By Tim Baker
The first swastika armbands we see in Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle are jarring for two reasons. The first is familiar: the armband is perhaps the purest symbol of adherence to the most vile philosophy to have ever bubbled up from the dark hearts of human mammals. The second is the opposite—this is not the armband we have come to know and revile. The black hooked cross is surrounded on one side by the traditional red, but the other side perverts this same red with thirteen very recognizable stripes. The brownshirts wearing the armbands are Americans, New Yorkers in fact, and citizens of the capital of the American Reich (D.C. having been leveled by a Nazi “Heisenberg device,” an atom bomb).
The Man in the High Castle, a masterpiece of the sci-fi subgenre of alternative history, remains just as eerie throughout Season 1’s 10 episodes, which premiered on Amazon in November, with its constant juxtaposition between early-1960s, Leave it to Beaver America and the party pins worn over slim ties and green cardigans. We don’t see the version events that ended in Imperial Japan holding the West Coast and the Third Reich occupying everything from the eastern seaboard to the middle of the country. What we do get are matter-of-fact statements from true believers on both sides of the “neutral zone,” the rocky mountain enclave that serves as a no-man’s land between the Pacific States and the Greater Nazi Reich as well as a sort of new Wild West.
“We achieved…the enslavement of Africa,” brags Reinhard Heydrich, one of the masterminds of the real-life “final solution” and in this story one of the Reich’s most enthusiastic leaders, reducing the fate of an entire continent to a single statement of fact. Artistic designs by San Franciscan Frank Frink are described woefully as too “degenerate” to produce, and the weight of that word is remarkable. Anything abstract, from art to sexuality to philosophy to human relationships, is rejected out of hand as deviant. Anything not expressly allowed is implicitly forbidden, one of the classic marks of totalitarianism.
The word most often used to describe the hold a fascist government has over its people is “systematic,” and The Man in the High Castlequickly demonstrates the horrifying truth that even freedom-loving Americans are more than willing to adapt to the status quo if it means keeping themselves safe. As one of the show’s main characters, Joe Blake, is driving across the country, he is stopped by a friendly Gestapo officer who offers half a sandwich to the young man before sharing a war story and nonchalantly explaining that the flakes falling from the sky are the ashes of “wards of the state.” An army tattoo is the officer’s link to his former life, a swastika armband the symbol of his—and his country’s—capitulation. The Nazis in America created a culture of destruction in the U.S. at places like the almost too on-the-nose “Cincinnati Camp,” eradicating all traces of otherness from the most celebrated melting pot in the world. The official extinction of the jewish citizens of the East Coast is alluded to but, again, never explicitly shown, and the state’s take on the handicapped is summed up by the Gestapo highway patrolman.
What we don’t see much of is the state of other groups deemed undesirable by fascists. No gay or trans characters have been revealed to be living the dangerous double life required by totalitarian rule, though apart from the main characters of Juliana Crane, Frank Frink and Joe Blake no gender or sexual identities have been explored. This fact leaves the door wide open for the place of the LGBTQ community to be explored in future seasons, which should be the case not only from a place of inclusion and historical accuracy, but to make more headway in the slow and steady style of revealing the changed world of The Man in the High Castle. This deliberate pace and the enormous ideas it allows us to see bubbling just beneath the surface makes the introduction of gender identity questions impossible to ignore.
The shadow of otherness, from the segregation of white americans and their Japanese overlords into distinct classes to the presence of a congenital defect in the genes of Obergrüppenführer John Smith, played by mastermind of the heavy role Rufus Sewell, to the single Jewish grandparent of Frank Frink, colors the entire first season, loosely adapted from the Philip K. Dick novel of the same name. Certain things, with an almost hyper-Victorian level of taboo, are simply not talked about. In the perfect example of this “what will the neighbors think” mentality, when Obergrüppenführer Smith finds out that his son has a condition, inherited from his own side of the family, that will leave the boy paralyzed, he is given a lethal-injection kit by the doctor and promised that the diagnosis would be kept private and Smith allowed to “deal with” the matter in his own time. Characters in this show tend to play their hands extremely close to the chest, which means anybody could be hiding anything. For Blake, this means hiding his identity as a Nazi agent. For Smith, it means hiding his son’s condition. For the Nazi and Japanese governments, it means hiding the existence of films—created by the titular man in the high castle—showing the U.S. winning the war.
These films bring Juliana Crane face to face with the underground resistance movement and act as the driving force behind the show’s plot. They are an alternate history within an alternate history, and contain the raw thematic material with which, it is promised, the remnants of the true U.S. might break free from their colonial oppressors. They represent the possibility to reverse the horrific effects of xenophobia and closed-mindedness among a people for whom, the methodic revelation of life in the story’s alternate reality shows, fascism has become American as apple pie.
And this disturbing look at exactly how far the status quo can be pulled could not have come at a more opportune moment for the American political landscape. As The Man in the High Castle’s stellar performances and tight writing continue to attract viewers, serious political discussions are being had about registering or banning muslim immigrants from the U.S. The last time the country resorted to something so barbaric, it was a reactionary response to the perceived threat of otherness—the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. The perceived threat then led to a remarkably quick capitulation to harmful policy, and it is that same perceived threat that leads people like Donald Trump and his acolytes to call for a repeat performance of our insane brush with near-fascism. The Man in the High Castle is more than entertaining TV, it’s a refresher course in the most well-worn of high school history class maxims about learning about history or repeating it.