November 7, 2018

Exploring Parallel Worlds in Midtown Manhattan and “The Man In the High Castle”

By Stuart Mitchner

After three seasons of Amazon Prime’s The Man In the High Castle, I have parallel worlds on the brain. Walking in the city last week, I was acutely aware of the dual realities of the Manhattan of memory and Manhattan 2018. While most people in the midtown crowds were seeing what was there, I was seeing what was no longer there.

Adapted from Philip K. Dick’s novel of the same name, this extraordinary series encourages a distrust of accepted knowledge, such as the one-time assumption that someone like Donald Trump could never be elected president. The action begins in 1962, 17 years after Germany and Japan won the war. New York City is the capital of the American Reich, Japan rules the Pacific States, and the hallowed wartime image of the sailor kissing the nurse in Times Square on VJ Day exists only as one of a series of scenes from a subversive film containing documentary evidence that the Allies actually defeated the Axis Powers. The Most Wanted Man in occupied America is the mysterious personage in the “high castle” who put the apparent newsreel together and released it into the hands of the Resistance.

Nazi Symbols in the Subway

In fall 2015 a publicity campaign heralding the first season of The Man In the High Castle blanketed a car on the S train shuttling between Grand Central and Times Square. Along with posters advertising the series, the seats on either side of the aisle were covered with Axis imagery, on one side a travesty of the American flag with the Nazi cross displacing the stars, while the seats opposite displayed a similar violation of the Stars and Stripes by Imperial Japan’s Rising Sun. The ads remained until complaints from passengers led Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio to call on Amazon to pull them, the mayor declaring the campaign  “irresponsible and offensive to World War II and Holocaust survivors, their families, and countless other New Yorkers.” 

A year later, in the aftermath of the never-gonna-happen 2016 election, Amazon publicized the second season with a block-long poster on Times Square that shows the Statue of Liberty performing the Heil Hitler salute over a silhouette of the Manhattan skyline.

The Other Times Square

I had a parallel-worlds moment on my recent visit to the city when a Japanese tourist standing with his back to Times Square asked me how to get to Times Square. There it was right behind him big as life. Yet it was and it wasn’t. The 2018 version he was looking for was not the moviehouse heaven of penny arcade America I bonded with as a teenager from Indiana staring wide-eyed at Hollywood romanticism writ large on gigantic floodlit movie billboards. Here was this earnest but disoriented middle-aged gentleman looking as if he’d just landed on 42nd Street through a crack between worlds, fresh from Imperial San Francisco, an alien in the enemy territory of the American Reich. I pointed over his shoulder, “There it is.” He turned around and nodded, “Ah,” not all that impressed, and I couldn’t help saying, “But that’s not it, that’s not the real Times Square.” I started to ask “Any chance you’ve seen this series, The Man in –” but he was giving me worried looks, taking his leave with a hurried bow as he plunged into the digital phantasmagoria of what used to be called The Great White Way.

My Times Square alternate reality is epitomized by the photograph of James Dean striding along on pavement gleaming darkly fresh with rain near the spot where the sailor kissed the nurse. The young actor bound for fame and death is hatless, hands jammed in his overcoat pockets, cigarette in his mouth, eyes cast up and to the side in the general direction of the smoke rings that would have been drifting from the giant Camel’s cigarette ad in 1955. He’s walking toward 42nd Street and the old New York Times building at One Times Square, which in The Man in the High Castle’s vision of Nazi New York is draped in an immense red banner emblazoned with the sacred swastika.

The Ridley Scott Connection

Amazon Prime is about to film the fourth season of a series that HBO must be wishing was theirs. For a start,  it’s difficult to imagine HBO or any other cable network passing up a project with Ridley Scott’s name on it. This is, after all, the special effects master who made Blade Runner (1982), from Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? In an interview on, Scott recounts the time he screened scenes from Blade Runner for Dick, who “was kind of stunned,” asking Scott if he’d read The Man in the High Castle. When Scott confessed that he hadn’t, Dick said, “‘Good lord, this seems to be very derived from High Castle.’” So Scott read the novel and decided that making a series from it would be “a really challenging thing to do.” What attracted the British native was “precisely the notion of ‘What if they had won and we’d lost?’ And so you suddenly had Piccadilly Circus full of German SS officers walking arm-in-arm with the local girls.”

According to an interview with the original showrunner Frank Spotnitz, formerly of The X-Files, the BBC and other networks were afraid to take the series on not only because the material was “dangerous,” but because mounting such a show would be “massively expensive.” Amazon had the money to fund it and counted on the fact that so controversial a show would “stand out in a very crowded marketplace.”

A Nazi Don Draper

The Spotnitz article on cnet features an image of Rufus Sewell as John Smith walking forth from a conflagration wrapped in black leather, with a caption describing him as “a ruthless Nazi villain.” While Smith is ruthless when he has to be, he’s no more your stereotypical Nazi villain than Jon Hamm’s ad-spinning genius is in Mad Men. In fact, Sewell’s Obergruppenführer of the American Reich has developed into as attractively compelling and mysterious a presence as Hamm’s Don Draper. A former U.S. Army intelligence officer who became a member of the SS and has risen to the leadership of the Nazi high command in America by season 2, he has all the brutal attributes, ordering and overseeing the deaths of enemies including some within the party, one of whom he kills with his bare hands when the life of his “diseased” son is at risk due to Nazi purity standards. While his devotion to his family seems at first to be his only redeeming quality, he commands every scene with quiet authority suggestive of inner depths and by the third season he’s aware that the reality he’s living in is not the only one.

Asked by an interviewer at the 2018 Comic Con convention his reaction to reviewers who find the series strikingly relevant to the worldwide rise of authoritarian rulers, Sewell says that he prefers not to think of a show set in a parallel universe as topical: “It’s about how people manage to live their lives by becoming their own heroes and constructing a narrative for themselves so that they don’t even have to lie — it’s just a new truth.”  Several times he refers to the situation as “hitching his wagon to a monster” that will destroy his family unless he acquires more and more power.

Imperial San Francisco

You won’t find the character John Smith in Philip K. Dick’s novel, which takes place almost entirely in Japanese-occupied San Francisco and Neutral Zone locales in Colorado and Wyoming. Presumably the New York plotline has been created and developed by Spotnitz, Eric Overmyer, and a team of writers. The weird no-man’s-land of the Neutral Zone is amusingly evocative of westerns, with a sinister marshal and lots of action, most of it involving the closest thing to a romantic couple in the series, Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank), an agent of the Reich whose father is a high ranking member of the SS, and Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos), a beautiful warrior with lethal Judo skills who joins the Resistance in place of her murdered half-sister Trudy (Conor Leslie). A typical High Castle wrinkle is that Trudy reappears alive and well in season 2.

John Smith’s west coast counterpart is Trade Minister Tagomi, played by Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa in a performance as subtle and sympathetic as it is magnetic. Tagomi shares the other-reality awareness and is a dedicated user of the
I Ching. Besides watching television newsreel scenes of an apparently victorious America, he lands between worlds at the end of the first season, finding himself on a bench in San Francisco’s bustling Union Square in October 1962 with newspaper headlines about the Cuban missile crisis in view.

A key character in both the novel and the series is Robert Childan (Brennan Brown), a San Francisco antique dealer who specializes in Americana and provides the series with one its quirkiest characters. Asked on about “playing nervous,” Brown refers to bringing humor to the show “without ever winking at the audience.” What’s important to him is that when something is humorous, it’s “uncomfortably so, and organically funny.”

A New York Type

If you’ve ever dealt with collectors and dealers in New York, whether they trade in books, antiques, or vinyl, you’ll appreciate how skillfully Brown’s Robert Childan portrays the type whose vocation is based on understanding the premise of parallel worlds. He’s someone who values the past, both in mercenary and aesthetic terms. He sees through eras, seasons, periods, fashions, and iconic locales like Times Square to what once was and what may be again in the hands of magicians like those who created The Man in the High Castle.