Adapted from Philip K. Dick’s novel of the same name, Amazon’s original series The Man in the High Castle has essentially become known as “that Nazi America show.” Set in an alternate 1960s, the Allies have lost World War II so the East Coast has become part of the Greater Nazi Reich while the Japanese have gained control of what they call the Japanese Pacific States of America. What struck me most was how casual the immersion into Axis America could be.
With a different victor, come the spoils. Swastikas have replaced the stars on Old Glory and now they gleam from Time Square’s billboards. Hitler’s face is on our dollar bills. Elementary artworks depicting Nazi honor and duty decorate school hallways. There’s even a Nazi Veterans Day when patriotic families can gather around their televisions and watch Hitler address the nation with that vigorous passion of his.
Yet nothing about the strangeness feels abnormal. In fact, a lot feels familiar. An awkward teenage boy asks a girl out to tea. Factory workers run business as usual. In East Hampton, which looks exactly like the one we know, neighbors wave to each other from their freshly mowed front lawns. Families with giggling children barbecue in their backyards or pitch a baseball back and forth.
Sure, there’s a coat of Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan over this painting, but how different is this place from the America we know today? The characters of this world don’t even think twice about it, in the same way most of us barely glance at an American flag unless it’s Memorial Day. There’s no dramatic pause in the story to emphasize society’s flaws. Axis America simply exists.
Not that (hopefully) anyone agrees with Nazi ideology, but The Man in the High Castle humanizes a society that has been actively dehumanized for so long in our minds. This series creates an impressive sense of eerie realism. Everyone, even the most insignificant characters, lead believable, normal and oddly relatable lives.
This mundane quality gives more context to Amazon’s recent controversial promotional campaign: extravagant ads with Nazi and Imperial Japan signs decorating NYC subway cars. As a sort of transmedia project, the ads were designed to immerse us in this alternate nation. The experience has turned out to be too immersive, as subway-riding Americans, as well as the Anti-Defamation League, condemned the promotional ads for displaying the insignias without any critical distance. Amazon still got what they wanted out of it, though. Negative press attention is still attention, right?
While everything seems quite normal in Axis America on one level, by the time the final episode’s credits have rolled, the layers of perfection have started to peel away, exposing the dark underbelly of this sick society.
In one scene, a police officer observes a sudden showering of gray flakes from the sky.
“Oh, that’s the hospital,” he says. “Yeah, Tuesdays. They burn cripples, the mentally ill. Drag on the state.”
Not everyone accepts this Reich life, of course.
The series’ main characters are Resistance soldier Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos) and her companion Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank), but the story follows an ensemble cast. Juliana’s Jewish boyfriend, an S.S. Obergruppenführer, and the Japanese Trade Minister shine a light on political pressures – a sort of cold war – between the two Axis governments as well as the tensions affecting their own citizens. Some of these storylines are more interesting than others, and not all of the characters are equally engaging.
Even so, you realize that some characters serve contentious ideologies, you know what they represent, but like meth-dealing Walter White from Breaking Bad, you feel for them. It’s yet another strange immersion. Ultimately, like any smash hit, TMITHC evolves into a story about the people and their humanity, a quality historically antonymous with the Axis Powers.
The frosting on top of this Nazi-themed cake: the ending. Granted, if you read the book, you know how it “ends,” but it’s definitely not a common or predictable conclusion, and Amazon has stayed true to the source material.
If nothing else, The Man in the High Castle is much more than “that Nazi America show” and certainly worth checking out on Amazon Prime.
(photo credit: Amazon)