The Man in the High Castle: A World Where the Unthinkable Is an Afterthought
Mythology and popular culture have been long suffused with tales of good versus evil. The most stark real-life epitome of evil that we have known in the past century – Nazis – are fascinating because we can barely fathom their outsized villainy. Even the new Star Wars movie depicts a storm trooper rally replete with long red banners and rows of soldiers lined up to hear a megalomaniacal leader address them Nuremberg-style.
We repeat these images of evil again and again in our fictionalized storytelling until, finally, their real connection to the atrocities of yesteryear are like a pale shadow, barely glimpsed beyond the symbolic. Then a TV show like The Man in the High Castle comes along, with aspirations of not only revisiting Nazi fascism, but of realistically exploring the consequences of its victory.
This is not an exercise in the symbolic; it is a detailed exploration of an unthinkable world. With the rise of renewed anti-Semitism in Europe and anti-Muslim rhetoric at home, a fascist America is perhaps not as unthinkable as we’d like to believe.
The Man in the High Castle, produced by Amazon Studios, is based on the novel by the late Philip K. Dick, who got the idea from Ward Moore’s alternative Civil War history Bring the Jubilee. The story is set in 1962 in an alternate world where the Axis powers defeated the Allies in World War II. The victors divided the conquered United States into three zones: The Pacific States of America, the area west of the Rockies controlled by Imperial Japan; a neutral zone called the Rocky Mountain States; and the Greater Nazi Reich, the area east of the Rockies under German control.
Life in the Greater Nazi Reich is a strange hybrid of sixties era wholesomeness amid a society purged of racial diversity and political nonconformity. Citizens greet each other with a hearty “Heil Hitler,” and amid the familiar cacophony of neon lights in Times Square, the Nazi emblem takes center stage beneath lettering aglow with the phrase “Work Will Set You Free.” In the heartland, an otherwise folksy local sheriff explains an odd gray snowfall: “Tuesdays they burn the cripples, terminally ill. Drag on the State.” Jews are either in hiding or have fled to the neutral zone, the only place we ever see any non-white or non-Japanese citizens; the rest were presumably killed in American concentration camps.
On the streets of San Francisco, we get a glimpse of Imperial Japanese America. The city has the familiar steep hills and Golden Gate Bridge, but the urban landscape is punctuated with vertical signs written in Japanese Kanji. Here we meet our central character, Juliana Crain (played by Alexa Davalos), a young woman who practices aikido and soon finds herself in possession of a mysterious newsreel that needs to be delivered to the neutral zone. The other main character is Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank), a resistance fighter tasked with secretly delivering a similar film canister to the same neutral zone. Their paths cross in Canon City, a lawless town for resistance members, spies, and bounty hunters, where they discover their parallel missions.
Newsreels of footage featuring an Allied victory in WWII constitute a potent threat to the Nazi regime. The crux of the show’s mysterious first season is how these reels came into being and whether or not they’re propaganda or an authentic alternate universe.
One of the most striking things about The Man in the High Castle is the near-ubiquitous nature of acceptance all the main characters have to their present circumstances. It’s difficult for us to imagine any version of the United States where we’ve been conquered, let alone casually accepted occupation. But while the central characters do experience an awakening to resist, at the beginning of the story, ours is a society that has been apathetically defeated.
The best example of this strange acceptance might be embodied by Frank Frick (Rupert Evans), a secret Jew and Juliana’s boyfriend. He’s content to make replica six-shooters for the Japanese and keep his identity hidden until Juliana’s involvement with the resistance implicates him. He’s tortured and threatened with the execution of family members. We watch as he becomes radicalized against the Japanese regime and contemplates terrorism. The fact that it takes such measures to shake him from his stupor speaks to the depth of his assent to the status quo.
The Man in the High Castle is many things. It’s an extremely well-plotted, gorgeously shot show with insightful historical flourishes. At the same time, its characters are somewhat underdeveloped, and the show can indulge in the kind of action one would expect from a spy thriller.
But beneath it all, The Man in the High Castle paints a vivid picture of what a fascist America could look like. The best alternate history tales are not just imaginative what-ifs but serious discourses on how easily the world we take for granted can give way to a much less desirable one. The scariest aspect of The Man in the High Castle is how quickly people can shrug off the unthinkable and just accept it.