THE THREAT OF FASCISM
Donald Trump’s rise made ‘Man in the High Castle’ seem a prescient vision, writes
In 2015 when Frank Spotnitz’s Amazon series The Man in the High Castle, a loose adaptation of sci-fi pioneer Philip K Dick’s 1962 novel first appeared on Amazon Prime, it seemed a wellput-together addition to Dick adaptations. With its vision of an alternative history in which the Allies have lost the world and the US is divided into three zones of control — the Greater Nazi Reich in the East, the Japanese Pacific States to the west and a neutral zone running in between along the Rocky Mountains — the show offered a critique of fascism and its threats to democracy, evoked through suitably grey dystopian cinematography and production design.
It boasted a strong cast and compelling storylines that combined solid dramatic and thriller elements, the ghastly vision of a Hitler who had not died and a chilling rendition of Edelweiss for its theme song.
By the time the second season of the show premiered in December 2016, Spotnitz had departed, Donald Trump had stunned the world with his presidential victory and for many fans Man in the High Castle seemed less a general indictment of fascism than a prescient vision of an all too horribly possible future America. The showrunners, however, seemed to avoid becoming peak television’s harbingers of doom and stuffed the second season with increasingly complex plots involving more traditional sci-fi elements such as parallel universes, leaving Dick’s original material further and further behind.
The result received mixed responses from critics but satisfied sci-fi buffs and fans enough to see it return for a third season and have Amazon announce that a fourth season is in the works.
For British actor Rufus Sewell, who plays Obergruppenführer John Smith, a man ambitiously working his way through the ranks of the Reich while trying to keep his family together, things have come a long way since he was first approached to participate.
Speaking by phone from New York Comic Con, Sewell remembers that when he first read the pilot episode he was “actually in two minds about it because for a start when I realised the character had been added and wasn’t in the book I was worried that he was going to be a one-dimensional figure of evil put there for balance by the executives”. After reading the second episode, however, and speaking to Spotnitz, Sewell realised Smith’s character “represented a kind of everyman gone wrong” and episode two had enough of that for him to believe that was the case.
“So I was attracted to the idea of, through the external story, a bad guy being able to tell a much more complex story.” It’s the “opportunity to explore that ever deeper and go in some really surprising directions” that Sewell says has kept his work on the show interesting for him as an actor.
Fellow lead Alexa Davalos, whose character Juliana Crain is a thorn in Smith’s side and represents the story’s best hope for a brighter future as she becomes increasingly involved with the underground resistance to the Nazis, was more easily convinced to star from the outset.
She had read Dick’s novel years before and so she was interested “immediately ... just based on Philip K Dick and his work in this particular piece. And obviously the character; I fell in love with her straight away, and she’s someone who’s kept me fascinated because [the showrunners] keep shifting and broadening the horizon and changing the perspective.”
Davalos believes that the while show’s central concern with the dangers of totalitarianism has been given new impetus by current events, fascism is “something that unfortunately has been with us since time immemorial”.
She says: “It’s not something new that’s just been discovered now and of course it existed when [Dick] wrote the novel so I think it’s very, very timely.”
Sewell and Davalos are both involved with the writing of their character’s storylines. Sewell says: “In terms of the effects of real-world events on the storyline, the only cases I’m aware of where it’s [been] mirrored have been unintended and they’ve ended up having to take out [elements] of the storyline because they think it’s too on the nose. We don’t want to feel like we’re aiming for some kind of relevance. Someone asked me, ‘What do you think the message of this is?’ and I’m not in the business of telling people what the messages are.”
The first five episodes of the new season certainly seem to emphasise the dramatic tensions working on the characters and for Sewell, Smith’s journey in this season is characterised by the irony of the fact that while he and his family are ascending the heights of society and career and reputation, “the opposite journey is happening internally and that’s been a very interesting thing to chart because as things get better externally they get more twisted and damaged internally”.
Davalos, meanwhile, gets to have fun this season thanks to her character’s involvement with the multiverse and so Juliana has “visions of alternative versions of herself in other realities and that’s been my most favourite aspect because there’s just endless opportunities and complications that’s been extreme fun”.
Season 3 of The Man in the High Castle is currently available to stream on Amazon Prime Video
Above, Rufus Sewell as John Smith and, below, Alexa Davalos as Juliana Crain.