The first season of Amazon’s Man in the High Castle promised well. Yes, it departed from Philip K. Dick’s novel, most strikingly by exploring Nazi-occupied America. Yes, it moved at a snail’s pace over the territory covered by Dick’s two-hundred-odd pages. But many of the changes made sense for a transformation from the page to the screen, and most seemed faithful in spirit to the book.
Now Man in the High Castle goes to great lengths to present its bona fides as a product of modern, multicultural America. The American Resistance is as exquisitely multiracial as a television commercial, although it beggars the imagination (and distorts Dick’s) to think that American blacks and whites would have been on good enough terms to form such a resistance in an America subservient to the Nazi and Japanese avatars of racial division and hierarchy. The Resistance even includes a Japanese-American who speaks of being imprisoned by America in Manzanar as her motivation for joining the terrorist underground—which is prima facie nonsensical. Why on earth would being imprisoned by America for being Japanese make you want to join a pro-American, anti-Japanese resistance? The script makes a telegraphic, unconvincing stab at a rationale—but in effect, the idea is that the dream of multi-culti America circa 2017 is enough to inspire a Resistance in an alternate 1962. Such self-congratulation makes for smug, implausible, bad TV.
This whiff of leftist self-regard permeates far too much of the second season. Trade Minister Tagomi’s trip across the timelines to our America presents his son and daughter-in-law (Juliana Crain) as anti-nuclear peaceniks—the icons of what is good about the real America. Postwar Nazi Germany is full of drug-taking young Nazis, implicitly just like us that way, it makes them more human. And Nazi America is suburban America. Hostility toward that idyll has never been more blatant than it is here, with swastikas draped over its iconography. The real America is multi-culti, peacenik, druggie; the squares are all really Nazis.
Sinisterly mixed in with this cultural messaging are twinned power fantasies. An important point of Dick’s novel was to explore what it would be like for Americans to be powerless, to examine just how they would adapt to the new regimes. The TV series, by contrast, introduces both an American Resistance and American SS officers. The Resistance incarnates one power fantasy: Americans as Tough Terrorists, driven to extremes and willing to do Horrible Things for our freedom. Obergruppenführer John Smith and his fellow American Nazis incarnate the second fantasy: that we might acquiesce in evil, exercise power in its service, perhaps even rise to be the black-clad Emperor of Everything. In the last episode, Smith steps forward in Berlin to receive (if only for a moment) the stiff-armed salute of a Nazi multitude.
Man in the High Castle sometimes purports to be a flower-child vision of America, but its depiction of Americans as either Terrorists or SS Officers unintentionally reveals that we enjoy a pornography of degradation, of evil—a recapitulation of Cabaret, as we savor a fantasy of our corruption. The very prolongation of the series registers the extent of our sickness. Dick never wrote a sequel to Man in the High Castle, in good measure because he could not bear to immerse himself in the minds of the Nazis again. Amazon’s executives apparently plan to keep the series going for the indefinite future, since neither they nor we have Dick’s compunctions.
The opening song of the first two seasons has been “Edelweiss”—the Sound of Music pastiche of an Austrian folk-song, giving ironic depth to the portrait of a conquered America. At the end of the second season’s last episode, we hear a new song—Cabaret’s “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.” That’s a wholesome, uplifting ditty of Germany becoming Nazi, which raises the question of whom tomorrow will belong to in Season 3—the Nazis? The Americans? The Americans become Nazis? But Dick’s novel was about accommodation to the power of others; the resistance it championed was artistic and spiritual. Neither song fits that more subtle, more interesting story. The series should be playing “Bowler Hat” from Stephen Sondheim's Pacific Overtures. That's a song sung by a nineteenth-century Japanese official as—half-reluctantly, half-eagerly—he becomes Western, from hat to heart:
I wear a bowler hat.
They send me wine.
The house is far too grand.
I've bought a new umbrella stand.
Today I visited the church beside the shrine.
I'm learning English from a book.
It's called a bowler hat. …
One must accommodate the times
As one lives them.
One must remember that.
Dick might have smiled to see how his novel has been accommodated to Hollywood’s mores.
David Randall is director of communications at the National Association of Scholars.