Today concluding my review of the Amazon sci-fi mini-series “The Man In The High Castle”, based on the novel by Philip K. Dick.
Hopefully I have helped to clarify some of the “rules of the genre”, as Ostap Bender used to say. And, thankfully, my eagle eyes have not noticed any major plot holes in this excellent TV series. Just some unanswered questions about how this Multiverse works: How do people travel and communicate between the different versions of Planet Earth; and also what’s up with these slightly altered timelines? In the end, for the sake of the viewers, all of this nonsense has to conform, at least minimally, with the known laws of quantum mechanics!
I mentioned that the main heroine of our story is Juliana Crain, and that the convergence of alt-timelines depends very much on her actions, as the “Oracle” Hawthorne Abendsen has discovered by watching the various “Grasshopper” movies at his disposal. Hawthorne watches his movies, and he keeps seeing Juliana over and over again, and he starts to notice the pattern… This makes sense, I think, from a Quantum Mechanics POV. In a universe so random that King Richard III of England could lose a major war, just because his horse stumbled, — well, in a universe that random just about any lowly person (or creature) could influence events. Hence, there is nothing all that special about Juliana, she just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time (several times) in the complicated story-line.
Nothing Special About Her
Like I said (I am repeating this point for a reason, which I will explain in a later polemic), there is nothing particularly special about Juliana. She is a nice person, a decent person, that’s about it. In our world I am convinced that at least 90% of all the people of all races and nationalities are basically good people. The rest are just bastards, of course.
Juliana lives in Japan-occupied San Francisco, with her mother, her step-father Arnold, and her half-sister Trudy. Juliana has adapted to Japanese ways and studies Aikido in a Japanese Aikido studio.
Juliana gets dragged into a series of unfortunate events with the violent death of younger sis Trudy, who is gunned down on the street by the Kenpeitai, the brutal Japanese security forces. Turns out, Trudy was active in the Resistance and had been selected to convey one of the forbidden “Grasshopper” films to Hawthorne Abendsen in the Neutral Zone. Before dying, Trudy manages to pass the film to Juliana, and this random event is what brings Juliana into contact with The American Resistance. Who, as I mentioned, are portrayed as a nasty and bad-tempered bunch of zealots. A female Resistance person named Karen is particularly bitchy to Juliana. These people obviously never worked as Trade Union organizers, a job which entails endless patience and finesse, especially when trying to recruit somebody who is still on the fence about joining.
Anyhow, at the same time that Juliana is attempting to deliver Trudy’s film to the Neutral Zone, another character, Joe Blake, is attempting to deliver a different Grasshopper film to the same place. Only problem is that Joe is a Nazi double-agent trying to learn the secret location of the Man in the High Castle. So that the Nazis can kill The Man and steal all his films for Hitler’s collection.
In the Neutral Zone, these two young people meet and fall in like. Well, Joe actually loves Juliana. And saves her life several times (the Neutral Zone is a violent and lawless place, teeming with Nazi spies, bounty hunters and Negroes). Juliana likes Joe back, but doesn’t sleep with him, because she has a half-Jewish boyfriend back home, namely the bad-tempered lout Frank Frink. Joe is actually a much nicer guy than Frank. Juliana doesn’t know (yet) that Joe is a Nazi double agent. Her only agenda is to deliver the film and thus pay her debt to Trudy’s memory; and then get back home to her own boring life. She does (to give her curiosity credit) find a projector and watch the movie; this particular movie shows the Allies winning WWII and the Americans raising their famous flag in Iwo Jima. Seeing such images gives Juliana hope that another outcome is possible. Which is the whole point, why the Resistance is so eager to get their hands on these films: They mistakenly believe that the movies show the way to a different outcome of their shitty lives. And they also know the propaganda value of movies that show the tables being turned. Unfortunately, nobody else gets to watch these movies except for Hawthorne and Hitler.
And, in her first meeting with Hawthorne, Juliana becomes privy to a strange prophecy, which goes something like this: In all the converging timelines shown by the Grasshopper films, there is one and only one reality in which San Francisco does not get nuked. In that reality, a man named George Dixon is gunned down in a Manhattan alley while dressed in a Nazi uniform. Which is Über-strange, given that Dixon is a known leader of the Manhattan Resistance!
By the end of Season #1 sweet Juliana has managed to tick off just about everyone. She is a woman on the run. The Kenpeitai are after her, and so are the Resistance. Ordered by the latter to lure Joe to his death, Juliana balked at the last moment. She is a basically kind person, not a killer. Her act of mercy in sparing Joe’s life puts her on the Resistance shit-list though. At one point they even toss her in the trunk of a car and drive off with her somewhere, intending to execute her. She manages to escape from the trunk, with everybody shooting at her. With nobody else to turn to, she has no choice except to flee to the Reich Embassy and beg for asylum. Other people pushed her into this: It was the only way to save her own life. Most of us ordinary mortals would have done exactly the same thing, regardless of our beliefs or ideology. We simply want to go on living, even in a shitty world!
For the record, though, I should mention that Juliana has a second motive for wanting to go to New York: She is on the prowl for George Dixon, who she knows is living in New York. She spotted Dixon on one of the “Grasshopper” reels, and recognized him from a photograph in her mom’s album. Dixon was an old family friend of both her mom and her dad. (Actually, in mom’s case, more than just a good friend, if you get my drift…. turns out that Dixon, not step-father Arnold, is Trudy’s biological father!) In the film which Juliana viewed, Dixon was shown being executed by the Nazis in 1962 — by none other than a callously cigarette-smoking Joe Blake — yeah, Joe just puts a bullet in the back of Dixon’s neck, right after capping a nearby-kneeling and still bad-tempered Frank Frink. Yet Juliana is aware (from her conversation with Hawthorne) that in a different movie, Dixon was wearing a Nazi uniform when gunned down in an alley. Either way he dies of a bullet, but with a different couture. Moreover, that second outcome (=Dixon gunned down in alley) is the most desirable one, from the POV of the great city of San Francisco.
Struggling to deal with all these complexities that would drive even Timelord Doctor Who insane, Juliana is granted asylum and allowed to emigrate to the Nazi Reich in New York City. There, with the assistance of calipers, she is verified for racial purity, and put in a dormitory for single women. Obergruppenführer John Smith invites her into his home, to be groomed by his doting wife, Helen. Which leads to one of the most enjoyable subplots in the Season 2 series: Juliana is initiated into the world of the high-ranking Nazi wives. Who spend their lives raising children, in between liquid lunches and shopping for clothes at expensive Manhattan boutiques. Along with the formidable Hausfrau Helen Smith, Juliana also meets Lucy, the wife of the Propaganda Minister who programs the daily news. From Lucy, Juliana learns the important clue that Hitler really is dying this time. She delivers this info to the Resistance, in the hope this will get them off her case and call it quits (i.e., stop trying to kill her).
The Resistance guys love the “Hitler is dying” news, but they want more from Juliana: They want her to blackmail John Smith. How and why? Well, George Dixon has some technical resources and planted a bug in the dormitory where Juliana lives. From this, they were able to tap into a conversation between Juliana and young Thomas Smith, John’s 17-year-old son. Which brings us back to the issue of Nazi eugenics.
The Issue of Nazi Eugenics
See, Thomas Smith is afflicted with a rare form of muscular dystrophy. A strapping teenager and basically a decent kid, Thomas is an avid member of the Hitler youth. He works hard, studies hard, respects his parents, has good table manners, and has a puppy-love crush on a braid-wearing Mädchen In Uniform from his high-school class.
In the “High-Castle” universe, amusingly, American teens are taught a more correct version of American history than in our own, “real” universe. In “our” world, American history books try to skate around the fact that the United States of America was founded on genocide and slavery. The Nazi-American history books tell a more accurate story: Students are quizzed on the number of slaves owned by the Founding Fathers, as if that was a good thing. They are taught, approvingly, about the various “exterminations”. Thomas, as a bright student, can spout Nazi propaganda like there is no tomorrow; but at the same time we as the viewers come to like him, because he seems like a kid with a basically good heart, in spite of everything.
So, we feel sad when we come to learn that Tom’s condition is genetic, and untreatable. Turns out that John Smith’s brother (Tom’s uncle) had this condition too. The bad gene must have skipped a generation, but Helen is worried that her two little girls might be carriers. Remember that the Nazis are very bullish about eugenics. The rule is very firm: defectives must be put to death before they can spread their tainted genes. Don’t worry, though: Thomas will not be gassed like some ordinary sub-human. Instead, the Nazis will put him to death humanely, with a shot of morphine.
Well, as dedicated Nazis, John and Helen have no choice except to … HIDE THEIR SON’S CONDITION from the authorities. John even stealthily murders the Nazi doctor who diagnosed Thomas before the latter has a chance to make his report to the authorities. The adults keep Thomas himself in the dark about his condition, but he figures it out on his own — and that in an era (1962) before people had google and WebMD to help them diagnose their own medical conditions! An unhappy Thomas seeks out his new adult friend, Juliana, and confides his plight to her. As mentioned, their conversation is picked up by the Resistance, who go “Aha!”, this is a choice piece of gossip, and a good way to bring down the most powerful Nazi family in New York.
If Juliana were a bad person, she would throw young Thomas under the bus. But she is not. She is a good person who would not break her vow of confidentiality, even to help the cause. Even in our own sinful world, it is considered Mauvais Ton to divulge another person’s confidential medical data. Plus, by divulging it, Juliana would be condemning Thomas to death. Which she won’t do because, again, she is a kind and decent person. Not a killer.
Did I just say “not a killer” ? Well, amend that a bit because, in the confusing denouement, Juliana does actually kill another human being! In protecting Thomas, she is forced to gun down none other than George Dixon, her half-sister’s biological father!Whom she meets in an alley. And he is dressed in a Nazi uniform! (He’s in disguise, see…) So, it all fits in. By killing Dixon, Juliana not only protects Tom’s privacy rights, but also fulfills Hawthorne’s prophecy and saves the city of San Francisco – YAY!
Before I leave this subplot, I should mention that Juliana’s attempt to save Tom’s life is all in vain: As a good Nazi should, Thomas bravely turns himself into the Medical Authorities for extermination as a “defective”. In a more humane world, there could have been a better way, like maybe just give young Tom an irreversible vasectomy, but no….
The Dogma of American Exceptionalism
Which brings us to the final conclusion of Season #2 and the rather clever denouement. And yet I have a polemical beef with the writers which I must vent on. See, the dogma of “American Exceptionalism” is so powerful in the American mind, that the writers cannot bring themselves to ascribe the outcome to the simple randomness of quantum mechanics. Instead, they have to find an ideological reason why Juliana’s life path is the one that brings the desired outcome. So, Hawthorne Abendsen lectures Juliana on how it was her goodness and compassion that saved the world. Please! It was Quantum Mechanics and random choices made by random people! Putting Juliana up on such a pedestal is just another form of American Exceptionalism, in my opinion. As in: We are shown a vividly portrayed world in which Americans lost the war. But told that their innate goodness and pluck will get them out of this pickle in the end. Uh huh.
On a positive note, I will end my review with the clever plot twist which caps Season #2. I suppose I should have mentioned much much earlier in this review, that there are SPOILERS GALORE.
So, here is what happens: Trade Minister Tagomi, using his Shinto magic sticks, managed to transport himself to “our” universe. Where his hippy daughter-in-law Juliana gave him a 35mm movie showing the American Hydrogen-Bomb test on Bikini Atoll in 1958. Some bloggers have complained about this plot point: Where did Juliana get this movie? But remember that in “our” world Juliana and her Japanese husband are “Ban the Bomb” peaceniks. It makes sense that she, as a campus activist, has this film.
So, Tagomi returns to the “Castle” universe with the Bikini film. The Japanese High Command see the value of the film and make sure it gets into the hands of John Smith. In the ferocious inter-Nazi power struggle, Smith goes to Berlin and shows the film to the Nazi High Command. They don’t know that the film comes from an alternate universe: All they see is that an H-bomb is exploding in Bikini in 1958. Since Bikini is within the Japanese sphere of influence, the Nazis jump to the [incorrect] conclusion that the Japs have the H-Bomb. Which the Nazis don’t have yet. Hence, the Nazis decide it wouldn’t be prudent to go ahead with their nuclear attack on Japan. Pretty clever, eh?
And with that, I end my review. I hope that you, Dear Readers, enjoyed it! And now all you need to do is Stop Worrying! (and learn to love the bomb…)