Sunday, February 07, 2016

Thoughts on Season One of The Man in the High Castle (Season 1 Spoilers)

Amazon is, I'm sure, celebrating its decision to continue The Man in the High Castle, an Amazon exclusive series available for streaming. It brings to life a question that many have asked. What if Hitler had won the war? How terrible would it be? We all know the quick answer to that: hell on earth, but how many of us have sat here really thinking it through?

Well thankfully a couple of authors have done this for us. Philip K. Dick wrote the novel of the same name. There is another one too that is popular written by Robert Harris called Fatherland. Sadly the cover that is presently at Amazon is a play on the wonderful CGI from The Man in the High Castle. It used to have a different cover, but that's another topic.

Let me just say right now that this will contain spoilers. It's better that we get that out there right now. Right? Right!

Now let's talk about what you see first, the opening title sequence: WOW!

It's very creative and I could talk about it for  three times as longer than what I'll call "the intro" actually is. To begin with, it's dark. Not just emotionally but visually. The map is not this bright map that you can compare to Google maps.

From the sound of the film starting, to the mournful and isolated eagle, to the clever shadow casting onto Mount Rushmore's George Washington's face of Nazi paratroopers invading the US, it's all simply amazing. I like too the symbol we see of the two nation flags joined together as a metaphorical agreement between the two, but notice that there is a bunching of the flag at one part of the seam which makes it look strained, much like the German and Japanese relationship in the show. It is just simply brilliant and I must say it's the best opening sequence that I've ever seen in the history of television.

Then of course there's the song. I love the title of the song ("Eidelweiss"), the grief stricken tone of the song and the voice of it as well. It's just the accent. The Atlantic did a good job of explaining how the song is moving, and other trivia, in its article "'Eidelweiss': An American Song for Global Dystopia" but it doesn't address my issue.

No, I don't mean to sound insulting. The woman is Swedish, but her accent doesn't sound Swede to me. No, I don't buy into the cliched accent that many believe they have, but my daughter had a boyfriend who is Swedish. He came to visit us from Sweden, so I'm quite familiar with it.

It's just that when I heard her the very first time, I thought she was Japanese and it confused me because why would someone from Japan sing "Eidelweiss"? It's just not clear, is all. I think perhaps it should have been a German, or even an American. Maybe it would have sounded more to what the story is about. Still, her voice is simply beautiful. That cannot be denied.

Gee, it appears I could have written a post simply about the intro itself!

Moving along, the dark visuals continue within the series. I like that. I like that a lot. In fact, I think it's quite genius! Did you notice that San Francisco looks much darker and dreary than New York? It's as though there is no rising sun in San Francisco. Brilliant! The cinematography is simply stunning.

The politics is very well thought out too. Germany's condescension of anything spiritual (sounds like certain people today), Japan's appearance of a lack of funds and resources. They are both in apparently the same position that they were pre-WWII. For now, anyway.

The chilling reminder that Germany euthanized the sick and elderly in the pilot episode is sobering. The flippant way the police officer shrugs saying he didn't even remember what we were fighting for. It can make one shiver.

What makes it all even more amazing is how you can go from fear and loathing of a man who tortures and kills, to sympathy and compassion for him by series end. I'm not talking of only one man, but two. Throughout the series I just wanted Inspector Kido to die a painful death, but by the end, I felt some admiration. You come to the conclusion that Kido is not inherently evil, he simply lives by the way a culture has demanded he live. It was never his choice nor his endeavor, it just is.

John Smith is different but we still end up siding with him. John has believed in Nazism. He had faith in its superiority, but when faced with his only family's dilemma a light bulb goes on. Suddenly his bright and shiny world is actually betrayal and sacrifice, neither of which he is willing to tolerate. His realization leaves you quietly cheering for him. I say quietly because the man is clearly the enemy, but an enemy who you hope will swap sides. You want him to be good.

I'm amazed at how any show is able to achieve such a thing as this. There is no one thing that makes this show great. There are many little things and all those little things are required. In order for a show (or any film) to be great, it must have great directors, great actors, great writing and so on. Sets, costumes, makeup and just about everything you can think of. It all matters! It's a rare find when you find something that is just so perfect. When they all work so well together. They are few and far between.

This show has achieved it. I also must give a nod to casting. Not one single person is badly cast. Not a single one! That does not mean that I think all the characters are fantastic because there is one that stands out in my mind that is definitely not. I just think that the casting was superb and 99% of the characters are well defined with interesting stories.

Alexa Davalos' performance is simply outstanding as the soft spoken and "peaceful" Juliana. She is exactly what I would expect to see in one who lives by the way of Aikido. She was content to live her life the Japanese way, despite her mother's protests and the death of her father. She has believed in the wrong people from the start. "One of the good guys," her Aikido instructor, was proven not to be. The one she expected to be an enemy, Tagomi, turned out to be a good man. The father figure in her life turned out to be an enemy. Except for Frank, her entire world is topsy turvy.

Joe is quiet and observant. He does not brag, does not share and does not fundamentally betray (yet). He appears as the all American guy who is just trying to live in the crazy world. He's handsome, strong and brave. His motives appear genuine. He appears to be in love, but is he? Is it all a scam? We hope against all else that he is on the right side. However, we only have is word. His actions appear otherwise.

Frank on the other hand is completely transparent. He hides nothing. Frank is the kind of person who lets you know right away where you stand. There is no guessing here. You're either with him, or against him. His new found faith may invariably set him on a determined course, one that he was not so sure of early on. One thing is for certain, Frank's integrity is (so far) unquestionable.

Tagomi-sama (yes, I really love him) is amazing. His integrity is never questioned. The only question Kido presents to him is if he's naive or not. Tagomi-san (the title they call him, I prefer sama) is a kind and spiritual man. A man of grief and faith. Instead of living through hate and revenge, he lives through hope. He prefers to see the best in people, even if they are annoying. His eye rolling when Kido shows up is amusing but especially so since he is not prone to such things. If there is one person who is really trying to do good in the world, Tagomi is the one. He is the one you can trust and believe in, despite his allegiances.

Obergruppenführer Smith is everything you'd expect a scary Nazi to be. Piercing light colored eyes, always suspicious, unable to tolerate anything outside of perfection, tough in a fight and extremely intelligent. No, I'm not saying Nazis were these things, it's just our view of them during the war was that they were these things. Turns out, we were wrong and by season one's end, we find the same in Smith. He is more devoted to his family than a Nazi is supposed to be. For Nazi's the Führer is the supreme, you should give up all for him. Smith even has a protege in Joe, for whom he is now in debt to forever. Smith is strong, but not without weaknesses. He carries with him a heavy load of guilt, but refuses to be weighed down by it. It seems that he knows if he submits to it, he'll lose his ideals. He just may too.

Inspector Kido is the enemy that deserves respect. I've already touched on his amazing characterization. He is the one you hate but grow to feel compassion for. How is that even possible? After all he has done, it is amazing that this can happen. However, Kido teaches us what it is to be human because as humans, we have a sense of right and wrong. When things are right, we live complacently. When things are wrong, we fight for what we believe to be right. We even hate and to deny that is a lie. However, through all that hate and fighting, we still have compassion for those that are our enemies. We know that most are not all frightening. Kido shows us that we can hate him for what he is done, but can feel sorry for him when he loses. It's simply unbelievable!

Finally we have the comedic character of Robert Childan. He was more central in the book (as I understand it) than in the show. His character is adorable and fun. At first glance he appears to be a suck up to the Japanese, but he surprises us in his fortitude from his own ax to grind. He may be shaking in his boots, but when it comes down to it he's more brave than most of us would be in his situation. Despite the odds of success, he is willing to take deadly risks. It may be only for selfish reasons such as revenge and wealth, but he makes for an interesting ally.

There are other characters sprinkled throughout. If I had to list one I was disappointed in, it was the Marshall. I love the actor (he is prominent in another of my favorite shows: Turn: Washington's Spies) but the character not so much. Except for him, everyone in the show has a clear goal and belief system. His was murky at best. Since I have not read the book, I am not sure what his character was like there. Was he different or close to the same? I have no idea. I just know that he appeared to like violence best and there are some people in this world who love to terrorize and maybe he is a symbol of that, but I find it unlikely that he being alone much of the time, someone did not kill him early on. He had no army to speak of, it just seemed outrageous to me.

If I had to pick something story wise that I didn't like then, the season finale was overwhelmingly subdued. No, I don't much care for over the top cliff hangers. It's just that it hints that the show is over. It tells us that everything is now normal so move along. I suppose it was their way of finishing it were it not to be renewed and I suppose if you look at it that way it seems more than acceptable. I just don't like the idea of being fooled when Tagomi-sama awakes from a dream of the future. I may (keyword is may) find it acceptable if Tagomi is now on the other side. Perhaps he is. This is his glimpse of what American can be, not what it is. Maybe they'll go that direction and perhaps he'll work to that end.

Whatever it is, we know one thing: there is a clear ending ahead. Frank Spotnitz has made that clear in an interview he gave to zap2it on the differences between the book and the series.

I look forward to many answers that were not tied up. Probably at the top of my list is: who is Frank's father? I hope that answer to that isn't deflating. At first, your idea is that his father is the Führer but that cannot be. Why then would the Führer's son live in a shabby apartment in New York? Why tooo would Obergruppenführer say he is in frequent touch with Joe's father, but mentions the Führer as though he has only met him a few times? No, it seems to me that it cannot be. Especially since Joe has proven some loyalty to Obergruppenführer. On the other hand, Heydrich was planning the assassination of the Führer so if Joe were the Führer's son he would have reason to kill him.

It's a mystery for certain! This may end up being the core mystery of the entire series. They need to be careful about that. All I have to say is learn from the TV series Lost. Do not present more questions than you can answer. Do not change your mind halfway through. Remember what you have said and use it as the foundation. Please.

All in all this series should be highly praised. The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (commonly referred to in America as The Emmy's) should recognize its artistic value in the upcoming award session. The nominations are slated to be announced on June 9th of this year. Not only should there be a multitude of nominations, there should too be many wins. Turn is a formidable foe, which is interesting because of the stellar performance during Turn's last season by Burn Gorman, who played the Marshal in this series. His character in Turn is very much like our Obergruppenführer here. An enemy who can do terrible things but that you can feel compassion for.

It would be a terrible thing for the Academy to deny nominations to both this series and Turn. Both are amazing and both illicit feelings for both sides. Still, this one is creatively different. It's not just story but carefully and stunningly visual. It is so well thought out that I can think of no other like it.

If you've not seen the series but have read this with its spoilers anyway, I highly recommend you watch it. It is a special piece of art that few in both film and television can ever achieve. What do you think? What stood out for you? I'd love to hear your thoughts.


You may also be interested in another article of mine called "The Man in the High Castle - Where New Berlin REALLY is". There are no spoilers there.

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