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.


The Problem(s) With Vikings

May 1, 2014 § 17 Comments

I recently began watching Vikings.  I have two colleagues who are practically drooling over the show, so, one night when my brain was fried from work and my wife was off at her parents’, I began watching the first series.  After watching Episode 1, I was not entirely sure why this was a show people got all excited about.  After discussion with another friend, I was persuaded to keep going.  So I binged watched, the first half of the first series in one night.

I had severe problems with the show. I’m no expert on the Vikings, though I am a big fan of Norse sagas, and I do deal with the stereotypes of the Vikings when I teach World History.  I know enough to know what their culture was like, how they operated, etc.  And therein lies the problem.  In the first series, especially, I was deeply troubled by Gabriel Byrne’s character, Earl Haraldson.  In part, Byrne was horrible in the show, rare for him.  He was like a low-rent Sean Penn, between the bad hair and imperious character.  But then there’s the problem with Earl Haraldson.

The Vikings lived in a kind of proto-democratic world, their leaders were not autocratic, nor could they afford to be, they required consent from the men they ruled.  Interestingly, this is how the hero of the series, Ragnar Lothbrok, rolls.  He asserted his authority and leadership over his men, but he did so because they trusted and respected them, and he treated them with respect and gave them some voice in decisions.  Earl Haraldson, however, did not.  He treated his subjects as if he was an absolutist monarch.  The Vikings wouldn’t have tolerated an Earl operating like Haraldson, he would’ve been deposed and/or killed in short order.  For example, Ragnar ignored Haraldson’s orders and sailed west towards England, where he plundered and brought back a small fortune with his men.  Haraldson responded by confiscating nearly all of the bounty, allowing the men to keep only one item.  I have a hard time believing a Viking leader would do that out of fear of upsetting his followers.

I last watched the episode where Ragnar kills Haraldson in a duel.  Only at the end of his life did Haraldson act like a proper Viking leader, noting his fear (and respect) of Ragnar, a younger version of himself, and making allusions to the men who followed him and why they did.  When Ragnar kills Haraldson, the rest of the men choose to follow Ragnar, who becomes the next earl.  That, at least, is somewhat accurate.

I generally don’t worry too much about historical accuracy when I watch historical TV shows and movies.  I recognise that story matters more than authenticity, but I also know (from my own experience, too, in working with writers, directors, and actors) that there are attempts to gain authenticity where it’s possible.  Take, for example, Martin Scorcese’s The Gangs of New York.  It is largely a horrible film, marred by Leonardo DiCaprio’s inability to act (though Daniel Day Lewis as Butcher Bill is brilliant).  But I use the film when teaching Irish History or the Irish diaspora in the US, mostly because the setting of the film is generally pretty accurate, even if the story is not.

Vikings, however, isn’t so good at this.  Other scholars have criticised it for everything from the clothing the characters wear to the depiction of the Vikings’ religion.  Really, it’s a pretty bad TV show set in a fake Viking world (having said that, there is something incredibly compelling about it, I can’t stop watching it).  But. When the showrunner, Michael Hirst, says “I especially had to take liberties with ‘Vikings’ because no one knows for sure what happened in the Dark Ages,” I’m just left flabbergasted.

Au contraire, we DO know a lot about what happened during the Middle Ages, and had Hirst bothered to educate himself, he would know better.

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