The Man in the High Castle is a show about alternate realities. Its second season is arriving on Amazon at a time when many Americans feel like they might be living in one.
The show’s premise—what if the Allies lost World War II?—is only slightly more unnerving than our current reality: What if Donald Trump was elected president of the United States? But here we are. And here are the main characters of The Man in the High Castle, based on Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel of the same name, struggling under the Greater Nazi Reich on the East Coast and the Japanese Pacific States on the West.
The renewed relevance of this under-the-radar streaming series is top of mind for the show’s producers and cast, who assembled together in Los Angeles just a few weeks after Trump’s unexpected electoral success. Collectively, they are grappling with the question of whether Americans will want to watch a show about Nazis ruling over the United States at a time when swastikas are popping up on storefronts and school buildings across the country.
“Obviously those types of developments are enormously unsettling,” executive producer David Zucker tells The Daily Beast. “People today are encountering some of that first-hand and that’s disturbing and I think in that respect the series at its very least is a cautionary tale in terms of the dangers of fascism. The whole notion of the series is really to try and understand what that reality might actually look like here.”
Just after the first season had its premiere last fall, creator Frank Spotnitz, who has since departed as showrunner, told The Daily Beast that he felt the time was finally right for a show that centers on “fear” of the government. “I do think for whatever reason right now, this seems to strike a chord,” he said, not realizing that he would be predicting the future of America so accurately.
Last season, the show’s provocative marketing campaign put the swastika front and center, but this time it’s faded into the background, with the focus put on the show’s major characters. This was a deliberate choice, the producers say. “The first season was utilizing the transformation of the Statue of Liberty,” Zucker explains. “The campaign this year is to bring each of our characters to the forefront to see how that experience manifests within the realm of this world.”
The show and Amazon itself came under fire a year ago when ads that prominently featured Nazi iconography started popping up around New York City and elsewhere. Most shocking for the public was a takeover of the 42nd Street shuttle line, with images of the Nazi Reichsadler lining one side of the car and the Japanese Imperial flag on the other. Defending the ads as “commercial speech,” an MTA spokesperson told The Daily Beast at the time, “They are not advocating a Nazi takeover of the United States, which would be political.”
“Hopefully people understand that this is very much an anti-fascist tale, novel, and show,” another executive producer, Isa Hackett, adds a year later. “So the use of that type of iconography is in service of that—not promoting, as these other groups are, values that are completely inconsistent with the values that we all hold and share and hope to bolster through the show.”
Noting that the season’s episodes and marketing materials were all created before the election, Hackett asks, “Who would have imagined that the election would go this way and that there would be this uprising?”
The new season opens with a disorienting scene in which the son of Rufus Sewell’s American Nazi leader enters his classroom in full Hitler Youth attire and leads the students in the morning pledge. With hands over their hearts, they do not pledge allegiance to the United States flag, but instead pledge “absolute allegiance until death to the leader of the Nazi empire, Adolf Hitler.”
This season also takes the idea of Japanese internment camps and reverses it by showing how that side of history might have played out if America lost the war. It’s another aspect of the new season that has taken on added resonance after a Trump surrogate used the precedent of those camps to justify the idea of a Muslim registry today.
“It didn’t work then, so why would it work now?” Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, the Japanese-American actor who plays Trade Minister Nobusuke Tagomi, asks pointedly when presented with that scenario. “It’s a bad example.”
Another major addition to the show this year comes in the revelation of the title character, who was frequently whispered about in the first season but does not appear until the first episode of the second. Taking on the role of the Man in the High Castle is veteran character actor Stephen Root, who has been tasked with bringing to life a character who, before now, only existed in the imaginations of the other people in the show and those watching at home.
“It was challenging to not have him in the first season, because he was such an important character and there was so much mystery surrounding him,” says Hackett. “And so it was really exciting to get this opportunity to finally meet him.”
Root, who gave the producers an “embarrassment of riches” in the editing room according to Hackett, says he was a “big fan” of the show, and the sci-fi genre in general, before he was cast. He never imagined that he would one day become the title character while he was watching Season 1, and certainly never anticipated the renewed relevance.
“You haven’t seen swastikas in Brooklyn for a long time, so it’s really a timely situation,” he says. “For some people, this is a great, new America, and for some people it isn’t.” And that’s the same with the world of the show.
Alexa Davalos, who plays the show’s primary heroine Juliana Crane, says she hopes The Man in the High Castle will make the idea of fascism “less abstract” for viewers. “Those in the world now who are terrified of what could happen and what will happen,” she adds, trailing off as she thinks about the scary possibilities. “It’s a tricky time in history!”
“Maybe it will make people reflect on what they really think,” Rupert Evans, who portrays her secretly half-Jewish boyfriend Frank Frink on the show, jumps in. “Make them think a little bit more about what they believe and what they hold dear, what freedoms and what views they have, what they mean to them. Perhaps this show might take on a bigger relevance because of what’s happened.”
Brennan Brown, who plays the subservient shop owner Robert Childan, agrees. “I think we’re all anxious to see how people react to it given what’s happening in our country right now,” he says. “The fact that it has more resonance now is, for us as artists, upsetting obviously, but I think that hopefully the show can speak to people and be a comfort, or at least a point of discussion where it opens up dialogue for people watching it.”
Brown’s character is the best representation of a jarring role reversal that permeates The Man in the High Castle. Throughout the first season and now in the second, the show places white male characters in a deferential position to their Japanese counterparts.
“He’s the typical white male patriarchy turned on its head,” Brown says of his character. “As an actor, it’s really fun to play, just to turn people’s assumptions of what a white male is supposed to be doing. And hopefully that dissonance creates a reverberation and dramatic response.”
That type of role reversal may give viewers “empathy toward people that they would never have compassion for,” as Joel de la Fuente, who plays Inspector Kido on the show, puts it. For instance, when Brown’s character is forced to enter a Japanese businessman’s home through a separate servant’s entrance, viewers might think, “That’s awful!”
“But that’s a white male!” Brown imagines people thinking, before catching themselves in their own unconscious prejudices. “It’s an incredibly effective way to say truths through a lie, which is what art is. By showing you the world, but in a crazy, reverse way, the show is able to say incredibly multi-layered things about racism and imperialism and colonialism and the taking away of human rights and class structures and all of that. But you’re seeing it in a reverse mirror where everything takes on more significance.”
Alexa Davalos puts it more succinctly: “America isn’t used to the idea of losing.”
At a time when the president-elect is promising “so much winning you’ll be sick of winning,” The Man in the High Castle’s alternate history has somehow become the reality check we need.