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Man in the High Castle’s protagonists are helpless in the most Philip K. Dick ways

Man in the High Castle’s protagonists are helpless in the most Philip K. Dick ways


There seems to be no hope for the rebels, yet they soldier on

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Courtesy of Amazon Video

It’s common for Philip K. Dick adaptations to barely resemble their source material. Amazon’s TV series The Man in the High Castle began as an exception, closely translating Dick’s dark alternate history about a world ruled by Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. But as the series moves into its third season, it’s become more interested in a relatively generic story about multiverses — a plot point that was left more ambiguous in earlier seasons and was barely present in the book.

As Samantha Nelson wrote in her review of the new season, the science fiction underpinnings of the show’s plot are shaky, and the new focus sometimes comes at the expense of character-driven drama. But probably unintentionally, it hits close to a classic Dick theme: the line between faith and delusion.

The Man in the High Castle’s third season ostensibly shows the growth of a rebellion against the Nazis and Japanese — it’s being advertised with the tagline “The Resistance Rises” — but the show has never figured out how to depict a meaningful rebellion in its unrelentingly hopeless setting. Its America has been remade so completely by Axis powers over the course of so many years that there’s barely any foundation left for a non-fascist society. When tensions between Japan and Germany escalate in the third season, the prospect of World War III is almost appealing because it’s the only way to imagine either superpower being defeated.

That disconnect between the rebellion plotline and the possibility of meaningful change has been obvious since the first season, but when the show’s protagonists were just starting to explore resistance, their actions seemed understandable. By the third season, however, it’s hard to tell what they hope to achieve. Instead, characters seem almost openly resigned to carrying out risky missions for unclear rewards simply because they’re compelled to do something in the face of unimaginable evil.

The third season’s main story arc involves Nazis discovering trans-dimensional travel and secretly plotting to conquer the multiverse, opposed by protagonist Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos) and fellow members of the resistance. The series takes place in a generally realistic setting, although a few people — including Juliana — have had close encounters with other universes. For everyone else, the most tangible evidence is a series of short films apparently depicting alternate histories. It’s uncanny but still indirect proof.

Success is indistinguishable from the problem never existing

So no matter how high the potential stakes, it’s a little surprising how easily Juliana can persuade followers — including cynical fixer Wyatt Price (Jason O’Mara) — to infiltrate a remote, heavily guarded Nazi facility to possibly disable a theoretical interdimensional time portal, probably dying in the process.

What’s more, this incredibly difficult plan seems unlikely to improve their own world, where Nazis have begun systematically erasing American culture. And even if the mission succeeds, the team may well end up destroying a supposed reality-hopping machine without confirming whether it functioned and without finding evidence that alternate universes are real. Success is basically indistinguishable from the problem never existing at all.

Photo courtesy of Amazon

Other characters point out just how big a leap of faith this is, particularly for Wyatt, who is taking increasingly serious risks to help a woman he barely knows. “I fought them in Europe, and I fought them here. I reckon it’s time to get back in the fray,” he says. The fray this time around is much stranger, but it’s still one of the only ways for a High Castle character to feel like they have some kind of agency.

Viewers know Juliana is right, thanks to a subplot about the Nazi scientists. But if the story were less clear-cut, her plan would fit one of Philip K. Dick’s recurring tropes: the reassuring, empty rituals that help characters survive in grim realities.

Sometimes these rituals are obviously destructive: Dick’s short story The Days of Perky Pat, for instance, is about post-apocalyptic survivors who endlessly relive prewar life using dolls. But sometimes, they’re more complicated. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? features a popular religion called Mercerism that’s based around a constantly suffering Christ-like figure. Mercerism is apparently a hoax, but for protagonist Rick Deckard, it doesn’t matter. The doctrine helps him make sense of a future where nearly everything that seems real is revealed as artificial.

dramatic, possibly pointless gestures in an increasingly dark world

The Man in the High Castle’s early episodes offered a similarly ambiguous take on its alternate universes, treating the possibility of other worlds as comforting but enigmatic. (The source novel’s equivalent, an alternate-history novel called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, was even more mysterious.) Against that kind of backdrop, Juliana’s quest doesn’t seem like a predictable action movie plot. It’s a way to explore how characters resist when resistance seems impossible and when hope crosses the line into madness.

Granted, a lot of season 3 does play out like an action movie, and its multiverse develops a more concrete (if frequently confusing) set of rules, which makes characters’ actions seem more clearly right or wrong. But the show’s concern with dramatic, possibly pointless gestures in an increasingly dark world makes it feel like a faithful adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s ethos — even, or perhaps especially, as its plot stretches far beyond the scope of the original book.