Sunday, November 22, 2015
The Man in the High Castle--A Review
As I mentioned in a previous post it was during my junior year in high school that I took Mr. Edgerton's world history class and became fascinated with humanity's past. I have long forgotten the title of the textbook we used but there was a passage inside it concerning the period normally called Pax Romana that twisted my teenage mind into a multidimensional pretzel.
For those who don't know Pax Romana, or Roman Peace, was the long period of order and stability in the Roman Empire and nearby regions that ran from the years 27 BC when Augustus took control of Rome to 180 AD with the death of emperor Marcus Aurelius. During this time you could travel from Roman provinces on the island of Britain all the way over to Egypt in relative safety and conduct business using the same coinage and the common language of Latin. Paraphrasing of course, but the paragraph in the textbook that boggled my little mind said something to the effect that Romans of that period just assumed the good times would go on forever, that to them the stability and peace the Empire provided was perpetual.
Of course it wasn't, after Marcus Aurelius the Roman Empire started sliding downhill through a combination of internal and external factors that would ultimately lead to its division and collapse in the portion encompassing Western Europe. Yes fellow history nerds, the eastern half lasted another thousand years but with the rise of Islam was slowly eaten away until Constantinople fell in 1453. What I never could wrap my brain around was the idea that Romans thought their way of life would go on indefinitely. From the perspective of a teenager sitting in Mr. Edgerton's classroom it seemed clear as day that with all the systemic faults inherent to the governing of the Roman Empire there was absolutely no doubt it was going to fall once enough stressors combined to overwhelm its institutions and methods.
Since my one chief and longtime talent is contemplating stuff ordinary people never consider because they have normal and healthy pursuits I then began wondering if we oblivious Americans were ignoring some factor or fault that will eventually bite us in our fat asses. The answer on that one is a big, dangerous yes but my current ramblings is fixated on an exponentially more abstract concept. How could our institutions, practices, culture, in short our entire reality been different?
There is a natural assumption by many to think our reality is the only possible outcome from all the decisions and events that came before us. But like the belief that our way of life will continue on indefinitely it is just as gravely flawed. Speculating on what could have been is dangerous and imperfect pursuit since those involved tend to paint that doppelganger with their biases. Case in point are unrepentant Southerners who think the Confederate States would have been close to a paradise on Earth had it won the Civil War.
There is a sub-genre of science fiction that deals with alternate realities but those authors also tend to paint their fictional creations with broad strokes either making these different worlds to close to our own as to be boring or so different to the point they lose credibility. Good alternate reality stories have to negotiate a fine line between the familiar and the alien. The new Amazon Prime series, “The Man in the High Castle” appears to successful walk that line.
Loosely based on the Philip K. Dick novel of the same name, the series takes place in a world where the Axis Powers won the Second World War resulting in the United States being divided between the two. The exact details resulting in this defeat are never spelled out directly but the viewer can tease out enough throughout the episodes to realize there were a series of alternate events that eventual spelled doom for the United States and allies.
Set in the year 1962, the Nazis control the eastern two-thirds of America with it becoming a totalitarian state with an eerily similar pop culture to the one of our world at that particular time. The pilot episode opens with a movie theater newsreel extolling the virtues of America belonging to the Greater German Reich. In the newsreel there are scenes of busy workers in factories and at desks with a narrator saying everyone has a job and knows their place. This is a bit of a cheap shot, but the fact that none of the people in that newsreel were colored would warm the heart of a few Southerners lamenting their Lost Cause. Additionally in one episode there is a scene that sent cold chills down my spine where two suburban white guys dressed in Mister Rogers-like sweaters say “Sieg Heil” to each other in American accents. In this reality I have enough problems with stifling neighbors and the homeowners association already, given my inherent counterculture attitude I'm sure someone like me would have long since heard a midnight knock at the door.
The other victorious Axis partner, the Japanese, control the western third of the country and while their rule is brutal and there is absolutely no freedoms, they are the nicer of the two empires occupying the United States. One of the differences being that Japanese let those with Jewish ancestry still exist, although the Nazis are pressuring them to synchronize the laws concerning that matter to theirs.
Buffering the two empires is a Neutral Zone that is generally lawless but has numerous secret Nazi agents living undercover watching for trouble along with traveling bounty hunters looking for prewar holdouts. One scary scene has a bounty hunter character named the “Marshal” entering a used book store to question the owner about a woman he is pursuing. The bounty hunter, who looks like a badly dressed character from a second-rate western, then pulls out a deck of cards that happens to have the faces of resistance leaders printed on them. Turns out the store owner has been wanted by the Nazis for years and soon ends up hanging from a town lamppost with the Marshal instructing everyone not to cut him down until the crows have picked his bones clean.
The series centers around the characters Juliana Crain and Joe Blake who are both transporting a mysterious film from different ends of the country to a location in the Neutral Zone. These films show a very different world where the Nazis were defeated. Juliana received her copy from her sister who was working for a weak resistance network before being shot dead by Japanese soldiers. Joe on the other hand is a Nazi secret agent on orders to use his copy to infiltrate the resistance in an attempt to locate the maker of the films known only as the Man in the High Castle.
Juliana believes Joe to be a legitimate member of the resistance and the two spend a great deal of time in the Neutral Zone looking for their mutual contact to turn over the films. During that time Joe begins to develop feelings for Juliana that conflict with his assigned mission. Whether those feelings will ever develop enough to make him abandon his Nazi loyalties is an open question.
Supporting the main conflict of the series is a number of subplots and supporting characters that paint a wide and varied picture of a complicated world that is dark and unnerving because in many way it is so familiar.
The first supporting character has to be Frank Frink, Juliana's live-in boyfriend, who at first just wants to keep his head down and try and live in peace with the Japanese occupiers. That is until they take his sister and her children prisoner and threaten to kill them in an attempt to force him to reveal his girlfriend's whereabouts. This forces Frank to begin to question the way he is dealing with the world.
The character of John Smith is so utterly evil you want him to die in the most painful manner, that is until you see him as a family man. John Smith is one of the bosses of the American gestapo and totally dedicated to the world the Nazis created and maintain. When he returns to his plush middle class suburban home at the end of the day though you see him as a loving father to his children and at least a decent husband to his stay-at-home wife. In many ways this character is the most uncomfortable to watch since Smith is the epitome of the American family man. Now wait a minute you say, how can a certified goosestepping Nazi be a decent, God-fearing, Ward Clever-looking fellow that most suburban types even now would love to have as a neighbor?
Damn glad you asked, see while very few American males go to work to torture and kill in support of a bloodthirsty regime out to suppress the most basic of human rights here at home overseas is another matter. The American government and corporations even now find ways to ignore the practices of some of the worst regimes on the planet. It's not just the usual two suspects, common Americans love their cheaply made consumerist crap we regularly buy at places like WalMart, Best Buy, Target, Apple, and numerous other retail stores. These items don't just magically spring into existence, they are often made in factories that have much in common with the way Nazis ran slave labor camps.
Oh no Mr. Blogger you say, I'd never buy items made from places like that, I'm a decent person. Well, that may be the case but Mainland China ain't a free country and that is where the vast majority of our consumerist garbage is produced. Yeah, I found it outrageously funny that certain people in the United States lost their little, hypocritical minds when President Obama began the process of restoring relations with Communist Cuba but continued their total ignoring of the worst practices of one of our largest trading partners.
Possibly the most tragic of all the characters in this series is Nobusuke Tagomi, the trade minister for the Japanese government running the occupied Pacific States. He is truly a decent and good man in every sense of the word, it's just that Fate, from our perspective, has placed him on the wrong side. Unlike many people he sees the injustice and utter corruption around him but is mostly powerless to do anything about it. He is also one of the most fascinating characters in a way I will not explain, you'll just have to watch the series yourself to find out.
In closing, this series is in NO WAY a rehash of Red Dawn or any other story that has the United States being invaded and occupied. By in large the Americans in this series have largely accepted their defeat and adjusted to living with the tyranny imposed on them. Hell, in fact in the much different book version I read back in the 1980's, I vaguely remember a passage saying the southern American states adapted quite fast to the Nazi way of life the occupiers forced on the supposed land of the free. In fact the series makes it clear that the American resistance movement barely exists at all.
Like the Romans I mentioned earlier, this series in a weird way reminded me that there are no real certainties in life. As much as some will hate this idea, and it's just my humble opinion, the reality or existence most of us know and love was not handcrafted by some omnipotent God looking out for his creation, or at least his specially chosen people. It largely came about by humans blindly bumping around and pursuing their own selfish interests. Now for most of human history this has been a bad thing causing untold suffering, death and destruction for most and a comfortable life for a very few. No matter how secure, permanent, and normal things look, change a few things and the ripple effect will completely alter how the world is ran making the kings into beggars along with the reverse. To me this suggests the best thing everyone can do treat everyone like they would like to be treated and keep a rational mind and try to shape events instead of having to react to them.
Honestly I can't really include any spoilers in this review, because I have no idea where the series is going. The last twenty minutes of the this season's final episode literally throws everything and everyone up into the air and I have no idea how it will all land if and when Amazon produces a second season. All I can say if that if Amazon does renew this series I will again totally clear my weekend schedule, cut off my cell phone, and put a sign on my front door saying unless you're delivering a pizza go to hell, I'm busy. Yeah, the series was that good!