The Man in the High Castle is an Alternate History TV Series created by Amazon Studios based on a novel of the same name by Phillip K. Dick. The Pilot episode for the series was released early back in January, and was Amazon’s most watched pilot ever. The rest of the first season became available for streaming November 20th.
The core premise of the series stems from the question of what would happen if the Axis won World War II instead of the Allied Forces. Set in 1962, we follow the stories of several characters living in a conquered Americas. Following the European Campaign, Germany and Japan both successfully invaded the United States. Germany now controls everything from the East Coast through the Midwest, Japan controls the West Coast up to the Rockies, and a small neutral buffer between the two vassal states exists along the Rocky Mountains.
The thing that drives the plot is a series of films of unknown origin. The first film introduced in the Pilot entitled “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy” is part of a series of videos being collected by someone known as “The Man in the High Castle”. Hitler, who is still alive, also wants these videos, and a small group of resistance fighters try to do all they can to steal the films, which they deliver to The Man in the High Castle. He, in exchange, apparently gives them some form of actionable intelligence they use to try and hinder the Nazi and Japanese regimes as best they can.
The story revolves around really three entities: the Nazi leadership tasked with recovering the films and crushing the Resistance; The Resistance effort whose numbers are constantly diminishing, and the Japanese leadership, focusing on the Kempeitai (State Police) and the Japanese Trade Ministry. In addition to the struggle for the films, the failing health of Hitler, who apparently has Parkinson’s Disease, sets up the potential for a power vacuum and the threat of war between the Japanese and Germans, who have a strong Cold War dynamic, though Japan lags significantly behind Germany in terms of military strength and technology. This all creates an amazing tension that simmers through the entire season.
Juliana Crane played by Alexa Davalos
Juliana gets involved with the Resistance following the sudden death of her sister Trudy in the beginning of the pilot episode. Despite her mother’s hatred for the Japanese, she studies aikido and is friendly with the Japanese people. Determined to figure out what her sister was caught up in, Juliana takes the film Trudy was carrying and tries to take her place to deliver the film to the Resistance in the Neutral States.
Joe Blake played by Luke Kleintank
Joe begins the Pilot as a new recruit for the Resistance, secretly placed there by the SS to give intelligence on the Resistance and recover the films the Resistance possesses. He quickly meets up with Juliana, and he starts to help her not realizing she may be the person he was sent to find.
Frank Frink played by Rupert Evans
Frank is Juliana’s live-in boyfriend, and works at a factory that creates pre-war ‘antiques’ prized by Japanese collectors. His grandfather was Jewish, which makes things particularly dangerous for him when he is arrested following Trudy’s death and Juliana’s disappearance.
SS Obergruppenführer John Smith played by Rufus Sewell
Obergruppenführer (The second highest rank possible in the SS behind only Himmler) Smith is investigating the Resistance in New York, and is one of the most senior Nazi leaders in America. His reach is long, his methods are brutally efficient, and it’s through Smith we get most of our insights into how the American Occupation functions in the show. I would be incredibly surprised if Sewell’s acting doesn’t lead to some sort of award recognition, as he is easily one of the most compelling characters in the show.
Nobusuke Tagomi played by Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa
Tagomi is the Trade Minister for the Pacific States of America. He has a close relationship with the Japanese Crown Prince and Princess, and is a man of considerable influence among Japanese Leadership in America. He serves to provide our insight into the Japanese mindset and culture in this world.
Chief Inspector Kido played by Joel de la Fuente
Kido is the head of the Kempeitai stationed in San Fransisco. We are introduced to him as he takes Frank into custody in the Pilot. He’s probably the closest counterpart to Obergruppenführer Smith among the Japanese, and is emotionless in his role as agent of the state security.
Thoughts on the Series (Spoiler Free)
The setting is clearly one of the stars of the show. All the good and bad from both cultures is strongly on display here, even though some aspects don’t play out as we might have anticipated them. For example, we think of Japan as a technological powerhouse, but forget that much of that emerged from the post-War reconstruction effort in Japan. Since that didn’t take place, the reality of Japan being far behind Germany technologically is not just a reality, but a plot device that works well. There are lovely subtleties like classic songs from the 50s that now have either Japanese or German lyrics instead. Instead of the 4th of July, you get VA day (Victory over the Americas), complete with fireworks.
There are also the darker elements from each culture that show up as well, such as the continued pursuit of the eradication of the Jewish people, the euthanizing of the mentally and physically handicapped, casual racism and sexism, and the continued practice of ritual seppuku. There are obviously swastikas everywhere, and while violence and oppression is a stark theme, the show isn’t all that violent aside from a few jarring moments. The reality of America as an oppressed nation is conveyed well, and explored in interesting ways.
In terms of pacing, the show is much more of a slow burn. While I felt engaged the entire time, the writers clearly were in no rush to push the plot forward quickly. This gives the viewer a nice time to feel the tension between Japan and Germany, and it gives that conflict weight. My only real complaint is that I wish the world felt a little larger. Our story primarily takes place in three locations, San Francisco, New York, and Canon City. Each of those cities has its own feel that works, and all feel believable, but the focus on everything happening between those three cities left me wondering why they kept their world so narrow. There’s also a fairly pronounced tonal shift between the first four episodes and the last half of the season. I’m not sure what the reason for this is, and if you binge watch I’m not sure how pronounced that will feel, but it made some of the events from the first half of the season feel a little disconnected from events in the second half.
The acting is of course fantastic. The standouts of the series to me are Rufus Sewell and Cary-Hiroyuki Tanawa. Sewell’s character arc is easily the most fascinating, which I won’t spoil here, but he makes easily the most empathetic Nazi I’ve ever seen portrayed on screen. He’s intelligent, cunning, and committed, but also very human. Tanawa in contrast lends a real gravity to his role. He’s wise, and insightful, and committed in his own way.
As for our young trio of characters, each of them has great stories and chance to shine, though each has moments that can occasionally feel a little unearned or uneven. Overall, there’s not much room to complain here, even though Joe’s background feels a little vague. Each of the characters is pressed to make difficult choices or respond to difficult challenges, and their growth over the course of the season is really riveting.
I highly recommend this show. The performances are great, the concept is fascinating, and unlike many young series, they don’t give away much. Since the setting is an alternate timeline, and they go to lengths to establish that other timelines exist, I’m not sure yet how strongly they intend to push into the science fiction or fantasy explanations of how that might be, but I’m glad they held off in the way they did, or it might have undercut the premise to begin with. The season ends with a Lost-worthy cliffhanger that leaves TONS of unanswered questions, and I can’t wait for the next season to come out.
If you’ve already finished the series, feel free to check out some additional SPOILER FILLED thoughts below, or come back once you have and let me know what you think.
Thoughts on the Series (Contains Spoilers)
First, let’s talk about those films. We’re shown two, and a third is described to us. The first represents News Reels from our timeline of events showing the Allies winning the war. The second, which Joe only describes, is a Propaganda video created by Stalin in 1954. In our timeline, he died in 1953, and in the show timeline he died in 1949. Then we get the third video that shows San Francisco being nuked, and Joe as a Nazi executing Frank in a potential future outcome. Then, in the Finale, we see Hitler with rolls and rolls of film, and seemingly possessing keen insights into what’s going on around him. Is Hitler “The Man in the High Castle”? If not, who is? Where do all these films come from? We don’t find out, not even a little. That was a little frustrating.
Speaking of alternate realities, Trade Minister Tagomi meditating himself into an alternate reality (that look close to our own, if not actually our own), was probably the most shocking outcome of the finale. So many questions…
Then, isn’t Rufus Sewell’s performance amazing? His acting when they first inform him of his son’s health problems is certainly award-worthy, and sets up the potential for some interesting growth. His character has an almost George R. R. Martin-type arc, where he begins the series as a villain, but by the end of the series, you’re really rooting for him. He, too, ends the season left at quite a crossroads.
I didn’t really care for the Resistance-heavy arcs as much (though Burn Gorman’s turn as the Marshall was amazing and terrifying at the same time). From our three young protagonists, Frank’s arc was easily the most difficult, but the most consistent. Juliana’s character oscillates too much between devastated and fearless, though I certainly liked her character. I’m not sure, though, what the though was behind introducing the not-a-family that Joe has back in New York. Since they only show up for part of an episode, and he’s mostly rude to them, the only thing I can conclude is they’ll be more important in a future season, possibly?
There are of course numerous side characters who play interesting roles. Carsten Norgaard gives a great performance as Baynes/Wegener, and his farewell to him family is heartbreaking. I have no idea what the point was for the Antiques dealer. Aside from helping to provide money to Frank at one point, he got an awful lot of screen time that seemed totally irrelevant. Franks friend Ed (played by DJ Qualls) felt very one dimensional, and seemed to only serve to be Frank’s conscience. Frank’s willingness to spare him at the end seemed a little out of place for me, and of course, we will also have to wait for next season to see how that arc plays out.
It may sound like I’m being pretty critical, but I did really enjoy the show. I truly have no idea what direction the show will take in the second season, but I love the setting, and there are certainly a lot of interesting places they could take the story.
Final Rating: 4.5 / 5 UFOs
So that’s it for my review of The Man in the High Castle. Have you seen it yet? What were your thoughts? Let me know down in the comments below.