If you are a devotee of time travel...

Saturday, November 16, 2019

The Man in the High Castle season 4: Alternate Realities and Alternate Fulfillment

I've been saying ever since Trump began running for President with his anti-immigration policies that The Man in the High Castle and its alternate reality of literally Nazi America had special relevance to the reality in which we now all reside, in which the Allies not the Axis won the Second World War.  In the final season of this extraordinary adaptation of Philip K. Dick's extraordinary 1962 novel, immigration plays a major role in the story, especially in the very last scene of the series.

[some spoilers below]

But although that story and that image are crucial to we the people on the both sides of the screen - the characters and their stories, which we are watching - there were parts of this final season that I liked even more.  The details, as always in this series, were provocative pleasures to behold.  Abendsen presents an alternate-history Twilight Zone on American Reich TV, intoning in Rod Serling style "The High Castle" at the beginning of every episode.  Japanese and Nazis in America exchange bows and Sieg Heils, just as we saw in prior seasons, but Kido and Smith shake hands, as the Japanese and the German Nazis later recede from America - a striking evolution of symbolic gestures.  Years earlier, as the American military struggles with whether to continue fighting the Nazis after they nuke Washington, DC, one officer notes that "Paton shook hands with Goering"; another counters that "Ike is gathering men" for the resistance; in this reality, the reality that is the home reality of The Man in the High Castle, the Paton quote wins.

In this season, much more attention is given to exactly how this alternate America came to be.  And the vehicle is full-fledged access to our reality in which we won the war, an access much more satisfying in the narrative than the I-Ching glimpses and snippets of movies we were provided in earlier seasons.  John Smith from the American Reich visits our reality.  His wife Helen in our reality finds Nazi John more sexually robust than her husband who, unbeknownst to her, has been killed by another American Reich operative who crossed realities into our reality (superb performances throughout by Rufus Sewell and Chelah Horsdal).  John is overjoyed that Thomas is alive and healthy in our reality, but heart-broken and furious when Thomas walks off with Marines to fight in Vietnam, echoing when Thomas walked off in the American Reich to be put to death because of his illness.  These parallels, palpable echoes of one reality into the other, provide a haunting foundation for everything that happens in this final season.

In the Japanese American West, Kido (fine acting by Joel de la Fuente) has his own life-rending difficulties with his son.  There's no interplay of alternate realities in the Japanese part of this season - mainly, I guess, because Tagomi and his I-Ching play almost no active role, given that Tagomi is killed in the opening Western scene in the first episode (which I regretted). Julianna picks up the I-Ching torch on the East coast, in contrast to the Nazis who travel to alternate realities via technology.  The protagonist in the West is now 100% Kido, who struggles against all odds to become a better person, and succeeds. The Black Communist Rebellion along with Childan's capacity to survive also play a major role out West.

But the locus of the story and action remains in New York City and its environs.  Smith always manages to outwit the German Nazis, now led by Himmler and Eichmann.   In the end ... well, I won't reveal exactly what happens to you, in case you've only seen part of the final season when you're reading this.  But I will say that I didn't think what Smith tried to do, the order that he gave, was entirely or even well motivated.  (He was free of German Nazi control, so whose demon was he following, his own?  Why?) The overall series, and this last season in particular, could be seen as Smith struggling to find his better self, the American that he was before the Germans dropped the bomb.  There was ample reason to think that maybe he had.

But this disappointment, though it pertains to the central, pivotal character, did not mar the impact of this powerful, brilliant, and so very timely series for me.  Too bad Philip K. Dick wasn't alive to see it.  But I did, and I will always be profoundly glad for that.

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