The Man in the High Castle
, based loosely on Phillip K Dick's novel of an alternate history in which the Axis wins World War II and occupies the United States, is extraordinary in look and feel, acting, complexity and theme. The plot can be murky in places, as it is complex--there were moments in the series I had no idea what was going on--and drags in places (this is to say it is an imperfect work of art.) But nonetheless, it is extraordinary and worth watching.
|New York in Nazi hands.|
I call it feminist because the plot hinges on the actions
of a woman, Juliana Crain, who lives as an oppressed American in Japanese-controlled San Francisco. She is not a catalyst
for a male hero to act and save the day: it is precisely her own actions
and her humanity that are all important. How often do we see that? And while she loves and is loved, that isn't the pivot of her life or the plot. In fact, it is some of the men who are more obsessed with her than she is with them, again, an extraordinary, feminist stance that the series enacts quietly.
|Juliana Crane. Her actions derive from her courage and compassion. Her moral center is not evil.|
Juliana gets dragged into the action, into history so to speak, when her sister, a member of the anti-Japanese/Nazi resistance, is killed. Juliana decides to deliver a film (in place of her sister) to the neutral zone between the Japanese and Nazi territories. "The man in the high castle," as he is called, has a large cache of films showing an alternative history in which the Allies won the war. The Nazis are after these films--to destroy them.
Juliana is motivated throughout the series not by ideology but by personal relationship and basic human compassion and decency. She has a moral compass rare to see in a TV protagonist these days: she actually cares about other people because she is able to put herself in their shoes and empathize with them: she is not about using others as "tools" for achieving her own agenda (as is valorized (while disingenuously disavowed) in Breaking Bad, the Sopranos, West World, Game of Thrones,
etc.) Thus, from the start, the Man
series questions and problematizes blind adherence to ideology or groupthink or self above all else. The series is centrally not
about selfish personal ambition but about the larger good. I can't tell you what a (moral/ethical) relief it was to watch this.
Juliana makes mistakes because this is a series not prone to black and white distinctions. A big error is to trust a young man called Joe Blake who she meets in the neutral zone. He is at heart a decent person and he does genuinely fall in love with her. She feels all this and decides to trust him. What she doesn't know is that he is working undercover for the Nazis to get films for them. Because she trusts him, he gets hold of an all-important film. But to complicate matters, Joe too has his heart in the right place. He is doing this, if I remember correctly, to get out from under the thumb of a prominent Nazi, John Smith and rebels against turning the film over to his Nazi overload. He, in fact, turns the film over to a group of insurgents, but is himself being played: once the film is on their boat, the Nazis blow it up, killing people. Joe looks like the Nazi traitor he is not: his intention was not to betray the resistance. Juliana also never meant for people to die, but they do.
In any case, Juliana doesn't lose her compassion and humanity: they are core to who she is and core to the survival of the human race in this series. She ends up having to flee and ask for asylum from the Nazis in New York: John Smith, to serve his own agenda, takes her under his wing. She doesn't want to have anything to do with him, but the Resistance insists she infiltrate his home and make friends with his wife and wife's friends (all married to prominent Nazis) or they will kill her for having given the film to Joe.
|Thomas, a devoted young Nazi, is condemned to death by Nazi ideology.|
She does infiltrate and to make a long story short, learns an important secret about John Smith's family: the son has muscular dystrophy. A doctor has come to euthanize the son, Thomas, because Nazi ideology dictates death to somebody carrying a hereditary illness. However, John loves son and like Juliana, put relationship above ideology: he stabs the doctor who has come to euthanize Thomas with the very needle filled with poison meant to kill Thomas. John is not going to sacrifice his beloved son to an ideology: here we have another complicated character, both a loathsome Nazi who is capable of cold-bloodedly killing enemies but also a loving father and a man who in the end works to prevent World War III at considerable risk to himself. (It's also clear that prior to the Nazi victory John and his wife were good Americans, and later Nazis: this seems a very real depiction of how people react to circumstances, as with the many die-hard Nazis who quickly became communists in East Germany after WWII.)
|John Smith, American turned Nazi. He is more evil than good, but complicated, not a stick figure.|
So as not to go on endlessly: the Nazis have the atom bomb, which the Japanese do not. When Hitler dies, his Nazi successor decides to immediately launch an all-out nuclear war against Japan, on the theory that this will usher in peace for all times (so absurd the series doesn't even have to comment on that as ridiculous). However, a wise, high-ranking Japanese (I am cutting out his story) delivers a film (actually an alternative history film) that shows the explosion of the hydrogen bomb on Bikini Island, in this world an island utterly in Japanese hands. John Smith is able to deliver this film showing (though falsely) that the Japanese have a superior weapon, causing the Nazis to cancel their nuclear strike. Peace prevails through ingenuity and courageous action rather than violence.
In this ever problematizing series, however, violence does play a role in preserving peace: the course of history does depend on Juliana, as mentioned before. She finds out the Resistance has a film that shows Thomas confiding in her that he has a serious illness. The Resistance plans to give this film to the media, which would ensure that the loathed John Smith would be arrested and executed for protecting his son. Juliana protests this, saying a young teenaged boy (who of course would be euthanized) shouldn't be sacrificed. After she successfully defends herself against the Resistance's coldblooded and pre-planned attempt to kill her now that they don't need her anymore (she's no longer a useful tool), she makes the decision (which she hates) to kill the man who has the tape, and then she destroys the tape to protect Thomas. Unbeknownst to her, this act is what allows John Smith (who otherwise would be in prison) to fly to Berlin with the film of the hydrogen bomb that averts war.
I call this a peace series because instead of valorizing ruthless slaughter of the "enemy" and pursuit of one's own self-aggrandizing agenda, the series valorizes compassionate empathy and caring for other human beings, even if that particular human being is on the "enemy" side. This is what saves the world. I contrast this to, for instance, a scene (largely gratuitous except to communicate a toxic ideological message) in Game of Thrones
where a group of peace advocate who refuse to fight are slaughtered: the message is fight or die, kill or be killed, peace is for hopelessly naive pussies. However, getting back to Man,
the narrative is problematized: Juliana protects a Nazi teenager who sincerely, if naively, believes wholly in Nazi ideology. Yet this is what makes the series interesting: if Juliana had been a Nazi who protects a Jew, we would not stop and think "What???": we would simply approve. Here, we do have to stop and think and realize that we are just as bloodthirsty and stupid as the Nazis if we kill others simply on the basis of ideology, rather than extending compassion to innocent, if misguided, people.
This is a peace series as well because it shows the ugliness of killing: in another but connected storyline, Frank Frick, a problematic character too, a resistance fighter who is too abrasive, self-absorbed and too willing to sacrifice friends to ideology, becomes the central player in a plot to blow up a Japanese military installation that is developing atomic weapons. The plot succeeds, but the series unflinchingly shows us dead, dismembered, people: it shows us the brutality and ugliness of this action. It isn't just a scene of the enemy factory blowing up in a spectacular but distant and heroic (let's all cheer!) explosion of fire and smoke: it is a scene in which innocent humans getting horribly killed.
It is difficult finding oneself at times sympathizing with Nazis and condemning US resistance fighters, but that is what makes the series extraordinary: it actually evokes thought rather than a black and white narrative in which one unreflectively "cheers" on the "good guys" killing the "bad guys," for here, as in life, everything is more complicated.
The series thus far (there will be a season three) has accomplished the followings:
A woman's actions
are made central to the plot.
Women do not simply function as sex objects but have life and being apart from men.
Compassion, empathy and mercy are not denigrated, sneered at and spat upon as "weakness."
Compassion, in fact, is more powerful than violence. It is a genuine alternative to violence. It can work. It is not inherently weak.
Narrative is important: the existence of a counter-narrative in the form of the forbidden films gives people hope and changes the course of history. The Nazis understand the importance of narrative: do we?
The series drives home the point that what matters is what we do
, not what our outer shell says we are as a role. Nazis can behave compassionately and Resistance fighters can behave as ruthless barbarians. If we want to defeat barbarism, we can't become barbarians.
A quick read of some of the response to season two (which admittedly, does have some murky, draggy episodes in the middle) tells me that some people are not "getting" the central message of this series. All the more reason to highlight it.