In this era of a global pandemic, extreme political division, and nationalist movements veering toward totalitarianism, few television dramas resonate more powerfully than “The Man in the High Castle,” based on the Phillip K. Dick novel of the same name.
The series envisions a world where Germany and Japan won WWII. Juliana Crain is living in San Francisco, leading as normal a life as can be had in such times. But then she witnesses the murder of her sister, who is working with the underground resistance movement. She soon learns of a mysterious figure known as the Man in the High Castle, and the existence of film reels that somehow promise to change everything.
The films guarded by the Man in the High Castle reveal a parallel realm where the Allies prevailed in the War, resulting in the world that we know and take for granted. The reels do not just propose a fictional possibility; they depict a vivid alternative reality. Recognizing their power, the ruling Axis forces seek to destroy the films, and will stop at nothing to prevent people from viewing them.
Juliana ultimately meets the Man in the High Castle, Hawthorne Abendsen, and discovers that she is the lynchpin of this parallel world. She mysteriously appears in every single reel of film — the focal point of all that can be.
The films guarded by Abendsen serve as a metaphor for the inspirational power of myth and story. From ancient tales told around flickering campfires, to epics of the silver screen, we long as a species for heroic stories of impossible odds, and then ultimate transformation. Whether it is the inspirational words of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, or the unifying image of the Whole Earth when viewed from space, we are incredibly responsive as a species to such myths, narratives, and visions.
Quantum physics defines behavior at the particle level where a simple observational measurement can collapse two quantum possibilities down into a single reality. Similarly, in “The Man in the High Castle,” the act of viewing the films can, for that viewer, help to manifest the depicted scenes into being. And for that reason, those in power will stop at nothing to prevent such viewings. The films act as the ultimate Meta vehicle — presenting both a world that is at some level, while inspiring a world that can be.
In these pandemic times of bitter partisanship, it is vital to hold a vision of other worlds and other possibilities. As Gandhi once noted — “When I despair, I remember that all through history the ways of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall. Think of it — always.”
But it is also important to remember that the responsibility for such an imagined future lies in each of our hands. As cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead once declared — “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Storytellers help to illuminate and make sense of our world, and in the process can inspire us to greater heights and more noble possibilities. In “The Man in the High Castle,” only Hawthorne Abendsen has seen all of the films that he guards, and therefore knows the gestalt of what they envision. During one meeting with him, Juliana asks, “but how does the movie end?”
With enigmatic eyes, Abendsen answers, “that…depends on you.”