Amazon’s 'Man In the High Castle' Is a Good Adaptation But a Merely OK Show
With better characters at its center, the show could be a real contender
Arstechnica.com, 29 November 2015
...not that there isn't plenty of death and destruction.
Warning: this review contains minor spoilers to several episodes of the show and Philip K. Dick's 1962 novel of the same name.
They say we’re either approaching or have already passed Peak TV, the point where there is so much above-average scripted television coming at us from so many sources that no one could possibly keep up with everything that’s worth watching. I don’t think that’s a bad problem to have, necessarily, but I do know that it’s deeply strange to live in a universe where I can get Emmy award-winning television and an 80-pack of toilet paper rolls from the same company.
But that's the universe we live in! And Amazon has proven that it’s more than capable of putting out scripted dramas that can stand up to the stuff that airs on AMC and FX. 'Man in the High Castle', a new series based on Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel of the same name, is sort of Amazon’s take on a period drama like 'The Americans', but the twist in this case is that the period never actually existed.
As an adaptation of Dick's work, the show is quite successful—book-to-screen adaptations can be hard work, but Castle’s creative team kept the book’s world intact while expanding and adding to it in ways that make sense for a visual medium. Unfortunately, it’s not quite as successful as a TV show on its own merits. It’s merely a decent show, and in this Peak TV era “decent” isn’t enough to stand out.
What the book did well, and how the show does it justice
Like any good TV drama, Dick’s version of 'Man in the High Castle' juggles multiple characters whose storylines all occasionally intersect. There’s no one plot that really constitutes the “main” storyline (Juliana Frink's search for the titular Man in the High Castle comes the closest), but the real value of the work is in how it uses those characters and their perspectives to build a believable reality.
The basic concept is one that has launched a thousand historical fiction stories: “What if the Axis Powers had won World War II?” It sounds like a cliché to the modern reader, but the book continues to feel fresh because of how well-considered the differences are. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was assassinated in 1933, which led to a succession of weak Presidents who failed to dig America out of the Great Depression and left the country ill-prepared (or, even more ill-prepared) for the Pearl Harbor attack. By the late 1940s, the Allies had surrendered—Germany controls the East Coast, Japan holds the West Coast and the Rocky Mountains serve as a natural buffer (and neutral zone) between the two.
Adolf Hitler is alive but largely incapacitated by the syphilis that real-world scholarship suggests he may have suffered from; Germany has the technological upper-hand but unstable leadership. This worries Japan—the two countries’ Cold War-esque relationship is fragile enough, and the wrong person in power could lead to a war Japan knows it can’t win. Meanwhile, in occupied San Francisco, an antiques dealer worries that his business selling prewar Americana to the Japanese could be threatened by counterfeiters. A German spy tries to collude with a Japanese spy to prevent war. And multiple characters are reading a popular book called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, an alternate-history-novel-within-an-alternate-history-novel where the Allies actually won World War II (but not quite in the way we’re familiar with).
That’s not all that’s going on, but it tells you most of what you need to know about the book without spoiling much about it. Dick manages to convey all of this and more to the reader not with some lengthy prologue or a mid-story info-dump, but by showing you this world from a variety of perspectives and letting his characters live their lives.
Amazon’s series does an outstanding job carrying over Dick’s setting and tone. You spend the bulk of these 10 episodes in alternate-1960s New York and San Francisco, and the show absolutely nails the combination of familiar-and-alien. The show evokes the look and feel of quintessentially American cities that have been occupied for a decade or so, familiar foundations draped over with out-of-place swastikas and rising suns.
This extends to the set and costume design, which meld late-1950s fashion and hairstyles with the same alien imagery. West Coast office buildings are outfitted with Japanese-style sliding doors. Suburban New York homes and families would be right at home in the first season of Mad Men, except for the kids walking around in Hitler Youth uniforms.
There are small problems with setting and tone that can take you out of the action sometimes—the series uses CG sparingly, but when it does it usually looks like TV CG (which is to say, not great). Japanese and German characters frequently speak accented English to each other rather than defaulting to their native languages (because who wants to make the audience read subtitles, am I right). The color scheme is heavy on grays and browns, which is unfortunately one of the ways that Serious Prestige TV Dramas convey to the audience that they are Being Serious (see also: the heavy-handed and dour 'House of Cards'). But these problems can usually be ignored when a show is good enough.
Unfortunately, a series like this can’t live and die on its design, and the story that 'Man in the High Castle' has to tell isn’t as compelling as it could be.
A draggy start
Let’s break down the pilot, which Amazon produced and made available several months before the rest of the series (for that reason, I’ll be freer with spoilers here than I will be otherwise). Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank) is a young member of the American resistance in New York (OR IS HE??) tasked with driving cargo to Canon City in the neutral zone. At the same time, Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos, whose character's name has been changed to better fit the show) and her boyfriend Frank Frink (Rupert Evans) are eking out what passes for a normal life in occupied territory when Juliana’s sister Trudy is killed for working with the resistance. Before she dies, Trudy gives Juliana a film version of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. Juliana watches it despite Frank’s reservations and decides to travel to Canon City in Trudy’s place.
This sets up the driving action for the next three episodes, and it’s frankly a weak start. Joe and Juliana meet up in Canon City and alternately work with and against each other, while Frank is detained by the Japanese military police (the Kempeitai, a real-world force disbanded at the end of World War II in 1945) and forced to deal with the initial repercussions of Juliana’s actions. Frank’s subplot is more interesting and tragic, all the more so because he’s of Jewish descent and trying not so successfully to hide it. But we spend much more time with Joe and Juliana, whose double-dealings and chase sequences could have been lifted from any generic spy movie.
And throughout the series, its three central protagonists are 'Man in the High Castle’s' biggest liability. Frank is sympathetic but too self-interested to really root for, and he spends most of his time trying to keep his head down and avoid conflict. Joe is more active, but too often comes off as wishy-washy, and his character motivations are unclear beyond his basic desire not to be killed and an unsatisfying “boy-meets-pretty-girl, pretty-girl-changes-boy” story. Juliana’s quest for capital-A-Answers holds the most potential for next season—she seems the most affected by the Grasshopper film reels and has the most potential for change. But as with Joe, her motivations and allegiances shift so quickly that it’s hard to get a read on her, and especially early in the series she’s too frequently relegated to the role of “damsel” in someone else’s action sequence.
That’s not to say that these characters don’t have their moments, and Kleintank, Davalos, and Evans all have some genuinely moving sequences in this first season. But the most successful dramas are often defined by their characters and by those characters’ relationships with one another, and none of these three really clicks in a way that’s going to inspire much conversation. Hopefully the writing and characterization in the second season (assuming there is one) can make the interplay between these three more compelling.
But your patience will be rewarded
We're treated to some much more compelling performances from players with lower billing, characters relegated to side-plots that are often more interesting than whatever it is that Juliana and Joe are up to. Joel de la Fuente’s Kempeitai Inspector Kido is a cold, smarmy villain you can really love to hate. Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa’s Trade Minister Tagomi manages to convey both his character’s deep-seated sadness and his ideals, which are simultaneously noble but out of step with the way events around him unfold. Carsten Norgaard conveys Nazi officer Rudolph Wegener’s regret and weariness with conviction, and DJ Qualls’ Ed McCarthy is heartbreakingly earnest in his desire to help his friends. And Rufus Sewell’s intense portrayal of Obergruppenführer John Smith is as close a thing as this series has to a breakout character. He gets to tick some of those audience-pleasing Walter White-esque badass anti-hero boxes, yes, but he also shows a surprising amount of vulnerability where his family and his past are concerned.
And while 'Man in the High Castle' doesn’t put its best foot forward, those patient enough to stick around until the fifth episode will start to dig into the real meat of the series. Joe and Juliana return to New York and San Francisco and have to live with the decisions they made in Canon City, which is more interesting than watching them run away from a cartoonish shotgun-wielding videogame villain. Juliana and Frank both want things to be “normal,” and watching the walls inexorably close in on them over the next few episodes builds more effective tension than anything in Canon City ever did. What Frank suffered at the hands of the Kempeitai forces him to take a closer look at his Jewish heritage and what it really means to let “them” win. The practice of euthanizing human beings with “defects” hits home for Smith in a way that makes the character more than just a snarling Nazi officer.
The first season of 'Man in the High Castle' is in many ways a victim of Peak TV, because “good enough” isn’t good enough in an era when any cable company or streaming provider with two nickels to rub together is producing hour-long serialized scripted dramas. But there’s enough here, especially in the second half of the season, to give us hope for a stellar season two. Many elements of Dick’s book, including the relationship between this alternate reality and our own reality and the titular Man in the High Castle himself, are barely explored. Now that the setting and the characters are established, the show is free to tell the kinds of stories that take it from “thing you hear good things about from that one person you know who watches everything” to “thing you absolutely need to be watching yourself.”
The first season of 'The Man in the High Castle' is available in its entirety on Amazon Prime Video.