We live in tumultuous and uncertain times, and for many of the most vulnerable people in the United States, especially minorities, fear has been ramping up in their everyday lives. Comparisons between the newly elected President Trump and Adolf Hitler abound, and not without reason. Just before Trump’s inauguration, the second season of the Amazon original series The Man in the High Castle premiered. While the alternate history series had been fascinating and compelling ever since its premiere last January, in light of recent events, its poignancy has been downright spooky. It presents a picture of what life in the United States in the sixties might have looked like if the Axis powers had won the Second World War and divided up the U.S. between Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany. The series is based on the novel of the same name by Philip K. Dick, and follows Juliana Crain as she and the people close to her become caught up in resistance activities orchestrated by an unseen, eponymous mastermind. Besides being exceptionally well-written, one point that separates this from other alternate World War II histories (and there are an abundance) is that in The Man in the High Castle, a few characters have ways of glimpsing alternate paths of history and incomplete pictures of possible futures, which they desperately try to piece together to understand how to change the dystopian world they live in.
The Man in the High Castle is even more relevant and even more unsettling now that the Trump administration has entered office and the foreboding executive orders have begun to roll out. After all, the series is not about heroes trying to stop the Nazi takeover of their country: it’s about ordinary Americans who have long since been overtaken by a horrifying totalitarian regime, but who largely still remember what freedom was like. It takes place in 1962, with North America having settled into a grudging and troubled sort of normalcy after the U.S. surrendered to Germany in 1947. The main character, Juliana Crain, lives in Japanese-occupied San Francisco and is given a film reel by her sister Trudy, who is later identified as an agent of the resistance and executed. Juliana watches the film and finds that it is a collection of footage seeming to show the Allies winning World War II, which is contrary to what happened in the history she knows. As the show goes on, more films emerge, showing more alternate timelines, and we learn that the Trade Minister of the Japanese Pacific States, Nobusuke Tagomi, mysteriously enters dreamlike states where he can pass through alternate histories and alternate versions of the present.
When Juliana finally briefly meets the “Man in the High Castle”, he seems to be using the film reels the resistance has been collecting to piece together the events leading up to a nuclear disaster caused by the Japanese, so that he can find a way to avoid it. Unlike the show’s characters, the real American people don’t have a way of glimpsing the future, but many of us now share a fear that we have passed a tipping point and are barreling toward an inevitable and terrifying period in U.S. history. I won’t bother to point out all the many parallels between Trump’s philosophy and the ideals of the Nazi party; plenty of sources have already explained what a platform built on xenophobia, fear, and scapegoating can lead to, but far from being a dismal prophecy, The Man in the High Castle is both timely and reassuring in its own way. As an American uncertain of my own future, it feels easier than ever to identify with the characters’ struggles and motivations, and to feel a deep connection to what drives them to risk their lives to overthrow their oppressors.
The show does a great job of empowering the same categories of people that are at risk from Trump’s policy decisions. Women and racial minorities were also targeted by the Nazis, and therefore, unsurprisingly, have a strong drive to fight back. In The Man in the High Castle, women outnumber men in the resistance, among them a Japanese-American woman named Sarah. When she is asked what a Japanese woman is doing in the resistance, she replies very firmly that she’s an American woman born to Japanese parents, and that there’s a big difference. Although the women do seem to die more often than the men throughout the show, they also seem to be people of authority in the resistance more often than men, and carry out more important missions, often using sexism as a smokescreen to avoid suspicion. Of the men who are or who become resistance members, Frank is of Jewish descent and his sister and her children have been executed by the Japanese government. Lemuel Washington is African-American and has fled to the Japanese Pacific States to escape a large-scale “eradication” of Black people in the Greater Nazi Reich. Though the actress who plays Juliana is of Jewish descent, Juliana the character is categorized as “Mediterranean” when she enters Nazi territory and is subjected to a very disturbing “racial examination” by Nazi doctors. Her body is examined, her skull and face is meticulously measured, her skin, hair, and eye color compared to categorized swatches, and she is given a rating of racial acceptability before she is allowed to legally enter the territory.
Unfortunately, LGBTQ+ people are left out of the otherwise diverse cast of resistance characters, which is especially disappointing since LGBTQ+ people are highly at risk of losing rights and social acceptance under Trump. Granted, the show is not specifically written as an allegory for our times; the book was published in 1962 and I don’t know Philip K. Dick’s opinion on LGBTQ+ rights, but the show was written very recently for a modern audience. The writers took plenty of liberties with the core material as it is, so there’s no specific reason they couldn’t have taken liberties with a few of the characters’ identities or sexualities.
It is significant, also, that although the characters in The Man in the High Castle have a seemingly magical way of knowing about a triumphant past that never happened, over the course of the show, they have never spent time or resources futilely trying to find a way to change the past: they instead focus on using the valuable information they have to influence the future. Knowing the real-life history of World War II, as soon as I realized that the show’s characters could see alternate realities, I immediately assumed that they would try to change history or merge their reality with another one. Instead, the resistance fighters seem to have accepted that—terrible though it may be—this is the reality they live in, and they focus everything they have on making it better, rather than wallowing in what should have been. Of course, we all certainly hope that in real life, things will never come to a point where we’re being ruled by Nazis. We still have the power to avert disaster and it’s critical that the fight begins now, but it’s also important to be reminded that no matter how bad things get, no matter how much ground oppressors gain, we can only ever go forward.
The Man in the High Castle also makes it clear just how difficult and costly the act of resistance is, and how much Juliana, Frank, and other members struggle with moral ambiguity, as many of them are forced to work with criminal groups and engage in what amounts to acts of terrorism to achieve their ends. It wisely depicts the road to revolution as fraught with uncertainty and problems in spite of noble ends, and forces viewers to consider what lengths they themselves would go to if the stakes became that high.
Ultimately, The Man in the High Castle wraps a message of hope, grit, and conviction in some pretty dark trappings and presents it to the American audience at a time when we need a staunch reminder of what we have to lose. It’s visually beautiful, well-executed, and incredibly thematically relevant to what may lie ahead in the coming years. Stories of determined resistance forces fighting an oppressor are common, as are alternate histories of World War II, but I don’t know of any others that hit quite as close to home as this one does for the American people in the current political climate.