People today are afraid of losing control: of their freedoms, their health, their privilege, their wealth, their sense of value, and their sense of identity. All of our political bickering seems to revolve around this fear, and it’s a fear that the writers of science fiction TV have tapped into recently to powerful effect. In the brilliant Mr. Robot, it’s realized in the paranoid narration of subversive hacker Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek), whose lonely Robin Hood resistance to a worldwide corporate conspiracy embroils him in dangerous, politically charged intrigue. The vastly underrated The 100, meanwhile, layers a thought-provoking extended metaphor over its gritty, post-collapse future, examining the unfortunate, tragic repercussions of the human need for control: over turf and resources, over the world’s prevailing conditions, and over each other. Black Mirror, an ingenious cyberpunk nightmare of an anthology series, grapples with another intense human fear of lost control: in this case, to inexorable, transformative technologies. And at its best, Orphan Black plays in this arena as well, as Sarah Manning (Tatiana Maslany) and her fellow clones struggle to retain their autonomy and freedom right down to the biological level.
This takes us to the first seasons of two shows—Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle and Yellow Bird’s Occupied—which present variations on this theme. Both literalize our fear of lost control at the most basic, geopolitical level: the fear of losing national autonomy to foreign invasion.
First up: The Man in the High Castle (2015, streaming on Amazon), a lavish but rather loose adaptation of the classic Philip K. Dick novel. Set in the late 1950s, it depicts a timeline in which the Axis wins World War II, and its two dominant powers, Germany and Japan, have divided and occupied the United States. In San Francisco, Juliana Crane (Alexa Davalos) comes into possession of a mysterious newsreel film depicting a reality different than her own: namely, our reality, in which the Allies have won. She undertakes a mission to deliver this film to the resistance, a journey which takes her into the neutral zone between the Japanese Pacific States and the Greater Nazi Reich. There her path crosses with a shifty Nazi agent, Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank), whose attraction to her confuses his contrary mission: to uncover American resistance agents. Meanwhile, elsewhere, the complex new geopolitics of North America pit powerful Nazi officers and Japanese officials against each other in a high-stakes chess match for world dominance.
The Man in the High Castle is a triumph of production design, realizing its gritty, dystopian vision with terrific retrofuture visuals and rich period detail. It also has an effectively paranoid atmosphere: from the breathy, lifeless rendition of “Edelweiss” that opens the show to its closing moments, it is positively immersive in its bleak and chilling tone. Davalos makes for a convincing and charismatic protagonist, and the rest of the cast is solid in support. By and large this is sure-handed and thoroughly professional television.
That said, I wanted to enjoy it more than I actually did. Structurally, it’s not terribly satisfying, and the pace ranges from slow to glacial; I frequently grew impatient with its steady, somber rhythms. That powerful tone is also relentlessly cheerless, making it a tough watch. The adaptation also lacks the quirky, unique humor I associate with Dick’s writing. Alas, I can’t speak with authority to its faithfulness to the novel, which I read too long ago to render a cogent comparison. But my impression is that, like most of Dick’s Hollywood-adapted fare, the high-concept premise has trumped the many other Dickian nuances that make his work so interesting. The writers have seized on the world-building more than the thematic elements, and the result is visually arresting, but ultimately a fairly simplistic vision of heroes and villains, authority and resistance.
At least, that’s my impression so far; the grim intrigue is tinged with occasional moments of thought-provoking commentary. One of the more interesting narrative threads involves Obergruppenführer John Smith (Rufus Sewell), the perfect American Nazi in charge of running Blake’s spy mission. At first Smith’s villainy is quite obvious and stereotypical, but there’s a disturbing subtext to his ideal home life: his Hitler Youth son, his perfect Aryan wife, all sitting around the dining room table like a model American 1950s Leave It to Beaver family. In a similar vein, the show—possibly by accident—renders the devious Joe Blake more sympathetic than the earnest good guy Frank Frink (Rupert Evans). A barbed, subliminal comment on the American political zeitgeist? When The Man in the High Castle draws these uncomfortable parallels, it gets considerably more interesting, and from the excellent sixth episode (“Three Monkeys”) on, this happens more frequently.
Even so, The Man in the High Castle is cemented firmly in the American historical mindset, which draws the line between good and evil pretty clearly. By contrast, the Norwegian near-future political drama Occupied presents a more European view that is just as ominous, but more immediate, and painted in more shades of gray.
Occupied (2015, now streaming on Netflix) posits a future in which Norway, led by a highly progressive, environmentalist prime minister named Jesper Berg (Henrik Mestad), shuts down its petroleum production in favor of a newly perfected thorium energy technology. Unfortunately, Norway’s forward-thinking policy exacerbates a broader European energy crisis, leading Russia to not only demand Norway resume its oil production, but that Russia be allowed to insert its own people to supervise that production. In the face of American indifference and callous European Union complicity, Norway capitulates rather than face catastrophic Russian military action. But the result isn’t much better: a nightmarish occupation scenario in which the Russians take over, and a violent Norwegian resistance develops.
There’s a striking general similarity between High Castle and Occupied. The former depicts a World War II-like occupation using the familiar, dark symbols of history; the latter updates this scenario to a chilling contemporary context. Norway’s fate in Occupied parallels that of Czechoslovakia in the early stages of World War II: a country bullied against its will into becoming a satellite state. It’s a tragic violation of national sovereignty, internationally tolerated in the name of appeasement.
But Occupied’s moral questions are somewhat more slippery than High Castle’s, in that they take place outside the familiar hero-villain dynamics of known history. The protagonists—Berg, police officer Hans Martin Djupvik (Eldar Skar), firebrand journalist Thomas Eriksen (Vegar Hoel), restaurateur Bente Norum (Ane Dahl Torp), and Norway intelligence chief Wenche Arnesen (Ragnhild Gudbrandsen)—are confronted with impossible questions. Should they resist the Russian occupation and stay true to their ideals, even if it means an escalation into violence? Or should they cooperate, in the name of mitigating the bloodshed and maintaining a greater peace? Without the weight of history behind it, Occupied’s dilemmas are trickier than High Castle’s, and much more likely to land the viewer in uncomfortable “what would I do?” spaces. This quality is improved further by the shrewd inclusion of occupiers that are less black-and-white in their villainy, such as the charming Orlov (Lenn Kudrjawizki), a Russian who patronizes Bente’s restaurant, or the gracious Russian ambassador Irina Sidirova (Ingeborga Dapkunaite), with whom Djupvik maintains a careful detente. It’s difficult to choose sides, because all the perspectives make sense; whether they’re collaborating or resisting, the people of Occupied have justifiable points of view and sound reasoning behind their decisions. This kind of ambiguity is rare, and something that I believe only one other current show—The 100—has executed more effectively.
Neither The Man in the High Castle nor Occupied is perfect: Both take their sweet time advancing the plot, and neither ever quite launches a truly compelling energy. It wouldn’t surprise me to see viewers grow impatient with either of them. Nonetheless, they’re both worth watching: The Man in the High Castle for its look and its irresistible what-if scenario, and Occupied for its day-after-tomorrow, speculative relevance. On points I think Occupied is a better show, but they’re both thought-provoking narratives that speak, both directly and perhaps subliminally, to the troubled political times we live in, and to society’s deeper fears.
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