‘The Man in the High Castle’: Watched It All? Let’s Talk About It

New York Times, 1 December 2015
By James Poniewozick

Spoilers for the full first season of Amazon’s “The Man in the High Castle” follow.

A few weeks ago, The Times Magazine blew up social media by asking readers if they would travel back in time and kill baby Hitler. Eventually, even presidential candidate Jeb Bush weighed in (“Hell yeah!”).

The question was not stealth marketing for Amazon’s “The Man in the High Castle,” but it proved timely. The show’s season finale asked a version of it, showing us an assassination attempt on not an infant Hitler but an elderly one and asking, implicitly, how we felt about it.

The answer, it turned out, was: It’s complicated. Which goes to show what a weird, audacious creature “High Castle” had become by the end of its ten-episode first season.

It did not simply imagine Hitler winning the war. It did not simply cast him as a character, in a supervillain’s Alpine schloss, screening movies that predicted alternative futures within this alternative past. It put a gun in a character’s hand, gave him a clean shot at history’s greatest monster — and guided the audience to hope he wouldn’t shoot, because the next führer might be, for once without hyperbole, worse than Hitler.

I reviewed “The Man in the High Castle” before its premiere, having seen the first six episodes. The final four didn’t change most of my general impressions: this is a stunningly thought-through and visualized world, hampered by some underwritten characters — including, unfortunately, central figures Juliana, Frank and Joe, who sap the life out of the show whenever they mope their way on-screen.

The series pilot made a major change from the Philip K. Dick book of the same name. In Dick’s novel, “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy” was a novel-within-a-novel, which depicted the Allies winning the war, though the aftermath was different from the history we know. (The U.S.S.R. didn’t become a superpower, and the U.S. and Britain entered their own Cold War.)

Adapting the story, Frank Spotnitz changed “Grasshopper” to a film — a visual medium, obviously, better suited to TV. But the change had implications for the show’s story and even its genre. It’s easy enough to realistically explain a counterfactual novel — it’s words on a page. The “Grasshopper” we see in the pilot, on the other hand, is a detail-perfect newsreel of the end of World War II as we know it from real life, down to footage of actual historical figures. How could any director, in an era without CGI, create this artifact, short of science fiction or magic?

The last two episodes went all in on “science fiction or magic.” A new film retrieved by the resistance showed not a better past but a worse future: San Francisco being nuked. Another reel — described, but not seen — was a Joseph Stalin propaganda film from 1954. (Let me Google that for you: in our world, Stalin died in 1953.)

What are we even watching? Is it alt-historical realism? (Looks like we can cross that one off the list, but who knows?) A “Fringe”-like mind-bender of parallel universes and possible futures? A mystical tale in which a false reality hangs over our eyes like a veil?

As streaming series often do, “Castle” crawled through a sluggish middle section to get there. The first half of the season followed an odd pattern, doubling back from the Canon City story line and setting the characters in pursuit of another film reel, as if trying to re-pilot itself. (Personally, I liked the bizarre Nazi-Western imagery of the Rocky Mountain neutral zone, but it did sometimes feel like a different series.)

The season’s pleasures weren’t all plot: there were fine performances, but away from the center. Episode 7 had a fascinating subplot for antiques dealer Childan (Brennan Brown), trying to suck up to a wealthy young Japanese couple, not realizing they wanted him to educate them about American culture, not denigrate it.

Throughout, the conquerors and collaborators were the strongest characters, exposing the cultural and geopolitical fissures between the Germans and Japanese, and within each side. Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa was terrific as Trade Minister Tagomi, reserved but roiling with tension. And seeing Obergruppenführer John Smith find himself on the wrong side of Nazi eugenics laws with his son’s illness complicated Rufus Sewell’s already compelling villain turn.

But “The Man in the High Castle” also benefited from powerful timing, and not just of the killing-Hitler variety. Look at today’s headlines: a “clash of civilizations,” ethnic databases, politicians literally charging “American fascism” and favorably referencing the World War II internment of Japanese Americans in connection with the Syrian refugee crisis. (I realize I’m proving Godwin’s Law here — the rule that any argument on the Internet will eventually invoke the Nazis — but the news beat me to it.)

As I wrote in my original review, the most chilling aspect of “High Castle” is how easily its Nazi Reich mimics “Leave It to Beaver” America: a different culture, subjugated, racially cleansed, but also disturbingly familiar. So one of the biggest questions about the alternative history in “High Castle” is: did the Axis impose fascism on America, or did they find its seeds already here?

The bits of back story in “High Castle” suggest some of both. On the one hand, the U.S. fought and lost a war. On the other hand, we learn that Franklin D. Roosevelt was assassinated, suggesting that the series follows the history from Dick’s novel: without Mr. Roosevelt’s leadership, America did not oppose the fascists early and strongly, and then it was too late.

And late in the season, there’s a suggestion that at least some Americans took to the new order with disturbing enthusiasm. Mark Sampson (Michael Gaston), Frank’s defiant new Jewish friend, reveals that he is a survivor from Boston, where lynch mobs set upon their newly demonized Jewish neighbors. (Sampson also brought out Frank’s best character moment, the wrenching kaddish scene in episode 6.)

The historical timeline of “High Castle” is still fuzzy, but do the math: it’s 1962, and the war has been over for less than two decades. It’s not as if all the characters have never known another life — not the highway patrolman and war veteran who placidly notes the ash of the euthanized dead drifting from the hospital, not Smith, a middle-aged American man who nonetheless holds a high Nazi rank (and, according to more dark hints, had a hand in wartime atrocities).

The first season of “The Man in the High Castle” entertainingly posed the essential question of alt-history: What would our world look like if this happened? But it raises another question that never loses its timeliness: How did we let this world come to be in the first place?

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