Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Final Thoughts About Season One of "The Man in the High Castle" (With Spoilers)

Having concluded the ten-part first season of "The Man in the High Castle," I wanted to jot down a few thoughts with an eye towards how the series wrapped up and may move forward.

Throughout the ten episodes, I found it hard not to keep thinking of the series' fidelity to Dick's original novel, which, in a way, I wish I hadn't read before tuning in.  I kept comparing the Amazon series with the complexities of the original novel instead of just viewing the former on its own terms.  But that’s a familiar occupational hazard for all literature lovers who are protective of their favorite texts.

Anyway, to my thoughts:

I like how the series amplifies some of the novel’s subtler themes.  Dick’s collaborators were all rather genteel (Childan, Wyndam-Matson, especially).  But the Amazon version accentuates the brutality of collaboration with the figure of the marshal/bounty hunter who freelances for the Nazis in the neutral zone by hunting down fugitive Jews (cutting off fingers for proof of “success”). 

Other ways in which the series drives home the brutality of American life under foreign rule are with the gassing of Frank Frink’s relatives and the disclosure of the mass grave containing the body of Juliann’s sister, Trudy.  The aerial shot of multiple graves outside of San Francisco is somewhat unbelievable, knowing the Nazis’ (and maybe the Japanese regime’s?) penchant for covering up their crimes.  But it’s visually striking nonetheless.

It’s interesting how the series asks viewers to empathize with Obergruppenf├╝hrer Smith, especially when his son is diagnosed with an incurable disease and faces being subjected to what is presumably a national euthanasia policy.  This might be read as an allegory for how people are forced to rethink their ideology when it is confronted with reality.  Conservatives dealing with the challenges of family members "coming out of the closet,” anyone?

I’m curious what the second season is going to do with the hypodiegetic film-within-a-film, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, showing the Allies defeating the Axis.  The producers threw in a curve ball by suggesting, in contrast to the novel, that the film's alternate world is far from being a fantasy (at least from the Allied perspective), insofar as it shows Joe Blake executing a captive Frank Frink.  Lots of ontological mystery still needs to be clarified here.  Frankly (sorry), I’m not sure how Amazon is going to pull it off.  The novel itself is frustratingly opaque about which reality is “real”: the one in which the characters live, or the “fictional” world "invented" by Hawthorne Abendsen.

Speaking of whom….Where was he?  Until a friend of mine alerted me to the fact that a second season of the series is already planned (whoosh! that fact had somehow flown over my head), I figured that Abendensen had become Frank Spotnitz’s version of Peter Jackson’s Tom Bombadil (who, one day, will have to be included in some future film version of The Lord of the Rings – to be filmed for a subsequent generation of filmgoers with the next generation’s technology).  Next season, Abendsen (and his “castle”?) will presumably loom larger.  But it’s hard to imagine how the Amazon series will explain him having “filmed” the Allies winning the war in the same way that Dick’s’ narrative shows him having “written” (or the I Ching having “dictated”) the allohistorical narrative.  

Similarly, will Hitler have a more prominent role in the second season? It’s probably too tempting not to give the audience what it wants in the sense that people always “enjoy” having Hitler up on the screen.  Dick, of course, omitted Hitler as an active presence in the novel.  In the series, we’re shown a cinephilic Hitler being intrigued by The Grasshopper Lies Heavy and wondering “what might have been” in the sense of his reality turning out less well than it did (from his perspective).  I’m not sure how much this narrative thread will be developed, but I hope it remains in the background so that the series stays true to the novel’s original narrative.

Finally, there is the larger question of the series’ overall philosophy of history.  In the tenth episode, Juliana and Joe overtly resist the film’s bleakly deterministic prediction about Joe fulfilling his Nazi “destiny” by asserting that free will can triumph over fate.  Joe declares, “I’m not the guy in the film,” and Juliana exclaims, “I don’t believe the film.  I believe you.”  What are we to make of these competing claims?  The idea that contingency can trump determinism is a familiar one within counterfactual history.  But Dick’s original novel remained agnostic about causality because it hedged on the deeper question of ontology -- by refraining from showing whose reality is actually “real." These thorny questions will have to be ironed out somehow for viewers not to throw up their hands in total confusion by the end of next season. 

I personally can’t see how Amazon will get more than two seasons out of the novel.  But I’m happy to be proven wrong.

Oh, and give us more CGI shots of Albert Speer's Germania, please....

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