Close Encounters With the Fatherland: 'The Man in the High Castle' Concludes
The Man in the High Castle, which concludes on Amazon Prime Video after four seasons, has always been a puzzle-box show, as befits a series executive-produced by Ridley Scott, and based on the book of the same name, the first title written by sci-fi author Philip K. Dick (1928-1952).
Todd Gitlin’s 1983 book Inside Prime Time (which may still serve as a textbook for some college TV courses, even after all these decades) extensively explored the recombinant nature of American broadcast TV. Jack Webb’s Dragnet was rebooted in the mid-1960s from its 1950s-era incarnation, and then spun off Adam-12, which spun off Emergency. ABC cloned The Rookies from Adam-12. The success of M*A*S*H and The Odd Couple at the movies lead to their long-running small-screen sitcom versions. The success of Scarface on the big screen inspired TV’s Miami Vice. Forbidden Planet inspired Star Trek, which is still being spun off in various incarnations to this day. And so on. It’s endless.
On an episodic level, the fun TV Tropes Wiki catalogs how many TV plot-points get recycled, even more endlessly. (QED: Jay Leno’s mock anger in his ‘80s stand-up routines and Letterman appearances over TV’s hoary old “evil twins” plot lines.) Television’s never-ending ability to recycle serves at least two functions. It allows writers, faced with the crushing deadline of episodic television, to avoid having to fill network air time with a half-hour test pattern. And it allows them to nudge viewers with familiar tropes and images.
In Scott’s 1983 production of Blade Runner, based on Dick’s novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the film’s “replicants” are obsessed with photographs, in order to retain the memories of a past they’re not entirely sure they had. Similarly, the final season of The Man in the High Castle is stuffed full of imagery from films its producers are pretty sure the majority of its audience has seen. (Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt that they’re not borrowing from them in the glorified student-film “remember that great shot in such and such? That would work here!” level of shot-planning.)
On one level, no one can accuse a TV series about Nazis searching for alternative universes(!) as being a complete retread. Nonetheless, here’s a likely very incomplete rundown of all the shots and scenes from binging on The Man in the High Castle’s last season that jogged my memory (COMPLETE WITH SPOILERS. CONSIDER THIS YOUR WARNING). Feel free to add yours in the comments.
The Dark City on the Edge of the Time Tunnel
Let’s start with the most obvious: As I wrote in 2015, after watching the series’ pilot, the series’ scenes set in “Greater Nazi Reich” of the American north and in Berlin look like scaled-up versions of the production design from the 1994 HBO production of Robert Harris’s Fatherland, set, like Castle, in the early 1960s, in an alternate universe where the Nazis won World War II. And of course, head American Nazi John Smith is played by Rufus Sewell, who starred in 1998’s Dark City, part of that cycle of that period’s postmodern early-CGI-laden “is reality real” movies, which also included The Matrix, The Truman Show, Existenz, and The Cell.
In Castle, the Nazis’ search for the source of black and white films depicting our reality — a WWII that they lost — leads them to build a huge portal to reach the “alt-word,” our Planet Earth (more or less), which inhabits a parallel universe, a favorite plot twist of not just Dick, but Star Trek as well, with their many trips into the savage parallel universe where Spock has a beard. It’s very likely no coincidence that the portal the Nazis build to reach the alt-world looks nearly identical to the “time tunnel,” which was featured in the 1966 Irwin Allen TV series of the same name. It also slightly resembles the “temporal conduit” built by the alien race controlling the Nazis during WWII in the two-part “Storm Front” episode which kicked off the fourth season of Star Trek: Enterprise in 2004. (Indeed, much of The Man in the High Castle feels like those two episodes strung out over four seasons.)
The scenes set in “the alt-world” of the mid-1960s are reminiscent of scenes from TV’s Mad Men, complete with alt-world’s John Smith serving as an insurance salesman, a job that advertising pitchman Don Draper could certainly relate to. At least until our heroine, Juliana Crain, arrives in the alt-world, and starts meditating her way into dream sequences searching for mystical clues as to what’s going on, in scenes that look like outtakes from The Matrix or The Cell.
The Nazis dominate the East Coast of America in The Man in the High Castle. The West Coast is controlled by the Imperial Japanese, who in the series’ final season face heavy resistance from the Black Communist Rebellion (BCR). (Pay no attention that the BCR are backed by the Communist Chinese, who in real life have murdered more people than the Nazis or Imperial Japan. Or that the Black Communist Rebellion are themselves, you know, race-obsessed communists.) These scenes are filmed in a cross between Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, Tom Wolfe’s “Radical Chic,” and the French underground of films such as 1996’s Is Paris Burning? When the BCR attempts to assassinate a group of Japanese generals at an art auction, the caper-like nature of this episode plays like a cross between the Dirty Dozen and any number of episodes of the Mission: Impossible TV series from the 1960s.
When the BCR is ultimately successful in foiling Japanese occupation, the retreat of the Imperial Japanese from San Francisco plays out like the early scenes of the 2004 film Downfall. During this segment, Chief Inspector Kido (played by Joel de la Fuente) winds up working as a consigliere for the Bay Area chapter of the Yakuza in order to ensure his PTSD-riddled son has safe passage back to Japan. However, he must demonstrate his loyalty by cutting off his pinky — a moment we know is coming from having seen it in Black Rain, the 1989 film directed by Ridley Scott, which itself made numerous callbacks to Blade Runner.
With the Japanese having withdrawn from America’s West Coast, the Nazis know it’s their chance to conquer the rest of the U.S. When Smith returns to Berlin to help map out the Nazis’ campaign to eliminate the BCR, the war room looks remarkably similar to Dr. Strangelove’s legendary war room, save for a swastika on the lighting rig that illuminates the circular “poker table,” as its appearance in an earlier season highlights:
When All You Have Is a Swastika, You Begin to See Nazis Under All the Beds
In the final episode, after Smith is killed by the rebels, who go on to liberate the Nazis’ inter-dimensional portal, the portal begins to allow people from multiple universes through. This serves simultaneously as a callback to the series’ previously closed borders between the various zones in America, a flip of the finger to President Trump’s efforts at securing America’s real-life borders, and on a sci-fi level, a callback to the airmen exiting the mothership at the end of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I’m sure the producers thought it worked as a metaphor on a number of levels, but for a series whose whole raison d'être is blowing the audience’s minds, it’s not quite the “Decker is a replicant” or “Luke, I am your father” level of mind-f*** that great sci-fi warrants as a concluding gesture. And as David Scarpa, The Man in the High Castle’s last showrunner tells Entertainment Weekly, it’s likely that the show’s various warring factions will continue their brand of inter-tribal warfare for some time to come:
“This is very much in the Philip K. Dick tradition — every answer only leads to more questions,” Scarpa explains. “For instance, while John Smith is dead and the Reich appears to be overthrown, it’s not at all clear that this America can ever be reunified without conflict. While General Whitcroft, played by Eric Lange, seems to have renounced the Reich, it’s clear that he’s an old American soldier who is determined to return to the Stars and Stripes. Meanwhile, on the West Coast, the Black Communist Rebellion rejects the idea of ever returning to the American flag, or the Republic it represented. So, we may well be setting up for a new conflict, a civil war. This reflects our own questions about the current state of America — whether it can ever be unified, or whether the last three years have left the country forever changed. All we know is that history is never ‘over,’ and that we can never return to the past, either in MITHC world or our own.”
The final season of The Man in the High Castle is a fun, suspenseful ride, combining every inner 15-year-old boy’s favorite themes: retro/futuristic gadgetry, cartoon Nazis, sci-fi alternate universes, and spy-movie puzzle boxes to be solved. Those on the left who see Nazis everywhere in the era of Trump (as they did in the eras of Bush, Reagan, and Nixon) will no doubt see the series as yet another example of what City Journal’s Steven Malanga dubbed the “Commentary That We Need Right Now,” as seemingly everything the left is cranking out of Hollywood, Broadway and the literary world is being scoured for its potential to bash Trump. And in the case of The Man in the High Castle, when all you have is a swastika, you begin to see Nazis under all the beds, as Castle showrunner David Scarpa admits to Entertainment Weekly:
“Each one of these characters has a very specific story that we’re telling but, given where we are in 2019 and the shape of the politics of the country, the world has changed under the feet of the producers since this show premiered,” he says. MITHC first debuted on Amazon at a time when Donald Trump was just announcing his candidacy for president. Then came President Donald Trump, then came Charlottesville, then came immigrant children in cages at detention centers. “The idea of Nazism in America was a purely fanciful one. It was pure alt-history,” Scarpa continues. “Over the course of the next four years, we’ve seen that become a much more uncomfortable, plausible reality.”
Yes, of course, the narrative about immigrant children in cages at detention centers is based on photos taken while President Obama was in office. And Trump’s rhetoric on Charlottesville was based on his questioning the tearing down of statues and the destroying of history, something that the last season of Castle explores when a fanatical Hitler Youth member is ready to send her teacher to the concentration camps for wanting to teach the class about Shakespeare’s Shylock, merging the National Socialists with today’s socialist justice warriors and what Iowahawk once dubbed “screaming campus garbage babies.” Castle’s second season depicted Smith ultimately letting his son be euthanized by the party, because he was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy. Back in the real world, America’s socialists nationally castigated Sarah Palin for allowing her son with Down syndrome to be born, and Trump, despite his previous history as a pro-choice Democrat, has strongly backed the conservative March of Life in Washington, D.C., and has appointed numerous pro-life judges. To paraphrase Tom Wolfe, the dark night of fascism is forever descending upon America, but invariably lands only in its bluest regions.
But setting aside the shaky history of the series and its producers, the show is a pleasant narcotic to consume, whether in hour-long daily or weekly blocks, or a massive binge watch. Like the photos the replicants obsess over in Blade Runner, you’ll find your memories being nudged by The Man in the High Castle’s boomer-flattering imagery. Just don’t try to make sense of it all.