When Philip K. Dick first wrote his alt-history classic The Man in the High Castle, the concept was not yet hackneyed. The Axis-wins-the-war trope has since been worn very thin by personages no less impressive than Harry Turtledove, Philip Roth and Noel Coward. Coward’s Peace in Our Time saw daylight as far as 1946, so the idea was by no means revolutionary in 1962. In fact, the subgenre dates back to the 1937 (yes, that’s two years before the war even started!) publication of Swastika Night by Katherine Burdekin writing as “Murray Constantine”. Still, it hadn’t been beaten into the ground yet. The fact that Wolfenstein — originally developed for the Apple II — has gone there and is still thriving suggests that this dark fantasy is harder to kill than Private Ryan.
So the producers had to do something different to keep this alt-history fresh. I wouldn’t have thought soap opera was the way to go but, for Amazon Prime Video’s original series based on Dick’s novel, it’s working.
The first season followed the book fairly closely until toward the end of the 10-episode run then found its own footing. The second season, which was made available this past week, continues to advance the plot beyond the original vision.
[Warning: Possible spoilers below]
Like all good soaps, High Castle is predicated on a love triangle — a remarkably chaste one by Web standards — between Frank Frink (British stage actor Rupert Evans), a crypto-Jew living in Japanese-occupied San Francisco, his former live-in fiancee Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos, Andromeda from Clash of the Titans) and her new suitor, conflicted, New York-based Nazi agent Joe Blake (relative newcomer Luke Kleintank). So it’s surprising — refreshing! — that showrunner and X-Files veteran Frank Spotnitz gives them virtually no time onscreen together. Aside from the occasional flashback or hurried phone call, they are in entirely different but contemporaneous narratives.
The latter part of alt-1962 has Frank operating as a black marketeer, on the run from both the Kempeitai secret police and the Yakuza gangsters. He still finds time to volunteer to help the Resistance but all his scheming and narrow escapes might be for naught if, as the oracular “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy” reels suggest, San Francisco is about to be destroyed by a hydrogen bomb. Juliana, meantime, has left the Japanese sphere of influence for the Neutral Zone (“Neutral” in this case means Mountain Standard Time), where Resistance squads hunt her as a traitor in part because of her budding relationship with Joe; literally one step away from the hit squad, she crosses into Reich territory and pleads for asylum. She hopes to be reunited with Joe, but he isn’t even in America anymore. An incredibly far-fetched plot twist has him winding up in Berlin, which has long since displaced New York as the world capital.
In the first season, Juliana was taken in by Nobusuke Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, one of those actors who’s been in everything but you never knew his name), the Occupation’s trade minister. In the second, you find out why — they had a closer relationship in a timeline that more resembles ours. But in the Axis-dominated world, Juliana is in turn taken in by the family of Joe’s old boss, American SS chief John Smith (Rufus Sewell from Dark City, the one who really Fonzies the rest of cast). Six time zones ahead, Joe is carousing with the pure Aryan baby boomers as they talk about environmental justice and drop acid. These scenes are deliciously interspersed with the timeline where Juliana is organizing Ban the Bomb rallies under the curious gaze of Tagomi, who has developed a skill for sidling between realities.
High Castle has the feel of series that has avoided the “sophomore slump”. It is certainly binge-worthy — I’m even getting used to that insipid “Eidelweiss” cover that accompanies the opening title montage. And yet, Amazon is, as of this writing, playing it coy as to whether or not there will be a third season. Here’s hoping there will be more High Castle in 2017.
[Warning: Possible triggers below, definitely some harsh language]
There is one thing that takes me out of the story, though. Watch any old war movie where the Japanese are the bad guys. The Americans always use the epithet “nips” to refer to them. It’s an ugly word. But it was an ugly war. And I can’t imagine why, in a world where the Japanese won the war and took up the occupation of the American West Coast, the locals would stop using the term. There are so many times in High Castle when you know the first draft of the script says “nips,” but the actors say “pons”. It’s just damn silly. Characters who say “fuck” every episode can’t say “nip”?
Contrast that with Marvel’s Luke Cage, streaming one click to the right on my TV via Netflix. The closest the titular character comes to “fuck” is “Sweet Christmas” but many characters repeatedly say “nigger”. As happens in real life in Harlem. It’s not a term I use in speech but, as a writer, if I’m not free to quote someone else saying it or to put it in the mouth of a character who is clearly not intended to represent me, then we’re already living in a society that quashes artistic expression just as thoroughly as the totalitarians who run the world of The Man in the High Castle.
I’m aware, of course, of the hate the word conveys from some who use it and the terror it engenders in many who hear it. I don’t want to be insensitive to that, thus the trigger warning. I weigh the freedom to use any string of characters and spaces I want as my constitutionally-protected right, but I also recognize the responsibility of conducting civil discourse which that right conveys. I hope I struck the right balance, but I know I’ll offend someone.
I await your comments.