Not long after we subscribed to Amazon Prime did I check out the pilot of The Man in the High Castle. I’d heard some good regard for the show, but didn’t think to seek it out until it was suddenly available to me. Boy am I glad I did.
Set in 1962, the show exists in a world where fifteen years previous the Allies lost World War II, the U.S. was atom-bombed, occupied, and divided between Germany and Japan into the Greater German Reich (east of the Rockies) and Japanese Pacific States (west of the Rockies). Times Square is blanketed with swastikas (but no ads), Judaism has been outlawed, and with Hitler close to death the Japanese and German empires are bracing for war. Amidst the political and societal intrigue, the stories of the characters we follow orbit around the pursuit of mysterious film newsreels that show alternate histories of the war and its aftermath. The source of the reels, the unseen Man in the High Castle, seems to be head of a guerrilla resistance force trying to undermine the authoritarian states — for all we know.
In addition to having one of the more haunting title sequences I’ve ever seen (above), the show blends three of my interests—historical counterfactuals, dystopia, and World War II—seamlessly into the background of a narrative arc that lets us see the inner workings of a tenuous alliance between the two Axis powers. The show is ingenious at working in small world-building details, either through dialogue or in the background—like when a Nazi police officer mentions offhand how the elderly are regularly euthanized and exterminated so as not to be a “burden on the State.”
To me, the most interesting character of season one—and I can’t believe I’m saying this—is the Nazi. Rufus Sewell plays Obergruppenführer John Smith, a high-ranking SS officer charged with tracking down the remaining film reels and quelling the Resistance. Sewell’s icy, devilish demeanor, mixed with his character’s white-picket-fence, all-American (or rather all-German) lifestyle, provides ample ground for a fascinating character study. Frank (Rupert Evans) is another intriguing character: a downtrodden laborer concealing his Jewish identity who gets tangled up with the newsreels and has to make some brutal decisions after being imprisoned by the Japanese military police.
What I love about counterfactuals is pondering the questions they conjure. Is there anything better about this show’s reality than ours? What does ours share in common with it, and how it is vastly different? It also made me better sympathize with societies that have been occupied, subjugated, and made to accept a new culture. Americans have never experienced that; in fact, throughout history we’ve always been the occupiers and the subjugators, imposing our values and military might in other lands under the banner of liberty. Optimists will say our actions were justified for the sake of spreading democracy, but realists know otherwise. Of course, I’m not equating U.S. foreign policy to the Nazi and Japanese empires in The Man in the High Castle. But I am inspired to decide how and why America is different.
It’s a dark show, no doubt about it. But after some key points in the first few episodes, the gears propel toward a climax and the next season’s continuation that I’m really looking forward to.
(Also, I had no idea how much of the show was CGI-generated, which this video illustrates; I really couldn’t tell while watching it, and even wondered how they got away with displaying so much Nazi paraphernalia.)