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Real unreality

(Liane Hentscher/Amazon)

Television

Real unreality

Some critics may be looking too closely at The Man in the High Castle

The Man in the High Castle’s opening show in 2015 was Amazon’s most-watched ever. Viewers and critics relished the premise—an alternative reality where Germany and Japan won World War II—but after 10 episodes of Season 4, it’s now over. All 40 episodes are available for streaming via Amazon Prime.

Streaming services have expanded exponentially since High Castle first debuted, back when Amazon’s biggest (and nearly only serious) rival was Netflix. With Apple TV, Disney Plus, CBS All Access, and many other newcomers arriving on the scene, High Castle is far from the only resistance fiction game in town. As it aged, it struggled to hold on to viewers, leading Amazon finally to cancel it for fresher fare. 

Still, it maintained a core audience. And it proved viewers had an appetite for other serious sci-fi/alternate history mashups, setting the stage for series like Starz’s Counterpart, Netflix’s Travelers, and HBO’s Watchmen.

At a time of debate about fake news and fake history, High Castle’s perplexing plots offered a provocative set of “what ifs.” In Season 4, patriots and “Black Communist Resistance” heroes fought Nazis east of the Rockies and Japanese occupiers in California. This season built on earlier ones in which American rebels somehow obtained films of Allied victories in other worlds. In this world, Nazis dropped bombs, characters on all sides dropped F-bombs, and viewers could watch assassinations and decapitations.

As the series developed, its multi-verse angle intensified: Multiple simultaneous realities purportedly exist, and human beings have no essential character, so environment determines all. In one world a major character, John Smith—the name signaled his representative Everyman role—is an insurance agent and a compassionate guy. In another world he’s a Nazi fiend.

Some critics connected the show’s anti-Nazi forces to Antifa forces today and applauded a “Black Communist” who disparages the U.S. flag and says, “All those white Americans are Nazis now.” The Hollywood Reporter proclaimed that with “Trump-era relevancy, Amazon’s most popular original series is now must-see TV. … In every frame, it’s impossible not to feel the connections to the state of the world. … The show is so good now because it’s so real now.”

Real? In Season 4, Nazi agents, using quantum mechanics, travel through a portal of bright light to kill scientists in the reality where the Allies won. They also steal technology and military secrets. Fear permeates each world. A mad scientist with a German accent states the goal: to “defeat all worlds of the multi-verse.” Ethereal travelers from some alternate world walk through a tunnel into ours. 

So real, or surreal?

—Shayla Ashmore and Mark Closson are grad­uates of the World Journalism Institute mid-­career course