Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Man in the High Castle: Season 1

“Man in High Castle” examines the ins and outs of a hypothetical 1960’s world in which the Axis Powers won the war and U.S. is partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany with the Rockies acting as a lawless neutral zone of sorts. It’s filled with the kinds of hypotheticals and conjecture that history buffs will eat up with a lot of intrigue for the rest of us.

At the center of it all is a couple in San Francisco trying to keep their noses down in this Orwellian world. Frank Fink works in what looks (from our American middle-class 20th century perspective audience) like a dreary job at a factory for souvenir relics which contrasts well with girlfriend Juliana Crain who doesn’t yet have a job but seems like a woman who’s destined for great things. Perhaps it’s the male gaze of the camera but Crain has the poise and glamor that looks like she owns the screen. This is fitting because the re-appearance of Juliana’s sister moments before being gunned down puts her on a Hithcockian journey (complete with her own MaGuffin in the form of a film from the titular Man in The High Castle) in the mold of Cary Grant (“North by Northwest), Robert Cummings (“Sabetour”) or Robert Donat (“39 Steps”).

It’s a welcome inversion to see a female heroine in the ordinary-man-called-to-be-a-hero mold but it’s hard to ignore that she seems to have a knack for making the wrong decisions. On no less than three occasions, she makes an impulsive decision and leaves trusted comrades out to dry for an enigmatic character, Joe Blake, who functions as the film’s third protagonist but takes too long to develop into something interesting enough to warrant his screen time. Blake is allied with the resistance but also secretly reports to the Third Reich and the actor plays him as too much of a blank slate to really care. There's supposedly supposed to be sexual tension but there are too many reasons that a Bluniana Union would never be remotely feasible and the lack of chemistry between the two leaves us little reason to believe otherwise.
For his part, Frank Fink is a trusty peon of the Japanese Pacific States until three of his family members get murdered. In some ways, his actions in the heat of the moment mirror the impulsive Juliana but his erring on the side of caution posits him as a character defined by a passivity that's repressed inside him until he occasionally explodes. Frank's loyalty to his friends and gradual turning to the side of the good guys makes him a pretty noble figure. His passivity is also a form of thoughtfulness, which is kind of ironic (and even darkly humorous in its over-the-topness) that he has no qualms whatsoever about repeatedly blackmailing and doing whatever the hell he wants to an antiques dealer named Mr Childan who identifies as a "man of culture." Aside from Childan's effeminate manner (it's possible he's supposed to read as closeted gay) that contrasts with Frank's gruff masculinity, there's also the issue of Childan displaying an exaggerated form of Frank's subservience that must get under his skin and add to a hypocrisy of sorts.
Like Childan, the series revolves around a number of characters connected to the three protagonists at various levels of power. It’s pretty rare to find a serialized story so deep that nearly every character on screen has back story that gets interesting the more they’re on. For example, Obengrubberfuhrer (if I lived in this world, I’d be shot pretty quickly for giggling at these German titles) John Smith (Joe Blake’s contact) is an American family man with a strong allegiance to the Third Reich that’s pretty much played straight: He’s a man of his circumstances. It’s interesting, on the surface that he has a general sense of through-the-looking-glass decency in a Nazi uniform, but it’s also interesting that he generally embodies the type of 50s family patriarch who’s commanding, unilateral, and a little emotionally distant from his kids even as he’s doing things in his best interest. His bad guy status highlights both worlds.

Similarly, a lot of the Japanese characters are even more fascinating for someone who has seen very few on-screen portrayals of Japanese power structures (does “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” count?) whether in an official or underworld capacity. It’s hard to find anyone to admire more than Nokosube Tagomi.

Because it’s such a complex world it takes at least five or six episodes to unwind and its only towards the very end of the season that it starts to get addictive. The plus is that there’s a wide world to delve into but the downside is that it’s a slow burn. When a particularly menacing character, Inspector Kiddo (it seems like many of the Japanese characters were cast on ability to menacing scowl and this guy takes the cake), started making an impression on me late in the season, it took me a minute to remember that this man was a guy I should have hated and feared all along since he was responsible for locking up Frank and killing his family.
I’m not sure the degree of Ridley Scott’s involvement but there is a lot of dystopic beauty here that’s similar to “Blade Runner.” This is a world filled with a lot of beautiful shades of gray. It's a world of bleak situations, secrets and traces of honor and hope. It's worth sticking around for.