'The Man In the High Castle' Is Chilling Alterna-history
Detroit Free Press, 14 November 2015
"The Man in the High Castle" grabs you first visually. It's 1962 New York City, all vintage clothes and cars, and yet there is nothing nostalgic about this radically disturbing, history-altering place where a giant neon swastika towers over Times Square.
Amazon's new series, debuting Friday and adapted from a Philip K. Dick novel, is set in an America where the Allies lost World War II. The nation has been divided into three zones: the Greater Nazi Reich of the East Coast, the Japanese Pacific States of the West Coast and a neutral zone in the middle (and, FYI, maps indicate that Michigan and its Midwest neighbors are under German control).
The concept is so overwhelming that you could leave the first episode stunned by the details alone: the street signs in German and Japanese, a TV game show clip with a contestant who's a Hitler Youth alum, a glimpse of an aging, very alive Fuhrer on the news.
But this is no mere historical "what if" exercise. The script turns devastating as it reveals just how far the Third Reich's inhumanity and brutality have permeated a conquered USA. A cop pulling over a vehicle on the side of the road, for instance, turns into a gut-punching scene about the evil of the new normal.
And there are hints that something's not quite right about this post-war reality. There are shreds of evidence, real or fabricated, that maybe the Allies weren't defeated after all. But is this propaganda to fuel the resistance or proof of a mystery so convoluted that you can't even guess where it's going?
The action is in the hands of capable executive producers Frank Spotnitz, who developed the series, and Ridley Scott, who directed the ultimate Dick adaptation, the 1982 film "Blade Runner." Much of the early story focuses on Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank), who is en route from New York to the neutral zone, and Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos), a young woman from San Francisco who'll soon be headed there as well.
As Blake and Crain begin journeys that will cross their paths, questions pile up. What do those tensions simmering between Japanese and German leaderships mean for the future? And how does John Smith, the American Nazi official played with chilling charisma by British star Rufus Sewell, figure into the equation? One episode is all it takes to become hooked.
"The Man in the High Castle" is riveting TV and quite a content coup for an online platform like Amazon. Most of all, it's a scary reminder that fascist movements could happen anywhere, in any era, and that tyrants always find a reason for their tyranny.
As Sewell has said of his character, who's a devoted family guy at home, “It’s that terrible irony that you’re capable of living in a system that is incredibly cruel and unjust, (but) you can still convince yourself that you’re right.”