Spoilers ahead, because obviously…
As a general rule, historical fiction make me uneasy. Important as dialogue is, far too many movies, shows and books never realized that to show is better than to tell. Story components that should be alluded to through context are awkwardly crammed into conversation, and you end up with characters in the Great Depression talking about FDR like they’re reading from a middle school textbook. The problem with gratuitous exposition is that it so often comes at the expense of the narrative, if not replacing it completely. So every time I’m about to take in a story set in the 20’s, 60’s or 80’s, my expression is a preemptive cringe.
“The Man in the High Castle,” one of the latest Amazon original pilots, is a surprisingly mild perpetrator of this sin. That’s even more impressive considering this story doesn’t take place in just the plain old 1960’s, but an alternate history Nazi-global-hegemony 1960’s. When a story makes an effective introduction to that reality and demonstrates that life in that world is mundane for the characters, it’s a job well done. Still, I’ve spent the last week trying to convince myself there was some major flaw, a fly in the ointment that made immersion impossible. The best thing I’ve come up with is a fear that DJ Qualls will add too much goof factor. I’m ready to throw in the towel and beg Amazon to pick up the series.
Before I go on showering praises, I will express some disappointment with the developing character arc of Juliana Crain. Her story starts out in Japanese-occupied San Francisco, and she seems to have embraced the cultural influence from across the Pacific. Crain is shown practicing (and excelling at) Aikido and arguing against her mother’s revulsion towards everything and everyone Japanese. Yet only a day later she is taking a clearly illegal American propaganda film reel a to far off mysterious freedom fighter rendezvous.
When Juliana watches the fictitious footage of an Allied WWII victory in “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy,” she doesn’t have even a moment of emotional conflict. She is simply excited that the film shows the US victorious in WWII, although given that she is a young woman in the 60’s, that sovereign nation has been extinct for most of her life. And yet, a couple minutes of American fan fiction is the final push needed for her to commit crimes against the Japanese Imperialist regime. The problem is that Juliana serves as the emotional anchor for the show so far, as the only character whose personal life is explored. This single-minded and reckless action is an odd break in character. I truly hope that her gusto will be tempered in future episodes to show us a more nuanced approach to the concept of loyalty to country.
Fortunately, it’s the small moments that plunge us right back into this complex world of crisscrossing cultures and values. In particular, there’s a scene where Joe Blake, our East Coast protagonist, comes across a highway patrolman somewhere in the Midwest. The officer talks casually about his experience fighting the Nazis in the war, all the while wearing a swastika armband. He doesn’t do anything to besmirch or draw attention to the emblem in any way. It is a strange and somewhat disturbing statement that even under Hitler’s rule, in one way or another, life goes on.
Juliana’s mother also drives at this notions in a more humorous instance. While watching a game show, she expresses disgust at having to look at the contestant’s Nazi uniform. Yet she refuses to stop watching the TV because she wants to see how the show ends. It makes it clear that although resentment still exists, the war is over, and most people are resigned to the current state of affairs.
Alas, even without commercials, the episode is still only an hour long, and thus some of its best components leave us longing to know more. What I am most hopeful and excited for in the future of “The Man in the High Castle” is to see more of Nobusuke Tagomi, a Japanese diplomat who has limited screen time, but spends every moment of it deftly navigating the international power structure of this Axis-led world.
In his last scene of the episode, Tagomi secretly establishes communication with a German official, admitting that his actions would be seen as treason by the Japanese government, not to mention invite the wrath of the Nazi Reich. Yet he hopes that to stave off nuclear war in the face of an impending shift of power in Berlin. Tagomi provides much needed variety to the cast, who are predominantly Americans uninvolved with current international affairs. This character is portrayed as shrewd and calculating, and it stands to reason he couldn’t care less about restoring the US of A. The beauty of it is we have to latch on to his story because he seems like the best bet to keep the world from spiraling in to chaos.
The complacency of average schmucks and the high-minded scheming of movers and shakers like Tagomi are what give me hope for “The Man in the High Castle.” They are what will paint this story as a world where heroes and villains are not so cut-and-dry as good ole’ Americans and nasty Nazis. So to Amazon I say the hell with it, send the series into production this instant, and make damn sure that it constantly challenges and confuses every single preconception we have about the post-WWII world.