Rufus Sewell as John Smith, a former U.S. army hero who works for the German Reich after they conquer the U.S. in an alternative fiction of WWII.
Rufus Sewell as John Smith, a former U.S. army hero who works for the German Reich after they conquer the U.S. in an alternative fiction of WWII.

‘Man in the High Castle’ wraps up with a dire warning about rising fascism

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By the end of 1962, the year that Philip K. Dick published his novel “The Man in the High Castle,” John F. Kennedy was in office, the Cuban Missile Crisis was underway and Marilyn Monroe had died.

In the Amazon Prime Video universe inspired by that novel, 1962 is yahr null, “Year Zero” in the complete Nazi takeover of the Eastern United States, which includes a top-secret Josef Mengele project that would help Nazis cross into alternate worlds and use that access to gather information, invade and conquer.

This series — the fourth and final season dropped a month ago — gives us a chance to follow fascism from a safe distance, theoretically prospecting for a future worse than the one we seem to have now.

(Light spoilers follow.)

In the world-establishing first season, we learn that the Nazis and the Japanese have won World War II and divided the spoils. Nazis control the American Reich and its capital, New York City, reporting to Berlin (goodbye East Coast Jewry and Harlem, along with the Statue of Liberty). The Japanese control the Pacific States with the help of police called the Kempeitai, which actually existed in World War II and was often called the Japanese Gestapo. Its capital is San Francisco.

Jews and blacks are permitted to live only in the Neutral Zone, aka the Rocky Mountain States. That region is also the gathering place for the Resistance, brave souls from the Nazi and the Japanese zones who risk their lives to bring back American democracy.

In seasons one and two in particular, the Resistance draws hope from secret films that show a different reality, one where the Allies win the war. These films — kept safely by the mysterious man in the high castle —  pose a threat to both fascist governments, which vow to destroy them.

This is a powerful statement about the role of journalism, art and culture in truth-telling: They can bring hope and strength to the downtrodden.

There are a few Jewish moments in the series.

A settlement in the Neutral Zone called Sabra masquerades as a Christian enclave, but it actually houses the Jews who are lucky enough to get there. While few scenes take place at Sabra, it is there that a major character celebrates his bar mitzvah, an affirmation of faith and reconnection to peoplehood that must be exceedingly rare in 1960s Nazi-occupied America.

Near the end of the first season, when a secretly Jewish character is tortured by the Kempeitai for information, the lives of his sister and her children are used as leverage. When he refuses to cooperate, his sister, niece and nephew are gassed using Zyklon D (a newer version of the Zyklon B gas used by the real Nazis).

These snippets of Jewish experience drive home a point: In this world, not only has European Jewry been decimated by the Nazis, but so has American Jewry.

The fact that there aren’t many “High Castle” scenes involving Jews points to the reality of this alternate universe: There just aren’t that many Jews left. Those who have survived are either in hiding or concealing their heritage.

In the American Reich, these Nazis continue to root out Jews, blacks and “degenerates” — anyone who threatens the master race. They get sent to a re-education camp, from which no one returns.

In this world, not only has European Jewry been decimated by the Nazis, but so has American Jewry.

In one scene, “snow” apparently starts to fall. But then a policeman explains, “Tuesdays, they burn cripples [and] the terminally ill.” Why? Because they’re a “drag on the state.”

The 10-episode fourth season, which premiered on Nov. 15, puts the focus on the Black Communist Rebellion, whose quest for a black homeland evokes the civil rights movement. But the journey of its members — most of them concentration-camp survivors now looking to be a free nation in their homeland — emotionally echoes the real experience of Jews after World War II.

This season contains a special treat for Bay Area viewers, as most of the action is set here. The BCR has its headquarters in Oakland, home of the Black Panthers who will soon appear in “our” world, and there are key scenes that play out in the streets and on the Bay, with the Bay Bridge in full relief. Moraga, too, makes a brief appearance.

The main protagonist in “High Castle” is Juliana Crain, who evolves from being a quiet, law-abiding citizen to a “traveler” who can cross between worlds, and a revolutionary who feels bound to distribute the films. “If they can be beaten in that world,” she says of the fascists, “they can be beaten in this one.”

Crain clashes with John Smith, a U.S. Army hero who joins the Nazis when they win the war — not as a true believer, he would have justified, but out of pragmatism. And while some Nazi tactics are distasteful to him at first, he gets used to the taste of fascism — first as a means to protect his family, then to advance to great power and visibility.

The first two seasons asked how a citizen becomes an activist. But as the focus shifts to John Smith and his wife, we are asked to imagine how people become fascists — how one decision leads down a path from which there is no turning back, until one day you do see the wreckage you are leaving in your wake.

Glimpsing the other worlds is “unbearable,” Smith says finally to Crain, “to glimpse all the people you could have been and to know out of all of them this is the one you became.”

Looking back at the world depicted in “High Castle” through the lens of today, one can’t help but see the cautionary tale within. We may not know if there are other worlds, and we don’t need a TV show to imagine life being better. But our job, in any world, is to be the best version of ourselves, no matter how many alternate worlds exist.

Esther D. Kustanowitz
Esther D. Kustanowitz

Esther D. Kustanowitz wrote a TV column for J. She is based in Los Angeles and has been known to track #TVGoneJewy. Follow her on Twitter @EstherK.