Man in the High Castle - Review

In my pilot review of The Man in the High Castle, I hailed the premiere episode as one of Amazon’s best- it presented us with a fantastic and unsettling retro-dystopian “What if?” world, with emphasis on “unsettling”. The Man in the High Castle is based on its novel counterpart, and is a grim and heavy but necessary series. It can be a trudge for those looking for lighter fare or at least some levity- there’s no bright moments, not much smiling. But that’s what Philip K Dick is known for, right? He’s great at dark portrayals of our future under the thumb of brilliantly-conceived, oppressive (or addictive) technology. The show gradually works itself up to reveal it’s hidden “sci-fi” element. In this series, Dick looked back at what could have been if the Axis Powers (Germany, Japan, and Italy) had won World War II.

The story takes place in the 60s, when the book was written, so story wise it’s been more than a decade since Germany and Japan split the US up between themselves. For us, the 60s settings allows the opportunity for some needed detachment because not only is this a different world, it's a different era- one that we weren’t around to experience. This buffer helps carry us through the hellscape with a bit more ease.

So what exactly about this show is sci-fi? Well, it only really pops up right at the beginning and end (though in a very big way) and it involves mysterious film reels that depict different realities. In the pilot, Juliana witnesses footage of the Allied Powers winning the war- the way it actually happened. It’s a wickedly powerful moment to see her look through that lens, to perhaps an alternate dimension, our dimension, and see a happy outcome. A world where she wouldn’t have lost her father, and millions more wouldn’t have been killed. It even evokes 1998's Dark City a little, in that somehow everyone in her world might be being toyed with on a cosmic scale. But then that element vanishes. Because there's no time to fixate on that kind of gimmick when there are Nazi agents to avoid, bounty hunters to battle, assassinations to plot, Yakuza to fight, and mysteries to solve. All while the elusive, shadowy Man in the High Castle either makes and/or covets these strange illegal films.

The Man in the High Castle may not exactly let up on its grimness, but it is a captivating, gripping affair- one where no character is wasted. Everyone, as you'll discover, means something. From a book shop clerk to a secretary to a random SS officer, everything circles back. And while the show makes ample use of its vast, complex world and its awesome cast, it also does the unthinkable- turning monsters into characters. Rufus Sewell is the best example of this: in the pilot episode he's "the villain."

And all the while, a much larger plot involving an ailing Führer and his successors' designs of wiping out Japan and taking full control of the world continues. Which brings in Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa's soulful, dutiful Trade Minister Tagomi and Carsten Norgaard's Captain Rudolph Wegener - two men trying to smuggle nuclear weapons plans to Japan so as to even the playing field and stop Germany's aggression. And this much larger struggle helps shade the entire season. Down on the ground level, among the oppressed, is Juliana (Alexa Davalos)- a character who starts out as sort of a reed in the wind and then grows into a much more proactive protagonist. Juliana's a tricky deal, because one slip here and, unfortunately, she'd become unlikable. And she does teeter because of the unintentional destruction she leaves in her wake- the pain she inadvertently causes by picking up her late sister's rebel cause. Particularly, pain to her boyfriend Frank (Rupert Evans). A seemingly thankless boyfriend character who gets put through a wringer because of his gal, but then comes out the other side in an amazing way. Adding some love triangle spice to the mix is Luke Kleintank's Nazi agent Joe Blake. A man with wavering loyalties and a strongly hinted relation to Hitler himself. In fact, you could call the guy "Joe Hitler" as a joke, but also be pretty accurate in the labeling. These are our players on the ground. The ones after the forbidden films. And they're all great. In fact, the only character who just sort of seems to fill up space is DJ Qualls' Ed - Frank's buddy-old-pal down at the antique replica factory. He eventually pays off, but it takes a while. Enough of a while that it starts to become noticeable because so many other side characters balloon into much more than they started out relative to him.

The Man in the High Castle, with all the suspense and intrigue it provides, is a uniquely unnerving experience, and I mean that in the best possible way. It is the story of a long, tragic nightmare that not only gives us a glimpse at a world of cruelty, but also perhaps a look at ourselves today and the types of tyranny and atrocities we might accept in exchange for our own personal safety. There’s a reason Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel made such an impact on and struck so many people over the years, including the series creator Frank Spotnitz (The X-Files, Millennium). It gets into your gut and sits there, making you sick.