[Spoilers for the first season of The Man in the High Castle.]
What a difference a year makes. Last November, when Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle debuted, the premise of a Nazi takeover of the American government looked safely escapist. Exquisite in production design and virtually limitless in its capacity to bore, the alternative-history drama seemed fated to become a curio for World War II nerds and Philip K. Dick fanatics. But 2016 found white supremacists’ candidate of choice elected to the White House, and with him went his right-hand man, an anti-Semitic, fringe-right propagandist. Neo-Nazis cheered — a few stretching their arms in a Hitler salute at a speech calling for a “peaceful ethnic cleansing” — and hate crimes spiked across the country.
So here we are, with High Castle now appearing deceptively relevant to contemporary America. Rewatching Season 1 this week, I saw the show’s (small but significant) political value: as a warning against the normalization of fascism and a rebuke against the illusion of American exceptionalism. In the most quietly haunting scene last year, a friendly, Midwestern cop calmly explains that the rain of ash over his small town is a weekly occurrence: The hospital burns “the cripples and the terminally ill — a drag on the state.” Set in the early ’60s, the division of the U.S. into the Japanese-ruled West, the Hitler-led East, and a neutral, lawless buffer zone in the middle presumably aided the characters’ not-quite-believable erasure of American identity.
High Castle’s first season was beset by an array of scripting problems: gossamer-thin characters, groggy pacing, hokey dialogue, and ludicrous story lines. The season finale ended with a stunningly dumb reveal: that one of the banned films reluctant resistance fighter Juliana (Alexa Davalos) and newly woke Nazi turncoat Joe (Luke Kleintank) risked their lives to smuggle into the Neutral Zone are glimpses of the future — or one of several possibilities thereof. Season 2, available now, fixes none of those writing issues, while a deep dive into the show’s mythology (usually a move I applaud) essentially pushes the narrative’s relatability to our reality off a cliff. An impending nuclear war between the Nazis and the Japanese becomes the main conflict of the drama, with the yakuza sneaking into B-plots because why not, I guess. If we were ever supposed to care about the fate of the title character’s reels (because somehow witnessing a “free” America was supposed to convert viewers into revolutionaries), we’ve long forgotten them.
Perhaps most disappointingly for audiences interested in what a show about a fictional Nazi America might illuminate about current American neo-Nazism, the show’s straight-white-male POV is the key to its sociopolitical irrelevance. Even though Joe and Juliana’s resistance activities land them in constant danger, the fact remains that they represent the type of people least likely to be targeted in a Nazi or imperial Japanese regime. But the kakistocratic Trump administration is most terrifying for the vulnerable, and telling a story about how ruthless a society is while largely ignoring how the new rules affect the most defenseless is frustratingly timid and unimaginative. Yes, there’s the Jewish Frank (Rupert Evans) and SS Officer Smith’s (Rufus Sewell) eugenics-driven order to kill his disabled son. But since Frank’s team-up with the ragtag anti-Nazi resistance, his story lines no longer relate to the still-powerless Jewish population in the Japanese-controlled Pacific States. Similarly, there’s been little introspection from the perspective of the disabled or their families. Juliana, too, barely seems a woman. Elided are the sexism of the era and the giant leaps backward in gender relations that were part and parcel of the rise of the Nazis and the Imperial Japanese Army.
A sociological theory argues that we can learn much about a culture by how the members of its lowest rungs are treated. By this token, High Castle isn’t actually all that interested in the world it’s built, for the victims it’s most interested in are white Americans. The Season 2 premiere offers a small hint about what happened to the millions of African-Americans after the Axis takeover (Dick’s novel re-enslaved them), but not enough. And the show undoes its earlier critiques of American nationalistic mythmaking with a new Japanese-American character. She was freed from Manzanar by the invading Japanese army, but chooses to fight for American liberation anyway, i.e., on the side of the people who literally put her in a concentration camp. Why? America is just that special, apparently, even though it’s given this character no reason to think so. If you’re curious what maps of Europe and Asia look like in this world, forget it. Only American lives matter here.
The new season focuses puzzlingly instead on family: Juliana’s search for the biological father (Tate Donovan) of her half-sister, Trudy (Conor Leslie); Joe’s woolly daddy issues; a Japanese official’s (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) marital strife. But High Castle’s understanding of family resembles that of an extraterrestrial who’s been briefed that blood ties are important to Earthlings, but has no idea why. The Man in the High Castle finally appears in the form of a scenery-devouring Stephen Root, as much a raving lunatic as the Führer (Wolf Muser) himself. It’s a relief when the credits start rolling and we realize that we can at least escape this dystopia.