A Note on The Man in the High Castle, Season 01

By: Masood Sabet

“The trouble with Eichmann was that so many were like him, and they were neither perverted nor sadistic. [The trouble was] that they were terribly and terrifyingly normal.”[1]

I remember a video game I used to play years ago, called Brothers in Arms. It was set during WWII, but this one came with a twist; after you’d finished the campaign, you’d be allowed to play it another round, but this time as a Nazi soldier. For many players, it’s a thrill to play as the villain. However, the further you go, the more you realize that a soldier is just a soldier, regardless of the side they’re fighting for. You’re a mere cog in an enormous and complex machine. As the player, you get a choice: play and obey the rules of the game or resign. For a real soldier however, resignation is on a long list of luxuries they could never afford. The only way to resign is not to exist, recede into oblivion, succumb to non-existence, or as normal people call it: death, which sometimes beats the atrocities they go through on a daily basis. Could the “cog argument” be invoked to justify evil on earth? The very asking of this question puts us face to face with a horrendous prospect; like any other abstract idea, good and evil keep proving to be transient notions. Especially now in the post-truth era, man’s logic feels paralyzed all the more in the face of this insurmountable dilemma. All the parties involved in any conflict claim to be on the side the good. Only the victor will pronounce the judgement. An unapologetic presentation of this relativity of evil is the centrepiece of The Man in the High Castle.

Obergruppenfurer’s home is not the stereotypical frozen castle of a Nazi high commander. On the contrary, his love for his family makes him not only relatable, but even likable!

Dehumanization of the oppressed is a classic tactic in the totalitarian playbook, and manipulation of language an effective tool in shaping the common perception of targeted peoples or minorities. “Sub-human” is the term the Nazis use to refer to those they consider to be of an inferior race and therefore less of humans. As a natural consequence, the enslavement of an entire continent would be justified in this alternate history. In this presumed reality, a Black man could never be a good man, simply because he doesn’t have the mental assets that could provide him with the possibility of being good. In a tyrannical regime, the most powerful weapon in the hands of the dictator is language. A monopoly of meaning and interpretation of all subjective ideas is the cornerstone of any dictatorship. The thinkers and authors who present different notions are prosecuted and punished. Words mean what the tyrant wants them to mean. The extermination of the disabled is not called for what it really is, but “not allowing them to suffer”!

Evil for the mankind is the ultimate anathema. The “virtue” of any human society demands the alienation of “evil-doers”. When Satan broke the law of God, he was not forced to do community service or sent to prison. He was banished, for he was presented as the manifestation of all evil. One could say God sacrificed him as a scapegoat to redeem Himself from the guilt of creating him! On a human level, it’s called projection. When someone does something abhorrent, we attribute it to their being evil or possessed by it. This prevents us from seeing the perpetrators in all their normality as a human being. It’s a collective psychological projection that we’ve long been using as a defense mechanism against the qualities engraved in our psyche that we don’t approve of.

Inspector Kido is introduced simultaneously as a merciless killer and a man of honour. He embodies the spirit of a real samurai.

Portraying the villains as normal individuals is one of the greatest achievements of the series so far. Two main characters, one in New York and the other in San Francisco contribute the most to this aspect of the series’ theme. Inspector Kido on the west coast is the head of the Kempeitai, the Japanese secret police force. He is introduced simultaneously as a merciless killer and a man of honour. He embodies the spirit of a real samurai. “When one is serving officially or in the master’s court, he should not think of a hundred or a thousand people but should consider only the importance of the master.”[2] After Kido has had Frank’s sister and her two children killed in a gas chamber, a subtle display of remorse could be detected in his complexion. However, he would never let his human emotions interfere with his duties as a samurai. All is justified for the sake of the greater good, the master, the emperor of Japan. He wouldn’t even hesitate to sacrifice his own life, as this is the supreme purpose of the life a samurai, to be killed for his master. On the other side, we have Obergruppenführer. But one shouldn’t be fooled by this grand title. His name is John Smith, a symbolic name for an ordinary man. He’s a brutal killer, and at the same time an affectionate family man. His home is not the stereotypical frozen castle of a Nazi high commander. On the contrary, his love for his family makes him not only relatable, but even likable! Villainizing the oppressor and dehumanizing the oppressed seem to be the two sides of one coin, working in tandem to perpetuate tyranny, discrimination and violence, and the consequent atrocities they inflict upon humanity.

The creation of Rudolph Wegener and the symbolism of his venture are highly commendable. Imagine standing face to face with the perceived epitome of evil: Adolf Hitler, with a gun in your hand, pointing to his head, knowing and remembering all the evil that he has unleashed in the world. This image has been numerously fantasized in pictures and literature since the fall of the third Reich. What we expect from the scene that follows is a satisfying blast that puts a large hole in the führer’s head. But The Man in the High Castle shatters our hope by letting the tyrant live. The hero puts the gun under his own chin and kills himself instead. The actions of Rudolph Wegener and inspector Kido could both be justified by the argument of the greater good. What makes them different is the definition. Kido’s greater good is materialized in one individual, his master, the emperor of Japan. Kido’s greatest virtue is that of a pre-modern times: a complete obedience for which there’s no logic argument, except invoking the time-honored precedence and tradition, the sacrifices of thousands of samurais for their masters, all of which highly revered in the public eye.

Rudolph Wegener and his venture represent a modern perception of justice.

On the other hand, Wegener’s sacrifice is of a modern one. A look into the pre-modern and modern definitions of justice could shed more light on this distinction. In a tyranny, the command of the supreme leader is the law. Any violation of this law is invariably and severely punished. But when it comes to the interaction of ordinary people, justice is defined as revenge, an eye for an eye. If you’ve killed a man, you shall be killed. As democracy gained more momentum, especially in the West, it also transformed the definition of justice. The judiciary system is not there to exact revenge on behalf of the victim, but to uphold the law, derived from the collective virtue, not the whims and delusions of one person. In this modern outlook, the killing of a murderer might appease the relatives of the victim and soothe their suffering, but in the long run, it jeopardizes the integrity of a society in its entirety by sanctifying vengeance and violence. While killing Hitler would serve justice in its pre-modern conception, letting him live is presented as the ultimate sacrifice by sparing the world from more suffering and pain.

The Man in the High Castle kicks off with a misleading promise of a time-travel sci-fi fantasy. Although the series finishes the first season off with the bare minimum delivery on that promise, it still feels like a satisfying experience. For the prime objective of the series is to take a deep dive into the texture of a totalitarian system and the complexity of the conception of evil. The ingenious juxtaposition of the players in the plot creates numerous intricate moral situations and makes it impossible to make an objective judgement on the actions of the main characters. The Man in the High Castle makes use of the story of “the films” from other realities as a vessel for an examination of human psyche and how it’s manipulated by suppressing regimes to perpetuate tyranny in the world. This examination is only one of the first legs of an endless journey that will take an eternity to complete.

[1] Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem, A Report on the Banality of Evil (Penguin, 2006) P.276

[2] A quote from Hojo Shigetoki, a Japanese samurai of the Kamakura period, whose writings influenced later samurai philosophy.

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