The Moral Ambiguity of The Man in the High Castle

January 17, 2018 § Leave a comment

I’ve been binge-watching The Man in the High Castle.  It is truly a TV show for our cynical times.  There are no heroes in this show.  Everyone is deeply compromised.  Some are even horrible people.  For those who don’t know, the show is set in a dystopic 1960s in the United States.  The Allies lost World War II, and the United States is split in three.  The eastern seaboard is the American Reich.  The West Coast is occupied by the Japanese, and there is a dodgy, moral vacuum in the middle, the neutral zone, a lawless respite from both.

The main character is Juliana Crain, who is a spoiled, horrible, selfish young woman.  She betrays nearly everyone she meets, and leaves a body count behind her.  Ostensibly, she’s trying to figure out what happened to her half-sister, Trudy, a Resistance fighter killed by the Japanese security forces.  Her boyfriend, Frank, is the closest thing to a hero in this show, as he is drawn closer and closer to the Resistance in the wake of Juliana’s multiple betrayals.

But otherwise, the show gets intimate and personal with Obergruppenfürher Joe Smith, a former American soldier, and his family, creepy as they are.  Smith, not surprisingly, is a murderous, horrible human being.  And he’s a Nazi.  We do get a sense of honour from Japanese Trade Minister Nobosuke Tagami, whose loyalties are never entirely clear.  But he is an honourable man who works for a violent, brutal dictatorship.  Then there’s Kampeitei (Military Police) Chief Inspector Takeshi Kido.  He’s about a milimetre short of being a psychotic killer, so determined is he to make sure law and order is maintained in the Pacific States, and in San Francisco in particular.

The remaining characters are all deeply flawed, morally vacuous, and horrible.

I find it interesting to be watching a TV show that humanizes Nazis, and attempts to play on my sympathies with them.  For example, Smith’s son, Thomas, is a teenaged boy who, it turns out, has muscular dystrophy, which comes from his father’s side.  The Obergruppenführer’s brother had it as well.  As per Nazi ideology, he was liquidated.  And that is what Thomas must be too.  When the diagnosis is delivered to Smith, he is at a loss as to what to do.  He is the most powerful man in the American Reich, though he lives a pretty typical suburban life at home on Long Island (New York City is the capital of the American Reich, as DC was nuked during the war).  He must, he knows, kill his son.  And yet, surprise, surprise, he cannot.  In order to protect his family, he instead kills  the family doctor, who delivered the diagnosis.  I know, a shock. A Nazi being a nasty piece of work.

Smith’s protegé is Joe Blake, who Juliana kind of falls for.  He’s a Nazi undercover, sent to find Juliana, who has knowledge of the secret films of the titular Man in the High Castle (played brilliantly by Stephen Root), and, more than that, has the actual film(s), which Trudy had given her right before she was killed.  He finds her first in the Neutral Zone and then follows her back to San Francisco.  Meanwhile, Juliana has cozied up to the Resistance herself, and appears to be a member of it as she tries to find out what happened to her sister.  She is supposed to lead Joe Blake into the hands of the Resistance.  But she doesn’t.  Instead she betrays the Resistance and Blake makes it back to New York City.

The summary of Episode 5 of Season 2 notes that Juliana will have to betray someone close to her.  By this point in the show, I am left wondering who is left for her to betray.  She has already betrayed Frank.  And the Resistance, leading to at least three of her erstwhile colleagues being killed.  And she seems to have no moral qualms about this.

And this is the thing about the characters of this show.  There is no moral compass.  Each is an actor entirely interested in her/his own fate.  Occasionally there is co-operation, but mostly there is a collection of atomistic individuals who will stop at nothing to get what they want.

And, of course, this is completely compelling TV.  I can’t turn away from it.  And yet, I can’t help but think there is something deeply wrong with being engrossed in a TV show that humanizes Nazis (whilst still showing what horrible people they are).  It would seem to me that perhaps Nazis are beyond the pale.  And yet, they’re not.  I’m not sure this is a good sign for our culture and society.

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