For its first season, I reviewed The Man in the High Castle, which portrays the United States in the early 1960s, in the aftermath of a Japanese and German victory in World War II, for the leftist Hampton Institute. My review was written in early 2016, just as Donald Trump's campaign was heating up in the Republican primaries. That was Trump, seen as a "proto-fascist" by many, at his nastiest - doing his best Biff Tannen (a character that, ironically, was based on him) impression, bullying a conglomerate of Republican candidates that didn't know what to do in defense of him.
As much as people laughed off what I said, I did believe Trump could win. I live in the United States - I see every day how bitterness and despair has settled in on many people who genuinely thought that if they worked hard, things would work out for them. Many people have multiple jobs and can't afford to live. Homeless people are everywhere in urban centers. Our national leaders of both stripes are immature and narcissistic (see Obama's deplorable scapegoating of Russia) while the ones who weren't were derided and told off (see Bernie Sanders).
I ended that original review with "The United States now is in unchartered territory for its history, but one we’ve seen before in other countries. For these reasons, “The Man in the High Castle” doesn’t seem as much like fictional, alternative history; but rather a portrayal of our near and possible future."
Well, we are here in that future now. Donald Trump will be president no matter what his critics say - he won election through the system, the Electoral College, that the United States has and has agreed upon. The response of much of the Left in the United States at least seems a bit like flailing - the sort that Donald Trump mocked so infamously - not quite understanding what has occurred.
Whatever their motivation, the writers of The Man in the High Castle do have intuition. The show takes leaps of storytelling way beyond the Philip K. Dick novel, including turning the simple character of Joe Blake away from a former Italian fascist that Juliana Crain casually hooks up with and transforming in to a very different central character in the show, a Lebensborn bred estranged son of a figure who attempts a post-Hitler coup attempt.
The first season was filmed in 2014, at the height of Ferguson and American racial tensions. The second season, which is much more nuanced and daring, was filmed in 2015, just as the climate that launched Donald Trump was coming to a head. The second season dares to go in some places that only our contemporary political climate would allow writers to dare to go - humanizing the Nazis and Imperial Japanese.
In the second season, the Imperials are vastly more sympathetic than the "Resistance." Opergruppenfuhrer John Smith, played by Rufus Sewell, struggles with the Nazi policy of euthanizing the disabled as his son is stricken with muscular dystrophy. The sympathy is not even light weight - the scene where him and his wife speak frankly with their son about the condition is possibly the most sympathetic than any characters in either season ever appear.
On the other aside, the Resistance fighters seem nihilist, crass and vindictive. After Juliana Crain, played of course by Alexa Davalos, fails to apprehend one of the films the show centers around from Joe Blake, resistance fighters Lem Washington (played by Rick Worthy) and Gary Connell (played by Callum Keith Rennie) are seen chasing after her, screaming "Come here, bitch!" and shooting anyone in the way. A priest who speaks at a funeral that Frank Fink (played by Rupert Evans) attends tells him that "religion is a bunch of shit" after he complements his sermon. Sarah, a love interest of Frank's played by Cara Mitsuko, has a motivation for joining the resistance that doesn't really make much sense and George Dixon, played by Tate Donovan, threatens multiple times to use John Smith's sick son against him. The writers did this intentionally - I will leave it up to audiences to gather why they did so.
Despite all the material that is there, humanizing the Third Reich is something that most writers just couldn't do until recently. Biopics like The Rise of Evil made Adolf Hitler seem cartoonishly nefarious, as if all the dark energy in the world was only ever situated on this one man. The reality of the world seemed to settle in for the writers of The Man in the High Castle, however.
The few shots we see of Hitler show up shaking with a horrible tremer or having bouts of horrible anxiety (muted for cinematic effect), illustrating that some of his policies (such as euthanizing of the disabled) may have been riddled with self-hate. This is hardly empathetic toward him but it is a leap beyond how portrayal of the Reich has been in cinema.
Most interestingly, we see both the Reich and the Japanese evolve. Events in the second season are juxtaposed with the filtering in and out of reality of Trade Minister Nobosuke Tagomi, who, during meditation sessions, finds himself in our world. The parallels are succint - in one world, the Japanese and Germans are headed toward a potential nuclear showdown while in our world, the Soviets and Americans are headed toward such a showdown. Hippies and beatniks experiment with drugs in American cities like Berkeley in the 1960s, while they do so in Berlin in Man in the High Castle's 1960s.
Tagomi has direct access to the source for the films that make up the film's title. The films, and the filmmaker who we meet at the beginning and end of the film, has access to the same plane of reality - the films become a national security threat for clear reasons and, as you will see when you watch it (I can't spoil too much), are also used for career benefit by certain players.
The juxtaposing of our world and a world of Axis victory which is seen in this series makes for uneasy observations about our own world. It is ironic that populist authoritarianism is popping up in countries that fought hardest against fascism during the 1930s and 40s - America, Russia, the Phillipines. This could mean that there are not particular inherents to certain peoples that attract them to personality driven leaders but that certain events and conditions push people in that direction instead.
Indeed, it should make us not simply revise our knowledge of WW2 by simply being more empathetic of the other side but rather to finally look at that conflict as it was - as a brutal competition of various nationalist and economic ideologies, with Zionism, Americanism and Soviet and Chinese communism winning out over Nazism, Fascism and Imperial Japanese ideology.
There are propaganda films made by Zionists during the 1930s, most notable being "The Land of Promise," that are loaded with anti-Arab racism - that film in particular made the claim multiple times that no one had grown anything in the Fertile Crescent since the Jewish exile. Many Nazi style science experiments and racialist brutality occured in the United States - it once was common practice to use electroshock therapy to "cure" homosexuality, for instance. Those sides won the war, however, and therefore were given a historical privilege that the losers were not. History really is written by the winners - it is acceptable for outgoing American president Barack Obama to avoid apologizing for the Hiroshima bombing, while it likely would not be for German Chancellor Angela Merkel to avoid an apology for the Nazi death camps.
However thought provoking it is, I still have serious qualms with The Man in the High Castle. We only see glimpses of the world beyond the United States - much of this series takes place in Berlin and there are appearances by people with British accents or, most interestingly, one Argentinian desperately fleeing Buenos Aires for the Reich. In the fictional map of the Man in the High Castle universe, Argentina (I imagine headed by Juan Peron) is part of a greater "Co-Prosperity Sphere" with Japan.
Italy, a much bigger ally of the Nazis than the Japanese, is not even mentioned in the whole series, which is really strange when specific elements of Nazism, like Lebensborn, which usually only political nerds know, are a big part of the storyline. We see absolutely nothing of Asia under the Japanese. We did see much more in this second season than the first. Perhaps this will be improved upon.