When ashes fall from the sky in the first episode of “The Man in the High Castle,” a new television series from Amazon, the viewer can’t help but mistake them for snowflakes. They flutter to the ground beside a windy stretch of road in America’s Midwestern plains, gradually amassing into a white fog, just as a winter storm might.
Ashes, snowflakes. The resemblance is uncanny — the connotations, of course, wildly disparate. The mistake is unavoidable as the audience struggles to make sense of this work of alternative history, equal parts ambition and cheap thrill, based on the novel of the same name by Phillip K. Dick set two decades after Japan and Germany have defeated the United States in World War II, the latter nation becoming a fascist vassal split between the victors. Baseball, billboards, and burgers remain, yet so too, it seems at first, do safe assumptions about snowflakes. If it quacks like America and walks like America, is it still America? “The most chilling thing about the series,” writes Todd VanDer Werff of Vox, “isn’t how different [America] is, but how similar.”
What’s most haunting about the resemblance is how the characters themselves are seduced by it, grasping ever less tightly to the America they once knew — or, in the case of the younger characters, never knew. For them, it doesn’t matter whether the fog comprises ashes or snowflakes; the point is that it’s obscuring their view. The audience has the luxury of comparing the America on screen to the one off it. In the characters’ case, preserving the distinction is a feat of memory; a delicate balance between the resistance born of nostalgia and the tacit acceptance that comes from stringing days together, building a new life.
“The Man in the High Castle” is, therefore, a show about remembering. For the most part, the older characters, many of whom fought in the war 20 years prior, simply choose not to. They must reconcile themselves to their reality, no matter how abhorrent. But the young characters, like Joe Blake, a 20-something Nazi secret agent, and his soon-to-be love interest, Juliana Crane, a member of a small but committed resistance movement, are driven by curiosity about the country that America once was. They’re nostalgic for a time they never knew, and they lack the shame in having lost it.
The show goes out of its way to establish this stark generational divide, so much so that, for those on the left, the dynamic feels reminiscent of the contemporary relationship between the 1960s generation — many of whom fought valiantly against but, ultimately, capitulated to neoliberalism — and millennial activists who look back nostalgically on that post-WWII era of high union density and low wealth inequality. Like Juliana and Joe, young activists today — myself among them — cannot viscerally feel the absence of that imagined past. Their nostalgia is purely intellectual, even if it must willfully ignore the comparatively worse social conditions for women and people of color. Many activists nevertheless derive hope from their knowledge of a time that better aligns with their desired role of government. Hence all of the mythology on the American left around that Edenic phenomenon called the 60s. The yearning, at bottom, comes from disappointment with the status quo.
As those ashes start to fall, we find ourselves riding along with Joe on an assignment driving a truck cross-country. After suffering a flat tire, Joe asks a middle-aged, avuncular highway patrol officer for assistance. Joe points to a tattoo on the officer’s arm, depicting a flower overlaid by a dagger. “A soldier so fierce he’d kill a rose,” the officer explains. “That was you?” Joe asks. “Oh, a long time ago,” the officer responds. “We lost the war, didn’t we? Now I can’t even remember what we were fighting for.”
Neither can Joe, of course. He was a baby during the war. Having grown up as a member of the Nazi youth and having joined the SS after a brief stint working in a factory, he’s never even left New York. His father, he tells the officer, fought in the war as well. Joe, like the viewer, cannot recognize the ashes. “What is that?” he wonders aloud. “Oh, it’s the hospital,” the officer nonchalantly replies. “Tuesdays they burn cripples, the terminally ill … those [who] drag on the state.” Nary a shudder accompanies the statement — things are the way they are.
“You have a safe trip, son,” the officer says. “Make your old man proud now.” Honoring the older generation, at least for the officer, means acclimating as best you can. It is akin to the stereotypical sell-out ex-hippie wishing a young activist luck on a corporate job interview.
Earlier in the episode, while posing as a prospective member of the resistance in order to infiltrate it, Joe must convince its elder leader that he isn’t a spy. “I want my country back,” he says. “You never had it,” the resistance leader retorts. “You were still sucking your thumb when [the Germans] dropped the [atom] bomb” that won the war. Joe responds: “My father told me what it was like … He said every man was free … I don’t have any buddies who died in the war. I don’t know what freedom is … I’m here because I want to do the right thing.” Though the hollow words of an infiltrator, Joe’s lofty declarations mirror the rallying cry of a young resistance member, Randall, a few episodes later, who says, “Evil triumphs only when good men do nothing.”
Their nostalgia lacks the specificity to be visceral; it’s abstract, saccharine. They miss sights they’ve never seen, freedoms they’ve never enjoyed. That yearning leads the young revolutionaries toward conspicuously high-minded rhetoric and an ineffective course of action. The viewer learns about the resistance’s activities through Juliana Crane, whose younger sister Trudy, unbeknownst to Juliana, has been a member of the resistance for some time. In the first episode, Trudy turns over a subversive and illicit film to Juliana, asking that she make sure it get delivered to a member of the resistance’s East Coast affiliate. Moments later, Trudy is caught and killed by the state’s secret police. Juliana inherits the task. The delivery of these films, it soon becomes clear, is the nationwide resistance’s primary objective. It’s hard to fathom, though, how the spreading of the films could plausibly spur an insurrection strong enough to overcome the German and Japanese military regimes. Writing in Verge, Adi Robertson aptly points out how the members of the resistance “spend so much time and money acquiring films that they start feeling like bootleg video distributors who moonlight as dissidents.”
The films, carefully doctored to mimic newsreels, depict World War II as if the United States had in fact won. They therefore supply the detailed vision of a pre-fascist America that the show’s young generation never had and that the older one has forgotten. Using the films as its primary means to spark dissent, the show’s resistance movement recapitulates the tactic most commonly associated with America’s hippie generation: experimental art intended to raise public consciousness. Intoxicated by how good it feels to “see” a better alternative, the show’s activists think the mere spreading of that revelation is all that’s required of them.
“The Man in the High Castle” thus reimagines the rock n’ roll revolution, but shifts the experimental art from an audio to a visual medium, one better fit for the widely accessible YouTube-dominated media landscape of today than the expensive film reel technologies of the 1960s. You have to wonder, even if the films prove as potent as the resistance hopes, whether the movies can possibly be distributed en masse at a time when most people simply didn’t own the hardware necessary to watch them at home.
But the show’s depiction of the resistance reflects an even deeper fallacy. The successes and failures of the 1960s didn’t spring from (predominantly white) kids listening to the Grateful Dead or taking LSD. That’s just the popular narrative too-often told. As the truer story goes, the years of organizing on the part of both the civil rights and antiwar movements — coupled with increasingly receptive media coverage — built power that couldn’t be ignored, at least until the right prevailed and Reaganism began in earnest. So “The Man in the High Castle” ends up looking like a strange projection of Americans’ most terrifying fears of Nazi control combined with our most glamorous understandings of 60s insurrection. Alternative history, after all, is in the eye of the rememberer. Putting the moral clarity of 1940s anti-fascism together with the romantic protests of the 1960s seems like an ex-hippie’s yearning for a more straightforward political landscape and a set of youngsters more willing to inhale the accepted wisdom of a bygone era.
The show’s prescription doesn’t match the present-day disease — or even its symptoms. On the other hand, Dick’s novel, which was released in 1963, spoke directly to its historical moment, chronicling the influence not of a mysterious underground film but of a work of popular fiction called “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy,” which depicts the U.S. winning World War II as a result of Italy’s betraying the Axis powers and a joint British-Russian military force conquering Berlin. As quasi-revolutionary music topped the charts, Dick exposed how popular art’s potential to spark massive policy change depends on the public institutions built to enact its demands. In the case of his hypothetical Nazi state, prospects were bleak.
Now those same songs sell Hummers and iPhones. The revelatory individualism harnessed by the left in the 1960s has been co-opted by consumer culture’s celebration of selfhood and a government made ever more vulnerable to corporate influence. If any lesson can be gleaned from this show, it’s that a resistance, quite literally, needs a clear vision. But instead of looking forward for this better alternative, the show’s characters look back. What they see, again quite literally, is a projection — and one of their deepest yearnings. Similarly, today’s young activists don’t miss the 60s; they daily mourn the 2015 they don’t have.
With Trump bringing fascism, or at least its facsimile, into the national conversation with plans for a Muslim registry, a border wall and mass deportation, the gauntlet has been thrown. The left cannot respond by projecting its bygone heyday onto an unwieldy present. Instead of the individually-experienced revelation inspired by the films distributed by the show’s resistance movement or the hallucinogens handed out by 60s dissidents, the left could use a clearer collective idea of the world it wants. And we can no longer find it by looking back.
These days there’s no shortage of far-right blathering to make lefties feel superior or CNN documentaries on the 60s to make them feel nostalgic. But moral high ground and indulgent memories do not make a social movement. In fact, if neoliberalism’s rightward shift continues, then the left’s wistful desire for a return to moral clarity could take the form of an all-too-real rolling back of even its most basic victories. Circumstances probably won’t get as bad as those depicted in this show, but with Trump’s meteoric rise, suddenly anything seems possible. Since intergenerational strife pervades “The Man in the High Castle,” it’s fitting that the response the show inspires is perhaps the most tired yet prescient advice of all: Be careful what you wish for.
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