December 3, 2015

An Alternate History: The Man in the High Castle

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The American public is hardly unfamiliar with alternate history timelines: Video games, B-movies, comic books, novels and purely speculative military history (“what if D-Day had failed?”) have all mustered their collective pop-cultural capital in the occasionally dubious quest to show worlds in which the Roman Empire never fell, or in which the Confederacy triumphed in the Civil War. No topic, of course, is quite as juicy for an alternate history setting as an Axis victory in the Second World War. Somehow, even though contributions as bizarrely variant in style and tone as Robert Harris’ Fatherland and the 2014 video game Wolfenstein: The New Order have already drawn the subject to wild extremes (the latter source’s soundtrack includes a Nazified Beatles), there is still something shocking about seeing swastikas over Times Square.

Courtesy of Amazon

Courtesy of Amazon

Amazon Studios’ newly-released streaming series The Man in the High Castle provides that precise image, and much, much more. In the show’s chilling would-be universe, the Axis Powers, having bombed Washington D.C. into a smoldering crater and wiped out all American resistance, have divided their new North American conquest in two. The East Coast is ruled in the shadow of the S.S. and Adolf Hitler’s Germany; the streets of New York are patrolled by brutish brownshirts, the Horst-Wessel-Lied plays on weekend TV broadcasts, and the typical greeting between suburbanites is a disarming “Sieg Heil!” The West Coast, in turn, is under Tokyo’s thumb; Californians are subject to searching and brutalizing by the Kempeitai, and the palm tree boulevards of San Francisco have been transformed into a dense maze of Aikido dojos and seedy Yakuza brothels. A lawless DMZ, called the Neutral Zone, serves as a Midwest buffer between the two powers.

It is this world which stands on the brink of a nuclear confrontation between the erstwhile allies, whose geopolitical machinations take center stage as much as the individual dramas of the show’s protagonists. In watching the series, despite its undeniably strong central cast and strong (though certainly not flawless) plot, I could not help being equally, if not more, fascinated by the world of the show, where a Japanese officer can commit seppuku in broad daylight in the heart of a Californian metropolis. My evaluation of the show, therefore, will be spoiler-free, and mostly plotless; this is a show whose immersive glory lies in its aesthetics.

The show’s 1962 is cleverly (and darkly) distorted in unsettling ways to shake up its viewer’s conception of how America is, or how it “should” be. One scene in the show’s pilot depicts a routine traffic stop. One character, whose truck has blown a flat tire, is helped by the local sheriff, an amiable sort of agrarian fellow, despite his prominent swastika-ed armband. The scene proceeds without a hitch, until what seems like an unexpected flurry of snow starts to fall. This, the sheriff glibly explains, is from the local hospital’s crematorium: on Tuesdays, they burn the terminally ill and physically disabled.

Without spoiling any of the show’s more surprising twists and threads of unbroken, simmering tension, this world-building is the show’s shining centerpiece, not solely for the lavish detail poured into every frame (look closely, and one can spot everything from a “Ranger Reich” kid’s magazine, to an airport named after notorious American Nazi Party leader George Lincoln Rockwell), but for the implications it has on the show’s tight plot. The suffocating fascistic imagery of the show’s narrative means that, if anything, the inevitable resistance, whose only hope of insurrection is in peddling reels of film depicting alternate timelines, is more disruptive than heroic.

Though advertising and the comparatively more humdrum first five episodes would make the potential viewer believe that the show is just another resistance narrative, whose natural conclusion lies in seeing the dismantlement of the new fascist order, this expectation too is subverted. Those characters in the show who do not actively collaborate play a deadly game of staying under the state’s murderous radar; changing the world is a gamble which often is simply not worth taking. Resistance, what little there is, is clearly with its back to the wall; its paltry victories are so overwhelmingly small that the illusion of a fully fascist American society is uncanny.  The more significant historical developments seem anyway to come from the jostling party politics of the S.S. and the battle lines being drawn between Japan and Germany. Anything else is a sideshow. There is no room for starred-and-striped self-congratulation; American patriotism twists with ease into Nazi bombast.

Even more disturbingly, the majority of the show’s Nazis have American accents, work nine to five shifts in office buildings, and are family men who chide their children’s inattentiveness with their homework (in “Aryan Literature”). The Japanese, on the other hand, become condescending connoisseurs of Americana or, alternatively, exasperated, bespectacled bureaucrats mourning the helplessness of their fatherland and their fallen families as they languish in a foreign land. Neither occupying power, despite its brutality, is afforded the clean avenue of abject demonization in its presentation to the audience. Obergruppenführer John Smith in particular, played like a murderous Don Draper by Rufus Sewell, is simultaneously implied to have taken a leading part in the overnight liquidation of New York’s Jewish community and shown to have a mostly stable, loving family life. Even more bizarrely, the audience is led, in the first season’s final episode, to root for Hitler himself, a baffling turn of events I shall not spoil.

In this feat of world-building, series creator Frank Spotnitz cannot be faulted for his aesthetic attention to detail: he emblazons everything from phones, to traffic barriers to breastpins with the swastika or the rising sun. There is an Axis version of the Cold War, a riff on the Kennedy assassination, and even a V.A. “Victory over America,” Day, celebrated like a Nazi pseudo-Thanksgiving. This is almost to be expected; beyond the show’s enticing, meaty hook of a premise, it is impossible to forget that the artificer of the source novel was the masterful Philip K. Dick. Good world-building, especially in a story in which historical reality is as fluid as it is here, should be a given.

The show has its problems: certain lead actors take longer to fit into their character-shoes than others, and a molasses-paced interlude in the midwest Neutral Zone is essentially forgettable. TV CGI, admittedly, does not always quite convince. Despite these flaws, however, The Man in the High Castle is easily one of the most ambitious, weird, and unheimlich shows on television now. Just how needs to be seen to be believed.

Griffin Smith-Nichols is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at gds82@cornell.edu.

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