The rise of Internet television has presented an interesting opportunity for many a perspective show runners. With the ease of access comes lax content regulation depending on the provider. If you have the ability and competence to make it appealing to both audiences and producers, you can air just about anything in this burgeoning market, subverting conventions of the rotten mire that is regular television. But sometimes it is hard to break old habits, lessons from a long irrelevant past, and Man in the High Castle (MHC) is the Internet equivalent of a hipster using a typewriter to send tweets.
I have not read Philip K. Dick’s novel of the same name, but after watching just the pilot episode, I was more than enough convinced to pick it up… which I have not done. The instant appeal for me was the element of alternate history, one of my favorite subgenres next to cyberpunk and post-apocalypse. It takes an event(s) we are familiar with and imagines a different outcome of said event(s). This can be anything from JFK avoiding assassination to Crassus conquering Parthia, but the most compelling to me is what if the Nazi’s won WWII.
There is nothing more disturbing than Hitler’s ideal world, purged of any and all the regime deems undesirable, and under the thumb of constant control. It is Orwell with a racist streak, motivated by delusional beliefs of genetic superiority, and expansionist ideals. What makes it interesting to me is what never happened because we won the war.
With a wealth of information on what went on in the Third Reich, there is even more on what Hitler would have done after taking over, specifically weapons and architectural designs. The Sonnengewehr was an orbital weapon that reflects sunlight to burn whole cities; the Ratte, an impractically giant mobile fortress tank; the Ho 229, the world’s first stealth airplane; and Albert Speer’s vision of Berlin, a cold concrete landscape that would be ugly if it were not beautiful in its stylish monotony. It is the stuff of pulp science fiction that Hitler’s insanity would have brought to fruition had he lived to see it.
My first exposure to the Nazi brand of alternate history was Wolfenstein: New Order, a first person shooter videogame and fourth entry in the series. Mechanically it is as simple as you can get: point and kill whatever is not you, but when it comes to characterization and world building, the game excellences where many shooters fail utterly. While B.J. Blazkowicz is a thoroughly fleshed out character, the setting is a fully realized nightmare of Nazi domination.
In addition to what was described in the last paragraph, the game features laser weaponry, robots, super soldiers, and a space program that has colonized the moon and explored neighboring planets. In minute ways it captures life in an oppressive regime where you read memos about city purges, the enslavement of the Japanese Empire, or you overhear citizens in Berlin telling the authorities about their neighbor’s son putting on make-up, and others talking about the continuing war in Africa.
New Order peaked my interest in alternate history entertainment. I even bought the art book and I cannot wait to see what they do with a sequel. I also sought out other works that imagine a world taken over by Nazis. Richard Harris’ Fatherland was the first novel I discovered and I heard about MHC when its pilot was first circulating on Amazon. It was interesting, but it did not grab me like New Order. Come the release of the full roster of episodes in November, I watched the entire season, and here I am to tell you all about it.
MHC is basically a day in the life of occupied America. During WWII, the Nazis and Japan invaded the States from both coasts, each laying claim to territory. Between the two a neutral zone was established in the Rocky Mountains where the last remnants of a true America remain. Germany and Japan are locked in a Cold War where they struggle to maintain peace against mounting tensions regarding the former’s technological superiority and the latter’s deteriorating hold on its colonies. Within both territories there is a resistance movement using propaganda films called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy that imagines an alternate reality where we won WWII. The maker of these rather omniscient films is the titular Man in the High Castle.
The story follows an ensemble cast of characters that experience a different side of the world with the main focus on the Pacific States. Juliana is an ordinary citizen who joins the resistance. Frank is Juliana’s boyfriend who wants to live a normal life, but is under constant scrutiny by the secret police because of his association. Blake is an undercover agent trying to infiltrate the resistance. Smith is an SS officer who wants to move on from his past. And Tagmoi is a government official that wants to better his country in the name of peace.
The fixation on the Pacific States plays well into the show’s theme of race because it would not work in the Greater German Reich. In San Francisco, non-Japanese peoples appear as equals, but are treated like second-class citizens under Jim Crow. They live in relative squalor as they do less desirable tasks in service to the Japanese like physical labor and general servitude. The secret police watch their every move and are never above suspicion.
What goes on in the occupied areas epitomizes the overarching theme of totalitarianism, a depth-full examination of life in the guise of the Axis Powers. Careful consideration is taken to breath life into every level of society. In the Reich, picturesque neighborhoods play host to Nazi flags and everyone says “Sieg Heil” when greeting one another. Police and other authority figures are clad in military regalia with a Swastika armband of 13 red and white stripes. Hospitals practice eugenics as they kill off those with severe afflictions and cremate them. The other side of the coast is no better despite its open racial laws. Maintaining order means monitoring phone calls and kidnapping people in the night. Whether they are guilty or not, citizens are killed when they do not cooperate or must be sacrificed as an example to the rest.
Each character provides a different perspective of the world. Frank is an oppressed minority pushed to the brink of sanity when his normal life is turned upside down for superficial reasons. Engrossing herself into the covert world of the resistance, Juliana goes deep into the minutia of Imperial government to help pick away at its grip on the country. Blake is compelled to work against his country under threat of death by the SS. Smith and Tagomi represent the mindset of the governments: one fixated on maintaining perfect order, and the other trying to achieve the success of his counterpart.
Performances can make any fiction a reality and the cast did an admirable job. My personal favorite was Rufus Sewell as Smith. His character is a man who is content in what he did in the past, but is in some ways struggling to move on. I got the feeling he kept working at his job to keep his mind off the guilt of being a mass murderer and Sewell’s subtlety sold it home. Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa had great turn as Tagomi, one of the only non-villain characters I have seen him play. It was almost disconcerting watching Shang Tsung trying to talk a General out of making a nuclear bomb or meditating in a garden, but he seemed to pull it off. The rest of the cast was quite serviceable and not bad by any means. They drove home what the world is like, yet did not do anything to really standout.
The main problem with MHC is one congruent with regular television. Even before I went to an entertainment school and learned all this in a classroom, I understood the simple schemes that keep bad shows popular. Whether it is the fault of the producers or the brain dead drones that watch it, television has a way of keeping your attention, even if you know you are being played for a fool.
The scheme is one of open-endedness, where plot points and certain details are intentionally left out or incomplete. It grabs audiences by giving them a reason to keep watching, a final mystery that will be solved if they stick around for the next episode or next season. If they are able to hook you after the first episodes, be it with character or story, a final cliffhanger is enough build a following that will carry over to the next installment.
In some cases it works. The new Battlestar Galactica had an open ending for each finale, but it was the characters and action that kept us around. The same goes for Spartacus and Game of Thrones. But when the other elements do not work, there is nothing to maintain interest unless the people who watch it need something to do on a Sunday night. Vikings takes open-endedness to a whole new level by gutting its own plot so it can maintain the same story points and never try anything new. 24 utilized this scheme so extensively it killed the show’s narrative integrity. And The Walking Dead is so white bread ordinary it lacks the courage to even try something risky like killing off a majority of the main cast. Three quarters of the group were already dead by the time they reached Alexandria in the books.
With the freedom of the Internet you would think show runners would try something new, but the long-term design of MHC is a determent. One subplot involving Smith and his son has a lot of emotional weight. After the set-up, however, there is no pay-off, and it is never mentioned again. Other plot points back track to arcs that were already resolved in anticipation for season two. By the time the show is over, it feels like nothing has happened. Characters go back to square one with no change to themselves or the story. The reasoning behind it makes sense in a pragmatic narrative context, but because fiction is fiction, why not do something different? Kill a few characters or take them to places off the beaten path. If you at least attempt to be compelling, people will like it more.
Had it not been for the fleshed out world and carefully constructed elements that make it feel real, Man in the High Castle would be another prime time piece of garbage that just happened to be an Internet show. It is the kind of story you do not see often in the medium, but its adherence to television conventions keeps it from coming into its own. There was great potential to really set it apart from the norm, squandered by a fear of doing something different. Seeing the fully realized world is enough to give the show a look.