Movie aficionado sophomore Chardonnay Needler reviews films biweekly in “Cynicism at the Cinema.”
It’s a picturesque summer day in New York City; flags of red, white and blue are patriotically billowing in front of spotless two-story ‘60s-style homes.
John Smith, a government and military man, caresses his wife, Helen, as they watch their children play.
Their guests arrive, and they make a toast.
“Sieg Heil!” the party cheers as an American flag with a swastika in place of its former 50 stars flaps in the wind.
A scene of quintessential, propaganda-inspired Nazi-American life kicks off the Amazon Prime drama series “The Man in the High Castle,” a show based on Philip K. Dick’s novel of the same title that tries to answer the question, “What if the Axis powers had won World War II?”
As one might imagine, the answer is bleak.
The United States is divided into three not-so-equal – and not even vaguely united – sections: the Japanese Pacific States (encompassing the West Coast), the Neutral Zone (the area around the Rocky Mountains), and the Greater Nazi Reich (everything east of the Rockies).
The cities and lands look eerily like our own, and the all-too-realistic costumes and sets draw the viewer in.
Even scarier, the parallels between that world and ours don’t end there.
The atrocities in both (the dropping of the A-bomb on Hiroshima in reality versus the dropping of the same bomb on Washington, D.C., in the fictional world), for instance, are deemed terrible but necessary by the elite.
And the discrimination against the gaijin (non-Japanese people) and hakujin (white people) in the alternate version of San Francisco is ironically similar to the oppression of Japanese Americans during and after WWII.
“The Man in the High Castle” portrays a fascist America but not one too different from our own.
Thus its plot remains interesting for the wary or skeptical viewer as it’s hard to quit watching a show with such strong and disturbingly foreign, yet familiar, imagery.
At the start, the viewer needs to sort out many characters while figuring out what is happening, who these people are, what side each is on, and what conflicts are arising and why.
No explanations are given before viewers are thrown into this alternate world, and the only people whom the viewer rides along with are the equally troubled Juliana Crain, Frank Frink and Joe Blake.
When Crain, a gaijin inhabitant of Japanese-ruled San Francisco, witnesses her sister Trudy die at the hands of the Kempeitai (the Japanese Imperial Military police force) for smuggling video from what looks like our world, the journey begins.
And it’s an adrenaline rush, for her and the audience.
Crain, sitting in the grey-blue light of Frink’s otherwise dark room, is spellbound.
Black and white numbers blink across the old whirring projector.
An antique newsreel of D-Day follows: American bomber planes, explosions, tanks, lit cannons, men riding safely to shore after being liberated, soldiers sticking the American flag into the earth to proclaim victory, a smiling FDR, Winston Churchill holding up the famous peace sign.
“Frank,” Crain says on hearing Frink return home from the factory. “It’s newsreel film. It shows us winning the war.”
What are these old film reels showing our world, and why are people in this homegrown rebellion, the Resistance, having to die for them?
Who is the “Man in the High Castle,” and why does he need the tapes? What does “the grasshopper lies heavy” (the title of each illegal movie) mean?
As there is only 60 minutes per episode to advance (at times) six or more plotlines at once, some characters, typically the main ones, are left underdeveloped to keep the pace.
Consequently, of the three main characters Frink, Crain and Blake, only one is truly three-dimensional: Frink.
While Frink begins transforming the minute he is thrown in jail and brutally interrogated by the cold and calculating Chief Inspector Takeshi Kido, Crain remains the same indecisive, incredibly predictable, character throughout the series.
And irritatingly Crain remains the most important character, woven inside of virtually every storyline even though she is not dynamic.
Although I’d love to describe how she is such an integral part of every series arc, I’m trying to keep this as spoiler-free as possible and won’t go into as much detail as I’d like. (As you may know, though, I’m always eager to talk about my opinions of TV shows and movies outside of articles.)
Blake, on the other hand, remains a conundrum from the minute the audience sees him receive his first Nazi assignment in a dimly lit New York movie theater.
When he steps out into the streets of the would-be Town Square, illuminated by bright electronic billboards of Nazi propaganda reminding comrades to live “for the common good,” Blake looks as befuddled as the viewer.
And, no, as a (lay) Nazi he isn’t surprised to see the word “Reich” glowing in neon lights.
Honestly I still don’t know if he sides with the Reich or the Resistance, and I’ve finished both seasons!
Heck, I don’t even know which is the right side anymore.
The show is a fast-paced battle in which there are no good or bad sides – and it’s impossible to know who’s allied with whom.
The reality is bad, but there are some good people in it on all sides – even the Nazis and Kempeitai.
There are equally as many bad people on the Resistance side “fighting for freedom.”
The characters’ behavior and reactions to the films make the viewer question how free and good our real version of America is.
The most intricate and fascinating characters to keep an eye on in the show include the ambivalent truth-seeker Trade Minister Nobusuke Tagomi, a man who finds himself on the right side in a wrong world; Abendsen, a mysterious man with heretical ideas; and John Smith, the aforementioned all-American Nazi dealing with problems on the home front.
And that’s what really keeps viewers glued to their screens: the complex supporting characters all contributing to a unified and multilayered plot that somehow links them together.
No one is superfluous; everyone contributes in their own way for the good of the state – that is, the state of the television show, which is set to launch its third season at the end of the year.
—By Chardonnay Needler