THE THREAT OF FAS­CISM

Don­ald Trump’s rise made ‘Man in the High Cas­tle’ seem a pre­scient vi­sion, writes

Sunday Times - - Review - Ty­mon Smith

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.

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