UPDATED: You can watch the first episode of ‘The Man in the High Castle’ after the review below courtesy of Amazon.
Imagine an alternative reality where Germany and Japan won World War II and the United States is now an occupied nation, with the East Coast a part of the Reich and the West Coast under Japanese martial law. The peace is tenuous, however, as all too many Americans remember the war, and everyone’s father was a vet, whether they’re still alive or not. Some kowtow to the occupying forces and have become good party members, but there’s an active underground, people who remember how things used to be and yearn for vaguely remembered freedoms and diversity in a world of racial purity and expected obedience to the occupying forces.
‘The Man in the High Castle,’ a new series on Amazon Video, was part of a competition from Amazon Studios on the streaming network, its premiere episode to great approbation from the online community and more viewings than any other premiere in the nascent studio’s history. It was so popular that it won the competition handily and got the budget to complete a full 10 episode first season that’s being released en masse on November 10th, but as a special preview, the first two episodes are temporarily available for Amazon Prime members.
And it’s excellent.
The more you understand about the interplay of occupier and occupied, the history of WWII and the basic tenets of German and Japanese imperial aspirations, the more you remember of the technology and culture of early 1960s America, the more you appreciate the attention to detail in this dark, dramatic series that neatly weaves multiple storylines into a narrative where not every bad guy is really bad and not every good guy is actually on the side of the resistance.
The story revolves around Juliana (Alexa Davalos) and Joe (Luke Kleintank), who bump into each other in the neutral territory of Canon City, Colorado, her from occupied San Francisco and him from Manhattan. Each has their secrets: Joe is a handsome young truck driver who is part of the anti-occupation resistance, smuggling contraband into the neutral zone but is secretly an agent of the Reich. Juliana has become part of the resistance when her sister Trudy (Conor Leslie) gives her a film reel just before being shot by the Japanese forces for being a traitor.
The film is the crux of the series, a newsreel that shows an alternate world where America won WWII. Called “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy”, the film has been produced by the titular Man in the High Castle. And everyone’s trying to get their hands on this subversive film. There are even rumors that The Fuehrer considers the film a threat to the very existence of the Reich, while the Japanese, in the person of the ruthless Inspector Kido (Joel de la Fuente), will stop at nothing to get their own hands on the newsreel. What’s so terrifying? That it “shows the world not as it is, but as it could be”.
Joe reports to Obergruppenführer Smith (Rufus Sewell), an American-born Nazi who is constantly attacked by resistance fighters as he travels through occupied New York City, supervising interrogations and demonstrating his cunning manipulation of the resistance. Meanwhile, Juliana has left San Francisco and left her boyfriend Frank (Rupert Evans) in trouble: with a Jewish grandfather, he’s already living on borrowed time, even though the Japanese aren’t particularly anti-semetic. “In Japan, we have no Jews.” Inspector Kido explains to him. But the Japanese want the film, so Frank is tortured in an attempt to learn where she’s gone with the precious reel.
Joe also has a copy of the film that he’s smuggling into Canon City, but he’s not supposed to know about it. If he watches it, might he become sympathetic to the resistance? Or could his growing attachment towards Juliana start to affect his judgment, particularly after Smith tells him to immediately report if a female operative from San Francisco arrives in town?
Meanwhile, there’s a bigger issue: The Fuehrer is ill and when he dies the mantel of leadership of the Nazis will pass to someone else, likely party faithful Joseph Goebbels, but the unrest might trigger a new war between Japan, with its imperial ambitions, and Germany, where many believe they’re superior and should just push the Japanese out of the way to dominate the world. Swedish trade ambassador Rudolph Wegener (Carsten Norgaard) is visiting San Francisco, but is he who he seems? When he meets with the local Japanese senior staff Nobusuke Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), are they both working to avoid a war between Germany and Japan or is there duplicitousness underlying one or both of their motivations?
The first episode of ‘The Man in the High Castle’ is powerful, and the sneak preview of the second episode demonstrates a show where the narrative is strong, the story is gripping, and the interplay between characters really delves into the motivation behind human behavior. The alternative history offers some stark juxtapositions too, including an alternate Times Square with signage featuring swastikas and eagles and a scene where Joe’s truck breaks down and a friendly local cop helps him fix the flat tire. While chatting, ash starts to float down from the sky and the cop explains “It’s Tuesday, when the hospital gets rid of cripples and the terminally ill”, as if it’s no big deal.
The attention to detail is remarkable, down to swastikas on pay phone dials in the so-called neutral zone (remember, it’s set in 1962) to a TV show called “Reich Police” a redo of “Dragnet”, complete with the dry narrated intro. But this isn’t the world of Mad Men or any other idealized Cold War era, but a terrifying place where to be different is to be at risk of death, whether you’re handicapped, black, Jewish, or simply look at someone in charge the wrong way.
In the original Philip K. Dick book, of course, “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy” was a subversive book, and that’s just one of the changes that the production team, led by writer Frank Spotnitz, directors Daniel Percival and David Semel and executive producer Ridley Scott, has made, but it’s all good.
‘The Man in the High Castle’ is powerful television and strongly recommended. If the next 8 episodes of the series are as intense and provocative, this could well be some of the best TV we’ve seen online in years.