“The Man in the High Castle” should be the program on everyone’s lips after November’s election. After all, the show takes place in an alternate universe in which the U.S. has lost World War II, leaving the Nazis and Japanese empires to divvy up the states. Streamed through Amazon, the show isn’t beholden to any strict network guidelines around language and content. Instead of saying the pledge of allegiance in the morning, school children turn to a picture of the Fuhrer and perform a Nazi salute. The show’s premise is eerily close to discussions and debates rolling around the American zeitgeist now. And yet, it’s about as soft as the “Edelweiss” cover that opens its episodes.
Set in an alternate 1962, Juliana Crain gets sucked further and further into the resistance after her half-sister Trudy is killed, leaving behind an old newsreel — which somehow depicts a news broadcast where the Allied forces won World War II. Meanwhile, her boyfriend Frank is hiding his Jewish roots to avoid being extradited (or worse) and wants nothing to do with it, Juliana believes the reel holds the key to the alternate dimension and seeks to bring it to Canon City, Colorado, with the help of Joe Blake (a rugged double agent, unbeknownst to Juliana).
The show is based on a book by Philip K. Dick, a man whose interests often lie in the bewildering twists of moral philosophy. His work is so often appealing to Hollywood as a series of premises: what separates man from robot? If we know a crime is going to happen does that make the perpetrator guilty?
Philip K. Dick adaptations often mutate into something else in the hands of American pop culture: edges sanded down and philosophy traded for splash.
“Man in the High Castle” as a series initially seemed like it could be a combo breaker. The long-form storytelling had the potential for deep exploration of this mega ‘what if’ – more so than the original 1963 novel, which focused instead on the idea of a parallel reality, rather than about the ideological clash. Season one (at least abstractly) built itself and its world along a series of impossible situations — the Jewish mechanic who would like nothing more than to keep his head down, even as his girlfriend gets deeper into the cause; the high-ranking American Nazi officer tasked with killing his own disabled son to comply with the eugenics laws… all the ways people can be tacitly indoctrinated by the regime they live under even as they ‘disagree’ with it.
However, all too often, the show gets in its own way. It dallies with its science fiction elements too infrequently for them to be the pillars that hold up the overly elaborate plotting. Though its world is so well-built, full of visual detail, the show’s focus is too fractured to follow-up on any one point strongly enough. Its cast is vast, its players all over the map (literally and figuratively) and its makeup is a pastiche of genres that never seems to smooth out the seams. Though its take on American Nazism is interesting (a saturated white-picket-fence world where neighbors greet with a hearty “Sieg Heil!”) the key narrative driving the plot — of rebellion and fearlessness in the face of fascism — gets lost in the scuffle.
Perhaps “The Man in the High Castle” makes the mistake so much of pop culture has by sinking all its eggs into the love story basket, inadvertently anchoring the show in all the wrong places. Joe and Juliana are the characters tasked with some of the most dramatic shifts in the show’s history, but they’re also the ones who are the most aimless and indecisive. There’s little room for humor in the show bible and so Joe and Juliana’s actions feel perfunctory. They go where the plot needs them because the plot wills it to be so. There’s no inspiration to their fight other than the fact that the audience knows Nazis are pop culture stand-ins for pure evil.
Essentially, the show doesn’t feel like the relevant mirror it needs to. On the other hand, it comes as close to a worst-case scenario as we can get to right now. It depicts indisputable Nazis who run the country, and tacit endorsement from an alarming number of American people. But its disinterest in truly engaging with those concepts robs it of any urgency, which is odd since the discussion of nazism is so rampant in American politics. It’s no longer a safe statement to say you’d punch a Nazi; it’s all complicated by the American-ness of it all. Suddenly the enemy isn’t some far-off, built up entity. They’re our friends and neighbors. They’re our government officials.
Arguments about fighting Nazis no longer feel like distant what-ifs, or duties left to Captain America. They feel like they’re encroaching and corrupting so many of the pillars of our democracy. The questions our society is now forced to grapple with should align with the subversive world shown in “The Man in the High Castle.” Instead, the show feels almost as unconcerned with these questions as anything else on TV.