When does the system becomes intolerable?

May 9, 2019 (1025 words) :: An analysis of Robert Childan's decision in the season 3 finale of The Man in the High Castle.
Tags: the-man-in-the-high-castle

This post is day 129 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.

(Some spoilers for the season 3 finale of The Man in the High Castle.)

In the finale for season 3 of The Man in the High Castle, the Statue of Liberty is torn down as part of the Nazi regime’s attempt to rewrite American history. Most of the Resistance reacts to this news with gloom and horror, as it’s a symbolic demonstration of the Nazi’s power: not only are they dominating the present, but they are able to obliterate the past, as well.

One character, however, is gloomy for a different reason. “Did you hear about Liberty?” asks Robert Childan, (white) owner of an antiques shop in occupied San Francisco. “Such a waste. What I could have gotten for that torch alone …”

The response, from Robert’s assistant Ed McCarthy (who is, frankly, a bit of a pushover for most of the show), is unexpectedly harsh: “What is wrong with you? Have you learned nothing all this time? Is everything a commodity, Robert? Are you that much better than them?”

I really loved this scene, partly because of its unusually strong political commentary, though partly just because it’s good to see Ed not be subservient to Robert, for once. You can see Robert as a stand-in for the most rapacious form of capital, the sort that only cares about profit. What’s the problem with an irreplaceable cultural artifact being destroyed if you can sell the pieces? Similarly, what’s the problem with people dying because a pharmaceutical company wants them addicted to painkillers, or because their insurance company doesn’t want to pay for their treatment, if these companies are making record profits? Why even bother caring about anything that can’t be priced?

It’s easy to read this as an indictment of the inhumanity of a system that reduces even priceless historical monuments to the cold machinery of the profit motive. Some (following Herbert Marcuse) would go a step further, seeing Ed’s condemnation of Robert as a recognition that fascism is merely a continuation of tendencies that already exist under capitalism, not something completely new (“Are you that much better than them?”).

I took away something slightly different from this scene. I write a lot about capitalism being overarching and totalising, but one thing science fiction can do really well is reveal just how contingent our social system really is - how fragile, how delicate, how dependent on circumstances that could so easily not be met.

In the primary timeline of The Man in the High Castle, one of the main characters, Juliana, is moved to join the Resistance after witnessing her sister dying at the hands of the occupying police force. Up until then, she had been living a fairly normal life (as normal as life can be when you’re a second-class citizen due to your ethnicity), but the sudden death of her sister reveals the system she’s been living under to be utterly unbearable. What is even the point of trying to exist peacefully in a society where your sister could just get shot by uniformed thugs in an alleyway in the middle of the night, with no potential avenues for recourse? How could you settle for anything less than the wholesale overthrow of a system that so devalues the life of people like you?

I think there’s something similar going on when Ed comes out with his uncharacteristic invective. The destruction of the Statue of Liberty is only the catalyst, not the driving force behind Ed’s anger; what’s really bothering him is the fact that his best friend (and another main character), Frank Frink, has just been executed by the Japanese authorities. Ed has never been particularly fond of Robert’s capitalist tendencies, but in light of recent events, the idea of accumulating wealth must seem to him especially ludicrous, and perhaps even depraved.

For money to be worth accumulating, you need a society that more or less functions. For the pursuit of capitalist accumulation to be rational, people have to expect to live long enough to actually be able to enjoy the fruits of their capital. Robert came face-to-face with the fragility of that expectation earlier in the season, when he was brutally questioned about his prior associations with Frank, but he was given a reprieve after inadvertently helping the authorities to find him, and now Frank is dead.

When does the system become intolerable? When do the conditions underpinning your pursuit of success become so horrific that you can no longer feel justified in merely trying to optimise your own path under the terms set out by the system? Robert has basically two friends in the whole world, and one of them has just been executed thanks to his loose lips; the other is telling him to his face that he’s little better than a fascist. Come with us, pleads Ed, trying to enlist his quasi-friend in Resistance-type efforts against the Japanese. Don’t let Frank’s death be in vain.

Robert says he can’t. There’s a beautiful shot of him sitting in his shop, surrounded by expensive artifacts that he’s spent his whole life collecting, the result of a life dedicated towards pursuing a particular kind of success. It’s natural to want your life’s work to mean something, to not be for nothing; it’s hard to walk away when that would mean admitting that you had been on the wrong track the whole time.

But wanting something doesn’t make it so. There may come a time when you have to accept that the carefully constructed world you’ve built for yourself doesn’t actually amount to anything because it was built on a foundation of sand, and that foundation is crumbling. Sometimes you have to walk away.

In the end, Robert goes with them, walking away from the fruits of his entire life up until that point. It’s not an easy decision: he knows that the shop will probably be destroyed, or its assets seized by someone else. But he can live with that, because Ed has just shown him that the system is intolerable. Right now, there are more urgent tasks than merely continuing to eke out a living within it.

« See the full list of fragments