Most of us have probably asked ourselves over the course of our lives “what would the world have been like had the Nazis won WW2?”. It’s hard to imagine so far removed as we are from the war. When we’re not seeing hard-hitting documentaries or sobering Holocaust dramas, the Nazis are either zombified demons or cartoonish action villains these days. The Man in the High Castle‘s greatest success in its first season is how well it redresses that balance and makes them what they more accurately were – people. Real, human, flawed people. From its elegiac, haunting opening credits which suggest a different history than the one we experienced, of falling American monuments and a rising fascist banner, Frank Spotnitz’s adaptation of the late Philip K. Dick’s novel is admirably honest and quietly brutal about the geopolitical landscape of a much darker alternate ‘future history’ in 1962.
The start is slow. Spotnitz, producing alongside luminaries such as Ridley Scott, concentrates on developing character and mood within opening episode The New World, introducing us steadily to our myriad group of protagonists who drip across the dual landscapes that make up the post-war, occupied United States; the American Reich in the East, and the Japanese territory of the West, the result of a conflict in which ideological fascism reigned with greater supremacy than the actual, landscape reality in which, much like post-war Germany in our history saw to two victors go the spoils.
That parallel is a fascinating one, locking the two superpowers into if not an ideological conflict then a brewing Cold War of changing powers and beliefs. The Japanese are epitomised primarily by meditative, ageing Trade Minister Tagomi (wonderfully underplayed by Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa) & ruthless, dogged Chief Inspector Kido (Joel de la Fuente, who almost steals the show); they want consolidation, and they see the benefit of alliance while remaining suspicious of American & Nazi influences. Spotnitz and his team, to their credit, never entirely depicts the Western overlords as either friend or entirely foe, and they serve as more enigmatic in their motives than their Nazi counterparts.
On that Eastern flipside, in a New York with skyscrapers now festooned with glittering Nazis banners, Obergruppenfuhrer John Smith (played with suave, calculated control & menace by Rufus Sewell) is the main face of a regime who indoctrinated collaborators in the wake of occupation to enforce their American Reich as the supposedly ailing Fuhrer decays in his Austrian fort. It’s rather chilling to see a traditional American family sieg-hailing like they would say hello, and Smith is quite brilliantly depicted as a necessarily ruthless individual who, ultimately, must choose whether to put first his family or the Reich he chose to serve.
Under his wing is one of our driving forces, Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank), immediately established as epitomising the duality of many an American man; seemingly an undercover Nazi agent, working to undermine the ever-present Resistance movement, his burgeoning feelings for our female lead Julianna Crane (Alexa Davalos) begin to cloud his judgement the more time he spends with her. Yet, impressively, partly thanks to Kleintank’s enigmatic performance & a subtlety in the writing, Joe’s loyalties are as murky in finale A Way Out than they are in the opening episode. His character develops, his motives cloud, but going forward you could buy him just as easily betraying Julianna as aiding the Resistance in ever-more-turbulent times.
Julianna herself finds herself unwittingly dragged into circumstances, in The New World discovering her sister Trudy a key part of the Resistance smuggling what turn out to be the MacGuffin of the series; mysterious anti-propaganda films being developed by the titular ‘man in the high castle’, an unknown legendary figure fomenting discord among the Americans who want their country back. Davalos struggles with underdevelopment in the first half of the season, where Spotnitz focuses more on world-building alongside introductions, only starting to come into her own after the thrilling The Illustrated Woman / Revelations which explores what has effectively become the ‘new West’, unclaimed middle-American territory the Resistance operate in without borders or boundaries, stalked by Burn Gorman’s sinister bounty hunter who one can only hope reappears in the future.
Julianna begins, by Three Monkeys, to allow us a window into the Japanese world as much as Joe provides a window into Smith’s life, the Nazi ideology, and it’s really from the mid-point that narrative begins to catch up with developing mythology, especially through wanted artist-cum-weapons manufacturer Frank Frink (Rupert Evans), Julianna’s boyfriend and one of the show’s aces in the hole; he suffers the most tragic story, losing family to protect Julianna after a botched assassination of the Japanese Crown Prince which becomes this universes ‘JFK’ with Frick the potential Lee Harvey Oswald. Come the end, his, Julianna & Joe’s stories are eternally intertwined.
Though apart from the stunning production design (seriously, the only more attractive show on TV right now is Game of Thrones), lies in the supporting players. Smith is dealt a devastating final arc which tees him up as an unlikely sympathiser, in the face of Ray Proscia’s deliciously evil Reynard Heydrich, while Tagomi’s effective opposite Colonel Wegener (played with calm, charming efficiency by Carsten Norgaard) gets one of the strongest supporting arcs as ultimately a noble Nazi officer pushed into a chilling and quite remarkable final confrontation with someone you may not imagine the series will actually depict.
The final moment goes to a supporting player, one of the most effective in the series, and seals a remarkable twist and revelation put forward in Kindness, the penultimate outing, which suddenly throws the series into an entirely new realm of tantalising possibility and, indeed, genre. It’s been quite some time that I was left with a genuinely ‘ooooooooh’ response to a memorable final image, excited and tantalised by its possibilities.
The Man in the High Castle is by no means perfect, and holds as many problems as plenty of other shows. The first half of the season borders on languid, choosing to forsake plot for world-building and character establishment, while two of the three main essential leads border on dull for quite some time. Halfway through, however, it kicks into another gear; character and plot begin to synchronise, incident piles upon incident while still retaining a measured, classy pace and subtle approach (none of the mythology is handed on a silver platter, you have to concentrate and work at it), ultimately building to a tense, exciting finale in A Way Out which tees up some fascinating directions for the show to go in. Beautiful and poised, if you can steamroll past a steady introduction, The Man in the High Castle is well worth your Amazon Prime subscription.
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