Amazon Studios is heavily invested in the success of their original television series The Man in the High Castle. Reportedly, the second season cost upwards of $107 million to produce, or about $11 million per episode.And they’re not finished yet; the third season is set to release in early October, with a fourth season already in pre-production. It is far from clear whether or not Amazon’s gamble will pay off in terms of soliciting new subscribers for their streaming service, but the studio’s choice of this program as one to boost makes sense, both because of its rich source material (adapted from a novel of the same name written by legendary science fiction author Philip K. Dick) and because it taps into the anxieties and concerns of our highly charged political moment. Judging from comments Isa Hackett — Dick’s daughter and a producer on the show — made at this year’s Comic-Con,the forthcoming seasons will focus even more intently on the resonances between the characters’ situations and what’s currently transpiring in American government and culture.
For viewers’ sake, however, and for the integrity of the show, it would be regrettable if the series veers too far into political territory at the expense of the philosophical possibilities embedded in the tale itself. To view the story through a staunchly sectarian or provincially partisan lens would, in truth, drain it of its real power to illuminate transcendent truths that undergird and give meaning to the particularities of our present moment. In fact, doing so would be antithetical to the show’s central moral concerns, especially how good can flourish in a world overrun by evil. Limiting the source or manifestation of evil merely to one political ideology would undercut the answers the show provides — or at least inchoately intimates.
THE IMAGINATIVE POSSIBILITIES OF ALTERNATE HISTORY
The Man in the High Castle presents an alternate history, set in 1962, in which the Axis Powers defeated the Allies and won World War II. The United States has been partitioned up, with the Japanese Pacific States taking over the West, the Greater Nazi Reich in the East, and a no-man’s land neutral zone separating the two. This intriguing premise makes possible for readers and viewers to experience what Darko Suvin calls “cognitive estrangement,” which for him is the defining feature of science fiction texts.By introducing a “novum,” or “device or machine that is absolutely new,” science fiction opens up fresh ways of imagining our world.For Dick in particular, such cognitive estrangement — the audience’s immersion in a highly believable world that differs so dramatically from its own — makes possible penetrating insights into the nature of human existence and the moral challenges we all face. In this way, the story navigates the continuum between the philosophical and the practical, culturally embedding in American guise the central issues at the heart of the human condition.
In the case of The Man in the High Castle, the change in global fortunes owes to Nazi technological superiority. It is they who have better weapons; it is they, in fact, who have developed and used the nuclear bomb, which in topsy-turvy fashion dealt the final blow to the Allied forces. Axis technological and military dominance brought their cultural dominance as well, with the Nazi program of ethnic cleansing, totalitarianism, and the cult of Hitler gaining a stranglehold on the East, and Japanese models of ancestor worship, systematized and enforced self-sacrifice, and twisted devotion to the emperor reigning supreme in the West. Such a situation is pregnant with speculative possibility, especially ones centered on moral concerns. American superiority, with its commitments to human dignity and freedom — at least in principle — enshrined in its founding documents, has been dethroned, and an ethos of power, where might makes right, is now the operative law of the land.
This leaves viewers — and characters — with existentially pressing questions: what is it that makes an action right or wrong? What imbues value, what is the measure by which we can judge a person’s motivations, what makes it possible to deem a social structure as good or evil? Is there something — or someone — beyond the historical and material conditions in which we find ourselves that underwrites such truths? The Man in the High Castle, while not fleshing out a fully formed ethical system, does at least reject any sort of relativism that would tie these transcendent categories to fleeting and fickle human activity.
A WEB OF CHARACTERS
To explore these questions, the show traces the distinct but overlapping stories of five central characters, all implicated within the machinations of Japanese and Nazi rule and faced with hellish situations to navigate with both their lives and souls intact: Juliana Crain, her boyfriend Frank Frink, both of whom are attempting — unsuccessfully — to live quiet lives in San Francisco; Joe Blake, a conflicted undercover Nazi agent; John Smith, an American Army officer–turned–Nazi leader; and Nobusuke Tagomi, Trade Minister of the Pacific States. These characters assume a variety of postures toward the Nazi and Japanese regimes; some of these responses are more problematic than others, but all are laden and fraught with moral implications. The audience is invited to judge the characters’ behavior — sometimes sympathetically (as with Frank Frink who is trapped between saving his sister and saving his girlfriend), other times admirably (such as when Juliana risks her life to save Joe’s), and often harshly (which is the case with most of John Smith’s actions). The characters do not have the luxury of theorizing about or washing their hands of ethical obligations. They must act, and in so doing, they reveal their core beliefs.
Although the show is sweeping in its scope — portraying large-scale systemic immorality and its destructive consequences — its ultimate focus is individual choice, never absolving altogether any character or excusing his or her corrupt actions due to societal pressure, no matter how crushing that pressure is. The show celebrates the beauty and goodness of those who would endure that pressure and manage to resist the pervasive temptations of fear or power or despair that would break the will of many. Especially through the character of Juliana, The Man in the High Castlechampions what Robert Adams calls moral faith,the lived-out conviction that human life is worth living, that the moral life is rational and practicable, and that morality is valuable in itself.
In a delightful twist that exemplifies the imaginative power of Dick’s work and points with poignancy to the story’s themes, there is another layer to this alternate history, an alternate alternate history, if you will. The Resistance, as the underground rebellion is known, smuggles realistic-looking newsreel footage of a reality closer to our own — wherein the Allied Powers prevailed over Germany and Japan. These films, going by the title The Grasshopper Lies Heavy(an allusion to Ecclesiastes 12:5) and produced by the mysterious Man in the High Castle (Hawthorne Abendsen), offer hope that the world need not be what it currently is, that another reality — a better reality — is possible. The television adaptation, contra the novel, hints that these scenes are more than mere possibilities; instead, they offer a glimpse into an alternate universe — something the third season will explore further. But viewers need not subscribe to a multiverse hypothesis to appreciate the role these films play in expanding the characters’ moral imaginations and in bolstering their resolve to effect justice, battle evil, retain hope, and enact love where they can.
JULIANA AS EXEMPLAR OF MORAL FAITH
Seasons 1 and 2 have so far traced the positive effect the films have had on Juliana, who is far from a committed member of the Resistance. However, very early on, when her sister Trudy entrusts the film to her before being killed for possessing it, Juliana is resolved to carry out the charge with which she’s been entrusted. For the Resistance, these films may be the way out of oppression, as Trudy calls them, but for Juliana, they provide a way through the challenges she faces, a means — and a justification — to endure, to retain her moral convictions and to live them out against the odds. They provide a touchstone for the moral faith she needs to honor her sister and to jeopardize her own safety to protect others such as John Smith’s son Thomas. While we see others fail to practice such moral faith, Juliana seems always able to find, even in the most loathsome characters, what Adams describes as “sufficient value in the lives of such finite, needy, suffering, ignorant, motivationally complex, and even guilty creatures as we are.”She never surrenders to the Nazi view that pits strong against weak or embraces the Japanese apotheosis of duty above human dignity.
Such a commitment costs her dearly, but that is precisely what moral faith demands, as Adams explains: “What we must resist most strongly here is an ultracompetitive view of the pursuit of human good as a sort of zero-sum game, in which every good that anyone enjoys must be taken away from someone else.”Juliana’s commitment to love and justice shines all the brighter in the darkness of this dystopian world. For this reason, she is, as Abendsen tells her in the final episode of season 2, “the only hope any of [them] had.” She can offer this hope because of her constancy, appearing again and again in all the films depicting life in the alternate worlds but always behaving the same, always betting “on the best in us.” Abendsen says that in these films he witnessed her “bet[ting] on people no matter what the world said about who they were, who they should be.” In a line that comes close to Adams’s description of moral faith, Abendsen explains that she acted out of a moral conviction: “That woman would do anything to save a sick boy — a Nazi boy, even — because she would believe he deserved the chance, as slim as it might be, to live a valuable life.” Importantly, the faithfulness Juliana demonstrates is not dependent on contingent historical realities but on something that goes beyond those particularities.
In an early episode from season 1, a Nazi agent mulls over the question of what’s beyond our world; the answer he returns is unsatisfactory, dependent on which governing power has the standing to enforce their view. Juliana’s behavior puts the lie to such a system that would bow to political expediency or military might, surrendering one’s moral code to the whim of human authority. The films reveal how fleeting and feckless that superficial authority can be, despite transitory appearances. Good and evil, right and wrong, robustly construed and seriously reckoned with, cannot find their origin in flimsy and ephemeral material circumstances or the finite and fallible human beings that inhabit them. The Man in the High Castle, although it doesn’t offer specifics, provides powerful testimony that there must be something more. And that is certainly a substantive starting point that steadfast believers in a good God can work with.
Marybeth Baggett is professor of English at Liberty University and serves as associate editor for MoralApologetics.com and Christ and Pop Culture. She holds a PhD in Literature and Criticism from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and — along with her husband — recently has published The Morals of the Story: Good News about a Good God(IVP Academic, 2018).
Variety, March 15, 2018.
The Wrap, July 21, 2018.
Darko Suvin, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre(Yale University Press, 1979).
Suvin, Metamorphoses, 10.
Robert Adams, “Moral Faith,” The Journal of Philosophy92, no. 2.
Adams, “Moral Faith,” 81.
Adams, “Moral Faith,” 81.
Take a deep dive into the crucial questions on the minds of millions of Americans about the COVID-19 pandemic.