The Man in the High Castle is a timely political narrative — against political narratives
In Amazon's adaptation of Philip K. Dick's novel, stories are an opiate
It’s not surprising that The Man in the High Castle — an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s classic novel set after a Nazi victory in World War II — has drawn praise as "the year’s most political show," or a dark reflection of present-day America. The series infuses Dick’s book with the flavor of something like Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, attempting more overt and ugly commentary on how Americans could accept Nazi and Japanese rule. It paints monstrous but humanized characters like Rufus Sewell's Obergruppenfuhrer John Smith, a loving father and loyal Nazi officer living in a sinister parody of mid-century suburbia. It dwells on the ways that citizens whitewash genocide and war crimes in order to survive. And it premiered a week after the terrorist attack in Paris and the wave of quasi-fascist xenophobia that followed.
But what’s interesting about The Man in the High Castle isn’t that it’s a political narrative, which is all but unavoidable in a film about Nazis in America. It’s the way it slowly undercuts the value of political narratives altogether, turning an otherwise straightforward series into something much more interesting.
Major spoilers ahead.
As I mentioned after the show’s pilot episode, The Man in the High Castle is far more about active political resistance than its source material. Its plot is driven by a series of newsreel-style films collectively known as The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which seem to depict America winning World War II. In Dick’s book, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is a popular but distinctly fictional alternate history novel. In the series, it seems to actually come from our own world, showing that an Axis victory wasn’t inevitable.
In the series’ first episodes, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy seems like at least a powerful rhetorical tool and at most a huge historical reset button. The Nazis will go to nearly any lengths to recover newsreels, and an underground resistance movement believes they could topple fascism, undertaking dangerous cross-country smuggling operations for the eponymous (and mysterious) "Man in the High Castle." It’s a pure argument for the power of stories and images, an inverted version of Leni Riefenstahl's propaganda films.
As the series progresses, though, questions about the newsreels pile up. They seem to come from an alternate timeline, but their exact origins are unknown. The Man in the High Castle supposedly analyzes them for useful intelligence, but it’s left vague whether this is supposed to only destabilize the current government or literally rewrite history. Overall, it’s a tantalizing mystery. But it also casts doubt on their ultimate political value, and the almost religious faith that resistance members place in them. How much is knowing the truth worth if you can’t do anything with it?
Protagonist Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos), whose sister passes her a newsreel moments before dying, is motivated almost entirely by the prospect of learning more about The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. She’s immediately convinced that the films are real, and seeing one plants the first seeds of independence and subversion, pushing her to escape imperial Japanese rule. But for most of the season, the only thing we learn about the films — over and over again — is that they are worth dying for, even if you’ve never watched one.
If the resistance truly has a plan to change the world with The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, this is noble. But the longer we’re kept in the dark, the more it feels dedicated simply to the concept of resistance. Members describe their goals in vague inspirational quotes about evil triumphing when good men do nothing, and they spend so much time and money acquiring films that they start feeling like bootleg video distributors who moonlight as dissidents. They’re discouraged from viewing the reels they pass along, relying on the Man in the High Castle’s interpretation.
While Japanese and Nazi officials are constantly orchestrating clear and sophisticated coups, assassinations, and espionage missions, the resistance seems unable to do more than chip away at the edges of either government. But its members still unblinkingly accept surprising amounts of collateral damage, including Juliana’s apolitical Jewish boyfriend Frank Frink (Rupert Evans), who is arrested, tortured, and nearly executed as police attempt to track her down. Instead of joining the resistance once he experiences the regime’s brutality, he berates one of their leaders for passing around movies instead of starting a violent uprising.
Which feels like the point. In a mostly powerless American populace, the newsreels’ alternate history is an opiate, an easy way to capture some sense of agency and triumph. Would-be dissidents can take a vision of American victory and build something that feels like a meaningful revolution around it, full of coded messages, infiltration, and underworld dealings — everything but meaningful success. If something goes wrong, it’s not a senseless tragedy, it’s a necessary sacrifice. When Juliana’s sister tells her about the resistance, it’s in quasi-religious terms of purpose and meaning, more evangelism than recruitment.
The premise is something much messier than "stories can change the world"
Philip K. Dick’s novels are famous for their mysticism, and there is something sacred and surreal about The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. But this turns out to make it less, not more, reassuring. There’s actually a very good reason for not watching the newsreels: in a marked departure from the book, they’re apparently from a series of different possible timelines, at least one of which is far worse than the characters’ own world. The season’s overall ending is weird and sudden enough that it’s hard to say what this means, but it delivers something much messier than the pilot’s "stories can change the world" premise.
If movements are built around narratives and allegories, The Man in the High Castle is partly about the limits of this process. Stories can help us make sense of the world, playing out what-if scenarios and empathizing with our enemies, but they can also grind the rough edges of reality into safe archetypes — just look at the propensity to compare every remotely totalitarian event to 1984. They can act as political catalysts and tell us things about human nature, but they can also allow people to substitute consumption for action — like the safely aestheticized video games about "understanding" violence and cruelty.
As Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff mentions, The Man in the High Castle "suggests that all of us live in societies where we find at least something, no matter how small, completely unacceptable. And yet we do nothing, because it is more comfortable to stay put." But it also suggests that we can be keenly aware of this and still incapable of changing it — even when we’re shown how change might look.