Thursday, January 28, 2016

TV Musings: The Man in the High Castle, Season 1

I watched the pilot for The Man in the High Castle during Amazon’s free pilot preview session, and discussed it briefly along with the novel, here.  Now I’ve seen the rest of the first season, and I wanted to discuss it a little bit.  This is going to be less of a general review, and more along the lines of pointing out things that I thought were interesting.  I’m also not going to compare it to the original novel any longer, since by now the show is really a separate entity. Given that a second season is already confirmed, it was pretty much guaranteed that they would need to deviate dramatically from the source material.

Beware of spoilers from here on out!

One of my first reactions to the show was simply to be impressed by the high quality of the production.  It felt like a lot of care went into crafting the setting, the costumes, and the details of the world, and I think all of the actors for parts minor and major did really excellent work. I think that choosing “Edelweiss” from “The Sound of Music” as the opening theme was a also a good idea, since the American audience would likely associate that particular song with the grief of losing one’s nation to a foreign occupation.  

I really don’t know any German at all, but I can comment that I thought the Japanese language was well done. I found it a little amusing that all of the Japanese characters primarily spoke English to one another, but I think that was mostly to avoid scaring off English audiences with long stretches of subtitles. I was also initially a little confused by the value of yen. Today, yen is in the ballpark of around 100 yen per US dollar, so the amounts quoted for various extortions and ransoms seemed ridiculously low.  However, I had a look at the historical exchange rates, and pre-WWII Japanese Yen were around 2-3 yen per US dollar.  I thought that was an interesting historical detail that they carried forward into the alternate post-WWII world.

A good show, but so sad.

The Man in the High Castle quickly became a show I wanted to watch each evening, even though the turns the story took were often surprisingly painful to witness. By the end of the second episode, I realized that this was going to be a brutally depressing story, and one which would make me feel terrified of governments for a while.  The reveal at the end of the second episode--that the Kempeitai had executed Frank’s sister and her children--set the tone for the rest of the series.  Up until that point, I genuinely thought they were going to be saved at the last minute, or that the threat was just being used to scare Frank.  Afterward, I think I lost some essential bit of hope for the eventual outcome for the characters, and I spent each subsequent episode bracing for the worst to happen. The show has a very skillful way of showing the magnitude of impersonal evil that can be committed by humans for the most unworthy of reasons.

The Cost of Loyalty

I felt like loyalty, to a nation or a person, was a major theme throughout the show.  Rather than showing this as a positive trait, it seemed like loyalty always brought suffering to those who held it. For instance, Frank went through hell due to his connection to his girlfriend Juliana and his continuing support for her, while Juliana’s choices rarely took him into account at all.  The compassion and loyalty of Frank’s best friend Ed was admirable, but it also cost him dearly.

When it came to nations, loyalty was shown to be just as destructive. Tagomi, Kido and others were willing to sacrifice their lives and their integrity for the well-being of their government, even if the force demanding that sacrifice was the government itself.  I was also interested by the situation of John Smith, whose psychological comfort depended on his false belief that his loyalty to the Reich had helped build a better world.  Throughout the season, we see the cracks start to appear in this conviction, as he must confront the fact that the monstrous world he has built is going to destroy everyone he loves, as it has already done for millions of others.

The Ending

The Man in the High Castle ended with quite a few surprise twists, and I can only be happy that it has already been renewed for a second season.  Unless I miss my guess, we have now met The Man in the High Castle, and he is not at all who I expected him to be. Juliana’s decision at the end was quite a shock, and with Tagomi-san’s final scene, it looks like the second season may move into more mind-bending territory.  What do you think of season one?   

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