Amazon’s “The Man in the High Castle:” This is our Fate

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Amazon’s “The Man in the High Castle:” No More Fictitious Than Our Own World

***Contains Spoilers***

Like the masterwork Philip K. Dick novel on which it was based, the Amazon.com series “The Man in the High Castle” posits a gargantuan what-if: what if the Allies had lost World War II? What if the United States had been the spoils handed to a victorious Third Reich and Japanese Empire? The world housed within this premise is of course presented as a work of science fiction—and this is perhaps a deliberate misrepresentation, meant to ensnare us, to get us considering something we might otherwise prefer not to. Sure, it’s obviously lacking in Wookies and Orcs and Parselmouths. But to become fully immersed in “High Castle’s” world is to recognize, if only with an uneasy gut feeling, that this is not sci-fi or even genuine fiction. We might do better to appreciate that this is an allegory—a story in which the specifics mean less than the currents beneath, a fanciful retelling of our own predicament. As it turns out, “High Castle” is an outsider’s-perspective indictment of our own world. And in our world, we too live by fictions.

We might begin with what must strike viewers as ancillary asides not critical to the overarching plot—bearing in mind that for the vast lot of us, most of any given day is consumed more by the former than the latter. Consider protagonist Juliana Crain’s mother Anne or Ed McCarthy’s grandfather. Each gripes—sincerely, but mostly just in passing—about the state of their country’s affairs and its daily injustices. Within a blink, Ol’ Man McCarthy’s buried his nose in a manga comic, while Anne consumes herself with the trivialities of banal state-run television. The unspoken acknowledgement would be, “Yes, this world is crap. But I can’t bear to think about it. I’d sooner preoccupy myself with whatever entertainment my overlords will grant me.

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As for you, dear reader: did you march in the streets with the Occupy or Black Lives Matter movements? Or was something like an NFL wildcard game or the season finale of “The Voice” a more pressing concern? Had you decided that the latter effort was less strenuous than riot police beaning your skull with a tear gas canister? Had you shrugged with the resignation that there’s no changing anything anyway? If so, you’d have gotten by just fine in the show’s Japanese-held San Francisco.

Beyond the program’s seemingly mundane moments, there are bigger fish to fry—or bodies to beat. Covert resistance operative Don Warren is captured and brutalized mercilessly by Nazi thugs. But these are hardly the unwaveringly evil cartoon stereotypes of an “Indiana Jones” film. The genius of this re-contextualization is that these Nazi agents are corn-fed Americans, born and raised. With this, the show introduces into our heads some duly needed cognitive dissonance: there is no clear distinction between us and them, or who is an obvious doer of right versus wrong. We cringe at the savagery of Warren’s fatal beating, and have an easy enough time detesting his murderers, clad as they are in fascist regalia. But the seed in us of a greater realization has been planted: Our true-life America too has a storied history of institutionally sanctioned torture—some politicians both defend and speak glowingly of it. It’s a difficult truth to accept, but we can’t honestly deny it: sometimes the wantonly inhuman are on our side, not the enemy’s. The uniform one wears is indicative of nothing.

And in this fictitious world, who is it that our domestic Brownshirts are after for upsetting the rule of law? Juliana, Frank Frink, the résistance. These are our heroes, the ones who long for a distinctly American freedom of which they’ve heard but never truly known. We relate to them, root for them. And they, too, have clear corollaries in our world. We’ll retread the above: the disenfranchised young people of the Occupy movement were promised grand rewards for their exhaustive educations. When their adult lives began with crippling debt and a dismal lack of economic opportunity, we did not liken them to sympathetic character Juliana or to any worthy underdog who’d been cheated. Instead, the media consensus was that Occupy was but a “liberal whinefest.” To paraphrase pop philosopher Slavoj Žižek, implicit in any talk of a unified “us” is the insinuation that we are only unified against an amorphous “them.” In “High Castle’s” world, a relatable, pushed-to-the-brink type like Frank is championed by the viewer as he rallies against his oppressors, even as he’s vilified in his native Pacific States of America as a degenerate and Semitic terrorist. In our world, however, we have a harder time empathizing with the plight of dissenters; we instead decide to exclude them from the flock, even if we’ve got to fabricate a reason. To wit: the Occupy kids are communists. To wit: over 1,000 Americans killed by police last year must have been crooks who had it coming. To wit: while Reagan told Gorbachev to tear down a wall, traction builds in today’s GOP to build one. To keep out Latinos and Muslims—pardon; rapists, murderers, drug dealers, and ISIS.

One wishes Philip K. Dick were with us today, to smirk and say in his addled wisdom, “You can’t make this stuff up.”

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Those who study pop culture as an academic undertaking—think Ivy League professors rather than “I Love the 80s“—tend to describe mainstream entertainment as a sort of funhouse mirror. It’s a distorted reflection of our values, with our more flattering aspects exaggerated and our lesser qualities externalized. In the hands of masters like Dick, or Vonnegut, or Rod Serling, we’re baited with a fantastical pretense only to be sucker punched with a necessary if sobering truth. In the case of Amazon’s stellar “The Man in the High Castle,” we let ourselves imagine a world in which America is home to both righteous lovers of freedom and to divisive, bloodthirsty jingoists. We entertain a fiction in which national and ideological affiliations mean far less than individuals and their own just or unjust actions. And now, look away from your streaming device—look away from that funhouse mirror, and survey your own world clarified through the lens of this show. Consider now that you might extend to the downtrodden the same empathy and understanding you would Frank Frink. And as per your elected representatives: it might be wise to extend to them the same trust you would a respected and beloved Nazi official. The details might differ glaringly from our own circumstances, but at its core, “High Castle” cannot be dismissed as simple fiction. Our lives, just like Juliana’s, Don’s, and the rest, are not monochromatic but gray. And like them, it’s our job—not the media’s, not the government’s, but ours—to either accept the encroaching darkness, or to introduce light.

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