Monday, February 29, 2016

Man in the High Castle Leaves Us Wondering Is This Real Life? Is This Just Fantasy?

I originally watched the pilot to Amazon's adaptation of Man in the High Castle, an alternate history based on Philip K Dick's novel about a world where the US lost WWII and Germany and Japan have divided the US between them.  I was glad it got picked up for a full series that was released a couple of months ago.  You might remember the PR stunt that backfired where they wrapped New York subway cars in Nazi and Japanese empire symbols.  Yeah, that didn't go well but any publicity is good publicity, right?

Anyway, the show takes place in an alternate 1962 where Hitler is on his last legs (seemingly) and his lieutenants are jockeying for power and to take down their ally in Japan.  Since Germany has nukes and Japan doesn't, they would seem to have an advantage.

Meanwhile, a young guy in New York named Joe Blake joins up with "the resistance" and is tasked to carry a very special film called Heavy Lies the Grasshopper to "the Man in the High Castle" somewhere in the Rockies.  At the same time, a woman in San Francisco named Juliana is contacted by her sister and also given a copy of Heavy Lies the Grasshopper.  Then her sister is gunned down and Juliana decided to take the copy to the Man in the High Castle in the Rockies.  The pilot has Joe and Juliana meeting but then duh-duh-duh we find out Joe is an undercover Nazi agent!

The scope of the show begins to widen after that.  The Japanese Trade Minister in America is working with a disgruntled Nazi to sneak nuclear secrets to the Japanese Empire during the visit of the Crown Prince.  And Juliana's boyfriend Frank goes nuts and brings a gun to assassinate the Crown Prince, but someone beats him to the punch.  Not before he's identified and becomes a fugitive.  At the same time the head of the SS in America (Obergrubbenfuhrer Smith--easy for you to say) is nearly assassinated--possibly by those closest to him.

Besides the alternate history there's some sci-fi involved with the films.  The first ones that are shown depict the history we all know from textbooks, the one where the US and its allies won the war and Germany and Japan were defeated.  So you have to wonder where those came from and what they mean.  Of course we don't really find that out.  And then at the end the show throws a curveball when the Japanese Trade Minister goes to a park bench and in sort of Somewhere in Time fashion concentrates real hard while holding a heart-shaped locket and wakes up in our 1962. Obviously then that brings up a lot of questions.  Are there parallel Earths like The Flash or Sliders?  Or is it something crazier than that, like maybe the whole world of the show is a dream or mass delusion and the films by "the Man in the High Castle" are subconscious reminders of how things are supposed to be, sort of like cues trying to alert people.

Just who is the Man in the High Castle?  It could be none other than the Fuhrer himself, Adolf Hitler!  In the last episode an assassin goes to the castle where Hitler is staying (which is a real thing, BTW) and Hitler has a whole library of these films that he watches every day.  So maybe he's using "the resistance" to gather and turn over these films to some intermediary who back-channels them to him.  And if the SS catches the resistance with them, they come to him anyway.  It's kind of an Emperor Palpatine thing to do.  (Seriously the plot of the Star Wars Force Unleashed video game had Palpatine essentially creating the Rebellion to flush out traitors, though then it kind of backfired on him.)

The thing is, I've read the book and I'm not sure it's much help.  I read it a few years ago but after watching the show I went back and looked up the end.  Basically in the book instead of film canisters there's a book that Juliana finds.  She takes it to Wyoming, where "the Man in the High Castle" turns out to be some ordinary guy who used sort of a Magic 8 Ball to create this "alternate universe," aka ours.  Juliana tries to convince him that maybe if they all believe hard enough that universe will become reality, but even that guy doesn't buy it.  That's where my dream/mass hypnosis sorta-4th wall theory comes from.

Just to throw a spanner into the works a bit more, near the end there's another film that instead of showing our universe seems to show the future, where Germany has obliterated San Francisco (governed by Japan) with a nuclear bomb and Joe Blake is a Nazi agent who executes Juliana's boyfriend and some others.  So how does all that fit into it?

Anyway, I know you probably haven't seen the show yet.  You can watch it through Amazon Instant Video, which is free with Amazon Prime.  I really liked the show.  It's kind of slow compared to network shows as they don't just wrap things up in 45 minutes.  In a way it's like Game of Thrones in that you have a bunch of characters and plotlines, though unlike that show they aren't spread so far apart and most of contact with each other during the course of the season.  That's better than Game of Thrones where after five seasons Khaleesi still hasn't got to King's Landing and that the Stark kids have been running around in the wastelands for like four years.  Of course it helps when you have a more contemporary setting where characters can use telephones or hop on rocket planes (basically Concordes) to travel the globe.

Something else I liked is it doesn't fall into the pitfalls of some alternate history in that we don't really see any political figures or celebrities from our timeline in the alternate universe.  It's not like they go to a filling station and Elvis is pumping the gas or something inane like that.  And you don't have Nixon working for the Nazi government or Reagan for the Japanese government or anything like that.  Which really I think is for the best because if it is an alternate timeline then things should be alternate, you know?  Not like say CSA:  The Confederate States of America where somehow in 1960 JFK was elected leader of the Confederacy.  That part of the movie never made sense to me.  I mean, a New England liberal running the Confederacy?  I couldn't buy into it.  I know it was a mockumentary, but really.  It just seems lazy when they do stuff like that.

The stand-out character for me was Obergrubbenfuhrer Smith, who's played by Rufus Sewell, whom you might remember from movies like the underrated Dark City.  He's kind of a combination of Christoph Waltz from Inglorious Bastards and Don Draper of Mad Men in that his day job is basically torturing and killing people but then at the end of the day he goes home to this totally normal house with this totally normal Leave It To Beaver-type family.  It's definitely kind of creepy.  His perfect bliss actually gets shattered when he finds out his son has some terminal disease, which in Nazi America means instant death.  So far he has covered that up but eventually he'll have to do something about the problem.

The Trade Minister is pretty interesting as well, especially now that he has this whole Sliders thing going on.  He tries to be all traditional and Zen and engineers the scheme to steal nuclear bomb plans in the hope that it'll even the playing field and create nuclear deterrence.  Only to his horror he realizes too late that it's actually just starting up a Cold War between the two superpowers.

Anyway, I'd definitely be interested in a season 2 and hope it's being worked on right now.



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