But, first, a conspiracy theory…
I don’t actually subscribe to many conspiracy theories, but in the last couple months I’ve found myself drifting slightly into Tinfoil Hat Land. I had a single thought that has burrowed itself into my psyche, and I am starting to see evidence for it every time I turn on the television.
The conspiracy theories around the presidency are common these days, what with a Kenyan Muslim Socialist Gun Grabber in the White House. While most of them are pointed in the Black Guy’s direction, I find my shenanigan senses tingling when I look over at the Republican side of the aisle.
Especially Donald Trump. I don’t know if he is a genuinely fake person or just plays one on TV, but I think his presidential candidacy is… suspicious to say the least. It’s staged, and reeks of a desperate phoniness. It’s the worst kind of acting. So I started thinking about why… Why would this incredibly public figure whose current “ideals” are contradicted by recorded statements? Is he just an asshole, or is he in it for something else?
Once you look closer at the evidence, it’s brilliant. The man is a genius, not as a politician, but as a marketing tool. He’s a walking, talking, fully animated poster for nationalist douchebags who are afraid of getting LGBT POC SJW cooties all over their turgid heterosexual guns. He was built and deployed by a team of transmedia marketing wizards, who crunched the numbers and realized that frightened right wing nut jobs are not so much a revenue stream as a revenue waterfall of the Niagara variety.
So what was he supposed to be selling? That is the real mystery. If he started off selling a product, what was it?
Easy. He was supposed to sell the Amazon original The Man in the High Castle.
Think about it. Is there a better way to advertise a show centering on the struggles of freedom loving Freedom-Mericans? You rile people up, you get them looking at you, and then BLAM! You drop the banners behind you at the biggest political rally of your life and it’s DONALD TRUMP BROUGHT TO YOU BY AMAZON’S ORIGINAL THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE. But… the campaign began to gain momentum, Trump gained rabid followers, and they kept putting off the reveal until they lost control of the monster they created.
It wouldn’t be Amazon’s worst marketing decision when it came to Man in the High Castle. How does Donald Trump look compared to decking out a few New York City subway cars in full alternate history Nazi regalia? And as New York City is not a place that’s known for it’s lack of cultural diversity, you can imagine how that went down. The MTA covered their ass, saying that because the subway cars were advertisements and not political speech, they had no grounds to deny them permission.
Donald Trump and Nazi subway cars aside, Man in the High Castle has to be my favorite Amazon Original production so far. I know they’re trying to go up against Netflix, but I thought that their choices for original programming were too safe and mainstream, network TV rejects that got picked up and distributed for cheap. MitHC, helmed by Ridley Scott, shows a massive alternate history vision that is surprising coming from a streaming only service. Every image on the screen is dripping with dirty, wind-blasted realism. The attention to detail is mind blowing.
For those of you who don’t know, The Man in the High Castle is based on an alternate history novel by Philip K. Dick in which the Axis Powers win the Second World War and take control of the former United States, the Nazi Reich on the east and Imperial Japan on the west, with the former Rocky Mountain states forming a generally lawless Neutral Zone in between. The titular Man in the High Castle is a man that releases contraband film showing another world, where the Allied powers won the war. These films are sought after by the governments on both coasts as subversive propaganda. Juliana Crain, the show’s main protagonist, comes into possession of a film called The Grasshopper Weighs Heavy and must travel to figure out the film’s secrets.
(A quick primer for those who are interested, but it should be noted that in the book, the Man in the High Castle is a novelist, and The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is a novel, not a newsreel.)
I doubt I would have put much faith in this adaptation if Ridley Scott wasn’t associated with it. In the long history of PKD adaptations, Scott stands above all in capturing the tone and outlook of Dick’s texts, even though his adaptations rarely share much with their source material. (See: Blade Runner/Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) It’s because of Scott’s willingness to view the source material as a guideline rather than a blueprint is what makes his takes on PDK successful.
And there are so many things that could have gone wrong with this. Both the book and the show juggle multiple storylines, multiple points of view, multiple ideologies… Being able to do them all justice isn’t an easy task, but they managed it. The balance is set, and all the pieces fit together like gears in a clock. The episodes are paced out very well, though at the beginning it might require a bit of patience since it isn’t obvious why we are paying such close attention to a few of them so early. But exploring the many ways that humans react to and survive under oppressive regimes is interesting.
The whole universe is created in astonishing detail. The Nazi Reich, the Japanese States of America, and the Neutral Zones are all backdrops filled with the tiny details that could have been skipped, but the whole show is better and more authentic for it. Worn-down murals, peeling stickers, graffiti, even rust on the cars… they all add up to a dirty, lived in world. This is a place that could exist, and it makes the reality these characters live in even more devastating.
The cast put together is amazing, I can’t think of any improvements I would have made. It’s so chock full of brilliant actors I’m having a hard time putting together a list that would do it just, so I”m just going to link to the imdb page. The most notable people are the ones who occupy secondary roles: Rufus Sewell, Cary-Hiroyuki Tarawa, and DJ Qualls. All tended to dominate the scenes they were in, which made it awkward when towards the end of the season I was forced to care more about the story of the character I cared the least about, Alexa Davalos’s Juliana Crain.
Is it perfect? Hell no. In the book, the Man in the High Castle is a novelist, while in the show, he produces reels of film. This is fine, but the audience doesn’t actually see any of this mind blowing footage on the reel. In fact, it’s even worse, since we are only watching Juliana watch the footage. There’s nothing to show the audience why these reels are so special. In my mind, it would have been better for Grasshopper to remain a novel, since it’s easier to accept a character reading a book and being moved since there’s an air of mystery as to the text. But if you’re showing film in a visual medium, you need a really good excuse not to show all those images, and there was not one here.
While it does a good job representing the Japanese and Asian aspect of the novel, and not letting all of those characters be villains, it ignores what might be a bigger problem in that, in the book, the Nazis reinstated slavery all over the world. It would have been another good crack in the cheery mid-century utopian facade of the suburban Reich shown in the film if they could have found a way to point out that, oh, those guys doing the yard work? Those guys are slaves. I mean, I know we don’t have to do very much to make Nazis the bad guys, but this just seems like a good avenue to explore in a long form production like this one.
But in the grand scheme of things, these issues are very small in the face of a monumental feat of adaptation. These relatively minor issues only bother me now, after the fact. While I was watching the show I was swept up in the rush of this fully-realized universe, and I loved it. As a fan of character driven speculative fiction, it’s a gift from the little baby Jesus to see these intellectual stories finally being produced. There’s been a wave recently with smart sci-fi movies and television that challenge you and make you think, and I’m glad that these works are finally being produced for a wider audience. Congratulations, movies and TV, you’ve almost caught up to books!
Should you watch it? Yes. Should you get your panties in a bunch about relatively small issues in story? No. Should Rufus Sewell be cast as a sympathetic villain more often? Absolutely.
The Man in the High Castle
Amazon, free with a Prime Account
Meteoritic score: 77
Rotten Tomatoes: 95%
My score: 8/10