieties of the present. “The Handmaid’s Tale,” in both its print and television forms (two novels by Margaret Atwood; three seasons on Hulu created by Bruce Miller), can stand in for the many stories that combine allegory and warning. This is what life might look like if we aren’t careful, and also what it already is like if we look carefully.
The theocratic, authoritarian Republic of Gilead in “Handmaid” isn’t meant to be another world, but an at least arguably plausible extrapolation of the one we already inhabit. Misogyny, religious extremism and environmental harm are already threads in the tapestry of reality. They were present when Atwood wrote the first novel in the early 1980s, and also when Miller brought them into brighter, bolder relief at the end of the 2010s.
It isn’t hard to imagine a path from here to there — from America to Gilead — and part of the nerve-racking, scary-movie pleasure of “The Handmaid’s Tale” is what it suggests about how we, the citizens of a democracy, turned into them, the subjects and functionaries of a clerical-fascist police state. The story doesn’t play out as a simple matter of good and evil, but rather as a series of political and ethical puzzles. How does the nature of state power change? Does human character change along with it?
Those are the kinds of questions that animate “Years and Years,” a British mini-series created by Russell T. Davies and shown on HBO last summer. It may have been just a little ahead of its time. Catching up with its 10 episodes last month, I found the story almost unbearably relevant, which may or may not be a recommendation.
The approach is more linear than the embedded flashbacks and digressions of the later seasons of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” A recognizable now — Brexit, climate change, President Trump, Sino-American tensions — mutates by sometimes almost imperceptible increments into an ever more alarming then. A populist demagogue (played by Emma Thompson) starts out as the semi-comical figurehead of a vague protest movement until shockingly, inevitably, she is elected prime minister. Anti-immigrant politics and the specter of Russian meddling in a Western election flicker across the screen. The economy collapses. When the global pandemic arrives, it’s almost an afterthought.
All of these events — as well as developments in digital technology that hardly seem science-fictional at all — are refracted through the experiences of the Lyons family, a multigenerational, multiracial clan living mainly in Manchester. The Lyons are sometimes hit hard by global conflicts and catastrophes, but they also go through the usual domestic throes of marriage, adultery and divorce, childbirth and adolescence, sibling rivalry and in-law issues.
Like the Levins in Newark, they don’t all respond consistently or in the same way, and aren’t easily sorted into heroes and villain. Each member of the family represents a slightly different blend or sequence of compromise and resistance, wishful thinking and panic, cowardice and grit. Most of them believe that things will be all right in the end.
Which turns out — big spoiler here — to be true. Optimism is vindicated in a climax that I found both thrilling and frustrating. Thrilling because of the way some characters find the pluck and ingenuity to score a big victory against the forces of repression and xenophobia, and frustrating because their triumph seemed much less realistic than anything in the previous episodes. When videos of flagrant injustice go viral around the world, the world wakes from its slumber, snatching the possibility of an engaged democratic future from the jaws of tyranny and cynicism.
It would be nice to believe that, but history often speaks in the voice of Marlo Stanfield in “The Wire”: “You want it to be one way, but it’s the other way.” That is the unnerving message of “Watchmen” and “The Plot Against America.” We think of superhero stories — the genetic material of “Watchmen” — one way: as tales of righteous, disguised vigilantes fighting crime outside the boundaries of the law. “Watchmen” suggests another way, drawing out a subtext of racism and ideological bad blood that had been there all along.
Modern superheroism in this telling originates in the Tulsa Race Massacre, a real-world act of terror that took scores of lives and laid waste to a prosperous African-American neighborhood, only to be euphemized (as a “riot”) and treated, at best, as an unfortunate sidebar in the textbooks. Placing it at the center of the story scrambles both the familiar comic-book landscape and the culture-war folklore that underlies it. Law and order, rebellion and obedience, liberal and conservative, black and white — none of these words mean quite what we thought they did.
That dislocation is both exhilarating and terrifying, a description that fits “The Plot Against America” as well, though the scrupulous naturalism of its methods is a world away from the phantasmagoria of “Watchmen.” Roth took exquisite care to replace just one thread in the American tapestry, and to confine the Lindbergh presidency to a single episode. Like “Years and Years,” his book ends with a return to normalcy, a reversion to the familiar timeline signaled by references to later events — Roosevelt’s death in office; Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination — that will happen they way we always thought they would. Halfway into his term, as the country convulses in its own version of Kristallnacht, Lindbergh takes off, paving the way for a special election that will return Roosevelt to power.
“The nightmare was over,” young Philip Roth says. Its effect on him is registered with chilling matter-of-factness: “Never again would I be able to revive that unfazed sense of security first fostered in a little child by a big, protective republic and his ferociously responsible parents.” In other words, the Philip Roth we know, who turned that youthful security into a confident assertion of Jewish-American identity — and made those parents into comical but nonetheless heroic embodiments of American-Jewish normalcy — would have written his books some other way.
This is unsettling, but Simon and Burns’s version goes further, turning Roth’s subtly furious mock memoir into a seething, ambiguous allegory. In the wrenching final episode, we’re looking not at an imagined past but at an alternative present and a possible future. The series ends with a cliffhanger, a lady-or-the-tiger moment of nonresolution that transforms Roth’s speculative history into a political challenge. Maybe things will be all right, and maybe they won’t. History is a nightmare from which none of us can wake. Imagining it otherwise isn’t so much a challenge to the truth as it is a protest against necessity. It didn’t have to be that way. It doesn’t have to be this way.