Wednesday, December 21, 2016

High on The Man in the High Castle

Sujata Massey

One of my holiday traditions is to indulge in a television binge watch--ideally, a series that gives me that delightful, reckless feeling of wasting time. To enhance the celebration, I watch on my laptop in bed. With tea.

In 2014, the holiday binge was Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries, a light-weight crime series set in 1920s Australia. In 2015, I escaped with Underwear, a series about life at a lingerie design house in contemporary Tokyo.

This year, I found a speculative/suspense series on Amazon Video set in 1962 America: The Man in The High Castle. And my indulgence in comfort TV has turned discomforting.

Vintage paperback edition of the book 

An early edition of the novel

The Man in The High Castle was inspired by a Hugo-Award winning novel of the same name published in 1963 by the late Philip Dick. This talented author's science fiction has formed the inspiration for other films including Blade Runner, Total Recall, and The Minority Report. Dick was a tortured genius, with mental health issues and a deep interest in philosophy. He believed that different world can exist because of people's mind-states. The possibility of multiple realities flows through his works, including this series.

The Man in The High Castle hurtles us into a world where the Axis prevailed in World War II. In 1962, the former United States are dived into Pacific States (the west), the Greater Nazi Reich (the East Coast, South and Midwest). The Rocky Mountain states lie in the Neutral Zone, but it is far from a safe haven. In Japanese-occupied San Francisco, a degenerate artist named Frank and an aikido teacher named Juliana   (they were married in Dick's novel) live together in a dank San Francisco basement. They are thrown into danger when Juliana's half-sister Trudy flings a film reel at her just before she is executed by the Japanese police.

Juliana Crane, played by Alexa Davalos lives in Japanese-governed San Francisco

Juliana's efforts to deliver the film to the person Trudy intended brings her into contact with the resistance, and throws Frank and his relatives, who have a fraction of Jewish blood, into danger. The situation is complicated when Juliana is aided by an attractive young man, Joe Blake, working for the Nazis. Not going to say any more on the plot, because I don't want to spoil it for anyone.

While the TV series is action-packed and suspenseful, the creepiest moments show the subtle ways  the foreign powers reshaped the lives of the Americans following the atomic bombing of Washington DC. In the Pacific States, many bus and street signs are in Japanese, and people routinely eat with chopsticks and fall into deep bows when faced by their rulers. In New York suburbs, families look "Father Knows Best" perfect, but the kids wear Hitler Youth uniforms to school, the textbooks are all about allegiance to the Fuhrer, muesli is on the breakfast table and people use fork and knife in the German fashion. Costumes and sets and the cinematography are top-notch.

Backyard baseball on Long Island, played by Nazi-American characters

Before viewing the first episode, I wondered if Germans and Japanese would feel disheartened by seeing their worst moments in history glorified.  I was relieved to discover humane characters among all the communities portrayed.  A pair of German and Japanese government men,  Rudolf Wegener and Nobosuke Tagomi, scheme together to keep power balanced between the two sides to avoid a war. And the Americans subject to rule--the "pawns" who work for the occupying forces, and those in the resistance--have to weigh whether their fight for freedom will bring death to innocents around them.

Japanese Trade Minister Nobusuke Tagomi, played by Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa

This series was shot in 2014 and premiered in 2015 with season 1 (you must watch Season 1 in order to understand Season 2). The US presidential race hadn't yet begun, which meant that white supremacists were lurkers, rather than a much-publicized, blatant force. The Man in The High Castle feels like the canary in the cole mine: the harbinger of disaster.

Obergruppenfuhrer John Smith of the American Reich

 In the first month after the  presidential election, we have witnessed almost more than 1000 hate incidents. The president-elect said nothing against these acts until he was coaxed to make a statement by a journalist, at which time he looked into a TV camera and said, "Stop it."

But they won't stop.  The KKK marched through North Carolina to celebrate Donald Trump's Victory. Trump appointed Roger Bannon, his election strategist and founder of the racist Breitbart News website as White House chief of staff. Richard Spencer, a young man who heads a white nationalist group called The National Policy Institute, held a conference of followers in Washington DC where Sieg Heil saluting was widespread in the audience.

Spencer is married to a pro-Putin Russian propagandist Nina Kouprianova. Trump does business with Russia and praises Putin. Trump's nominee for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, is an ExxonMobil CEO who has been awarded a medal from Putin's administration. New York looks to be the center of Trump's government, just as it is for the Nazis in the series.

Well worth watching!

Sounds like a paranoid conspiracy--but people are dead serious about it, and many Republicans now view Putin's actions favorably. Having grown up in the Cold War, this seems to me like a revised version of The Manchurian Candidate--or at the very least  Saturday Night Live skit.

What could happen next--after the ten episodes of Season 2 of The Man in The High Castle are finished? There may be a Season 3, although it's not official yet.

In the meantime, another program is in the works. The A&E Network plans a documentary series called Generation KKK that will follow young Americans choosing racism. This kind of programming--which is bound to attract fans who will connect to the real-life characters - seems like it could be another goose-step in normalizing racist behaviors. But I'll wait to see.


  1. I remember the novel well and being very impressed with it, but I haven't seen the series. I guess 1984 is a much scarier book though. 30 years out of date? I don't
    think so.

  2. This series with its fascist theme is why I can't watch it, especially not now, not while a president-alect who whipped up neofascists to help him win.

    I watched Bernie Sanders at a town meeting in Kenosha, Wis., with Chris Hayes of MSNBC. He was with Trump voters and it was interesting. When Bernie asked about Trump's threats of deportations and banning or registering Muslims, those people said that "he didn't mean it. He won't do it. He just said it to get voters. It's unconstitutional. Congress and the courts won't allow it." Huh?

    Had they never heard of the internment of the Japanese during WWII? Or the quotes against Jewish refugees fleeing nazism in the 1930s and during the war?

    Anyway, friends have circulated an article from Salon criticizing that TV series. The writer asks, is this a show to expose the white supremacists or normalize them -- just as you asked.

    About North Carolina, friends were going to drive to an anti-Klan protest but the cowardly bunch didn't advertise their location. They didn't march through the state.

    In fact, anti-racist protests were held in several cities in the state -- and at least 2,000 people protested at the Capitol building in Raleigh.

    That's the good part: the protests. More and more people are calling for them.

    Meanwhile, I'm watching TV and reading mysteries that are diversions from the Trumpites and their buddies.

  3. Oops, meant quotes against Jewish refugees.

    And to clarify, the Klan did march in North Carolina but not throughout the state. And brave people, many young, were ready to protest where they were, but did it anyway in the Capitol.

  4. Thanks for posting this, Sujata. Here in Canada we sit and stare in horrified fascination and keep pretending It Can't Happen Here.

    I might have to track down that book or series.

    On the other hand, Kathy D, relaxing with diversions -- such as Miss Fisher :^))-- is a good idea. (I think you were still trying to say "quotas"?)

  5. Sujata, I watched The Manchurian Candidate just last night. I loved the film in the 60s when it first came out. It is interesting to me that TMITHC is set in the same time period--when feminism and the counter culture were born. What's going on now feels very much a backlash against the nascent ideas of those days.

  6. I feel like we're watching the sinking of the Titanic as it's happening.

    I wonder when those who voted for the demagogue will wake up and smell the coffee.

    Yes, thanks, I did mean quotas. Not quite as alert at 4 a.m.

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