Alt-History: The Man in the High Castle Retrospective

There have been plenty of films adapted from science fiction writer Philip K Dick’s books, including Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly, Blade Runner, and Radio Free Albemuth.

The Man in the High Castle is Amazon Studio’s attempt at bringing the paranoid, schizophrenic, and bizarre narratives of Dick’s writing to the small screen.

Occupied USA

Set in the early 1970s, the United States is under occupation. The Japanese control the ‘Pacific States’ with their headquarters in San Francisco, and the Nazis rule the rest of the country.

The Rocky Mountains serve as a buffer zone between the two empires. It’s a fascinating slice of alt-history, and the bold cinematography and set design effectively captures a different sort of USA.

San Francisco has a clear Asian influence, and New York City features a skyline dominated by a swastika clad building instead of the UN one we’re familiar with. American housewives watch Japanese TV, and children read comics imported from Germany.

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Nazi uniforms on American TV game shows.

There’s an inescapable irony in the composition of the show itself. Although the content reflects a world without US cultural dominance, the tools used to tell the story are immediately familiar from American prestige TV.

But that only adds to the fascinating narrative at play. It’s a world that’s recognisable, it’s depicted through a familiar lens, but it frequently reflects old world values.

Fatherland and Empire

Both the German and Japanese empires praise hard work and loyalty to fatherland and Emperor. Freedom isn’t sold so readily. Instead US citizens live quietly in a reality that doesn’t belong to them.

Showrunner Frank Spotnitz and his writing team have thought deeply on this alternate history. There are plenty of nods, touches, and cultural tropes that borrow from ones we recognise, but they change them subtly.

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Asian themed San Francisco.

There’s a young boy reading Ranger Reich, and our hero Juliana Crain (Alex Davalos) is deeply interested in Japanese culture and martial arts.

In this world Washington DC was flattened by the H Bomb, Hitler, now an old man, suffers from Parkinson’s, and the cultural narratives are easily controlled by propaganda in this pre internet age.

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Luke Kleintank and Alex Davalos.

The narrative conflict emerges when Juliana discovers an illegal film reel that seems to depict the Allied forces winning the Second World War.

She’s directed to the neutral zone, an area between the Nazi occupation and the Japanese Empire, in order to deliver the film reel to resistance fighters.

On her arrival, she meets Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank), a man who claims to be from the New York resistance movement. Juliana is forced to trust him through circumstances, but the narrative falters around this point.

Neither Joe nor Juliana manage to inject much excitement into this part of the story, but it serves to show just how different their world is to ours. It introduces the confusion of a reality populated by double agents, resistance fighters, Japanese secret police, and Nazi officers.

Strong Supporting Cast

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Rupert Evans plays Frank Frint, Julianna’s boyfriend, and his story is perhaps the most emotive and heartbreaking. He battles with the loss of family members and his need for revenge.

His best friend Ed McCarthy (DJ Qualls) is the kindest character in the show, and he’ll do whatever it takes to protect Frank and Julianna. His story, like Franks’s, is human, and it shows just how dangerous it is to stand for something.

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Fuente as Inspector Kido.

Joel de la Fuente plays Japanese intelligence officer Inspector Kido, and his job is to hunt down and kill resistance fighters. But he’s also an honourable man, a person trying to do his job in service of his empire.

My personal favourite character is the Japanese trade minister Nobusuke Tagomi, played by Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa. Tagomi is governed by the old rules of feudal Japan, and his office contains Samurai armour and carefully cultivated Bonsai trees. He consults the I Ching, or the Oracle, before he makes decisions.

The I Ching is an important storytelling device in Dick’s book, but it takes a back seat in the TV show itself. Towards the end of the season it does have a pay off, but for the most part the esoteric nature of Eastern philosophy gives way to the practical machinations of German industrialism.

Slow to Get Going

There are issues with the pacing at the start of the season, but there’s lots to focus on other than the plot. The neo-noir world of trench coats, detectives, and smoking guns exists, but it isn’t an American story; there are antique stores that cater specifically to Japanese ‘colonials’ interested in traditional ethnic art, and there’s an albino described by a Nazi as ‘too white.’

But the influence of American culture still exists, and I have to wonder how intentional this is. The Western genre affects the narrative that takes place in the buffer zone. This makes sense due to the Japanese/German fascination with US imagery, but the New Hollywood tint alongside American suburbia, doesn’t ring as true.

This bricolage of different cultures does provide for some intriguing moments, though. There’s the VA celebrations at a Nazi household that borrows from Norman Rockwell’s ‘Freedom from Want’ painting. In this universe however the father and the eldest son wear Nazi swastikas on their arms as they carve the Thanksgiving turkey.

Storytelling Potential

It’s in this type of alt-history that the premise finds ample fodder for the writers to explore. But some of the most interesting narrative touches are left to the characters. This is clearly an unjust world, and one where fighting back seems to have little to no value.

But people still strive to change things, although their actions are increasingly muddled and confused. There’s no compelling narrative for the resistance fighters to grasp, and for the most part they’re beaten and defeated.

The story involves assassination attempts, homegrown terrorism, and double agents, and it remains difficult to determine the motivations of the players involved. There’s also the wider story that encompasses the growing disparity between the Japanese empire, and the German one.

The German’s have nuclear weapons and jet planes, but the Japanese are still travelling on steam ships. However, this bigger story is mostly left in the background, and The Man in the High Castle continues to remind us that this isn’t the story of the victors.

A German World

The USA never achieved cultural, technological, or any sort of dominance or superiority. That’s now Germany’s influence on the world. And Rufus Sewell, the strong SS leader of the occupied USA, reflects this transition.

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Rufus Sewell in The Man in the High Castle.

Rufus Sewell is a compelling force, and his performance is one of the highlights of the season. He’s a family man, but he’s also responsible for the extermination of the ‘semites’ in Europe.

But he’s also a Nazi, a man of the Third Reich, and one who does the bidding of his leader in Berlin. He exists within different sorts of obligations and narratives, but his ideology of honour and duty is recognisable. He’s not an evil caricature, but a nuanced man.

This isn’t a dystopian story. It’s a reworking of the world we know, with different winners and losers. It’s an atomised place, and no one is free. Everyone is trapped by some sort of ideology, and each character is striving for clarity, for meaning, and for purpose.

A Brave New World (For Some)

The Man in the High Castle’s narrative has plenty going for it, and the effect it has is notable. It places American’s in an unfamiliar position, and we see most of the story through their eyes.

The narrative challenges our perception of history, and it forces us to consider the idea that there’s no linear progression of events. There’s just chaos. Nothing is governed by anything more than chance. It provides scope for new stories, new voices, and new experiences in a brave new world that reflects the worst of the old.

It’s a great piece of TV, suitable for binge watching, and there’s plenty to explore in more depth. But part of the charm is in the unexpected places that The Man in the High Castle takes us. It’s not Philip K. Dick, it veers hugely from its source material, but in the negotiations about what to keep, and what to change, Frank Spotnitz has found a truly compelling narrative.

Occasionally slow, consistently intriguing, and frequently excellent, this slice of neo noir alt-history reminds us that life is transient, uneasy, and never pre ordained.

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