Territorial Map of the "United States."
**Spoilers follow for Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle Season 2.
The Japanese maintain a strict militaristic society focused on racial superiority. The Germans implement their perfect society composed only of healthy members of the ‘Master Race’. Both hurtle towards a seemingly inevitable global war. This is not the 1930s pre-WWII world of the past but the post-WWII world of a future that never happened. Amazon’s television series The Man in the High Castle takes place in the 1960s in a world where the Axis Powers won WWII. Japan and Germany have split the United States, united no longer with the West Coast absorbed into the Japanese Pacific States and the East Coast renamed the Greater Nazi Reich. The Man in the High Castle is based off of a 1962 novel of the same name by Philip K. Dick, and it just finished its second season and received renewal for a third. Surprisingly, a show about a world that never was which revisits and fixates on history’s skeletons fits quite well into the world of today. The Man in the High Castle provides a powerful commentary on a political and social climate that threatens to resurge.
Season 2 opens with scenes from a seemingly ordinary school in America: boys race through the hallways, hurriedly copy down work in homeroom, and make eyes at the girls who pointedly ignore them. But when the children rise to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, they pledge their allegiance not to a nation ‘with liberty and justice for all’ but “to the leader of the Nazi Empire, Adolf Hitler.” When Americans walk down a crowded street, they subconsciously avert their eyes and bow their heads as the Kempeitai, the Japanese military police, march past. The show utilizes these subtle moments along with others to emphasize a society where order rests on brute force and any misstep -be it accidental or intentional- must be quashed to protect stability.
Survival in such a high stake society is far from easy. Frank Frink, a talented artist in the Japanese Pacific States, decides to fight back against the Kempetai with an organized resistance. Having lost his girlfriend to the asylum promised by the Greater Nazi Reich, Frink decides he has nothing to lose and sets out to avenge the execution of his sister and her children in the Kempetai’s gas chambers. His end target is Inspector Kido, the man who sent Frink’s family to the chambers personally. Frink joins an organized resistance movement, and participates in coordinated attacks against the Kempetai.
Other characters are not afforded the luxury of having nothing to lose. Obergruppenführer Smith is one such character. In a flashback, the audience sees Smith fighting for the Americans when the Nazis drop an atomic bomb on Washington D.C. In present day, as the highest ranking Nazi official in the Greater Nazi Reich, Smith upholds and implements the very policies he had previously fought against. Smith loses the loyalty to his beliefs, because he feels a greater loyalty elsewhere. Everything he does is to protect his family, even if it means the loss of his own morality. His wife runs the social circle of the wives of important Nazi officials, and his son Thomas excels at school, often leading the pledge of allegiance to the Reich. When Smith discovers that Thomas suffers from a congenital disease, an affliction the Third Reich treats with euthanasia, he uses his position to secretly arrange for Thomas’s asylum in South America. He doubts the Nazi policies and actively disobeys them in an effort to save Thomas.
Both Frink and Smith forge their own means of survival, but both ultimately fail. In the season 2 finale, both lose everything. Frink detonates a bomb in the Kempeitai headquarters, collapsing the building on top of him and supposedly killing him, important Japanese officials, and innocent bystanders. Unfortunately, Inspector Kido stumbles away from the blast zone with minor injuries. Frink sacrifices his life to destroy Kido and fails. Smith meanwhile exposes the acting Führer as a murderous traitor. As Smith receives the ‘Sieg Heil Salute’ from thousands of Nazis in Berlin, Thomas, who has been fully indoctrinated into the Nazi philosophy, turns himself into the authorities. As Smith receives public acknowledgement from a government he doubts now more than ever, he loses one of the few things he desperately wants to protect, his only son.
The Man in the High Castle provides a powerful commentary on survival in a society led by those with a political philosophy different from you. The show does not provide one with an answer on how to approach the leadership of such a society, but it does offer two stark warnings: Resist with violence and you will hurt both yourself and innocents. Do not resist, and you will lose that which matters most.
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