The Man in the High Castle: Season 1 Review

IGN.com, 21 November 2015
By Matt Fowler
Thanks, GE2

This is a full review for all 10 episodes of Amazon's 'The Man in the High Castle: Season 1'. My intention is to keep it as non-spoilery as possible for those who aren't done binging, or who still may be considering binging. For those who have finished all 10, you can head over to 'The Man in the High Castle' "What Did You Think of the Ending?" page here for some of my thoughts about plot specifics.

'The Man in the High Castle' marks the first time I've reviewed a full season of a streaming show having already reviewed its pilot episode separately (save for 'Daredevil', where I reviewed every episode). In 'The Man in the High Castle's' case, it was last January during Amazon's first "pilot season" of the year. You can read the pilot review here and see that I hailed the premiere episode as one of the best pilots Amazon's ever done, presenting us with a fantastic and unsettling retro-dystopian "What If?" world. With "unsettling" perhaps being the key word there.

'The Man in the High Castle', even with all the suspense and intrigue that comes with it, is a uniquely unnerving experience. And I mean that in the best possible way. This is a long, tragic nightmare that not only gives us a glimpse at a world of crushing cruelty, but also - perhaps - a look at ourselves today and the type of tyranny we might easily give in to, acquiesce to, and what atrocities we might accept in the name of our own personal safety. Without getting overly political, this is both an important show and an important show right now. And it's freakin' haunting. There's a reason Philip K. Dick's 1962 novel made such an impact and stuck with so many people over the years - including series creator Frank Spotnitz ('The X-Files', 'Millennium', 'The Lone Gunmen'). It gets in your gut and just sits there, making you feel somewhat sick.

This is a grim, heavy, and necessary series. It can be a trudge for those used to lighter fare, or - in the very least - anything infused with any sort of levity. There are no bright moments here. Not a lot of smiling going on. Structurally, the second episode of the season, "Sunrise," is one of the bleakest parts of the entire series - though one that also helps spin several characters off in awesome directions. From there, I'd say, the show changes again after the events in Episode 4, "Revelations." And then the through line remains somewhat constant until the final two chapters - which work to upend most everything while also spiking the stealth "sci-fi" element of the show.

Because that's what Philip K. Dick is known for, right? Dark portrayals of a future under the thumb of some sort of brilliantly-concieved, oppressive (or addictive) technology. Plus, future sight. The oracle-like ability to see around the corner. Premonitions. It's a big recurring theme in his stories. Here however, with 'The Man in the High Castle', Dick looked back at what could have been if the Axis Powers had won World War II. The story takes place in the 60s, when the book was written, so story-wise it's been more than a decade since Germany and Japan split the U.S. up between them. For us here in 2015 though, the '60s setting allows the opportunity for some needed, extra detachment. Because not only is this a different world, its a different era. One that I'd wager most of us weren't around to experience. So this buffer helps carry us through the hellscape with a bit more ease.

So what about 'The Man in the High Castle' is "sci-fi?" Well, it only really pops up right at the beginning and right at the end (though in the end in a very big way) and it involves mysterious film reels that depict different realities. In the pilot, Juliana witnesses footage of the Allied Powers winning the war. The way it actually happened. And it's a wickedly powerful moment to see her look through that lens, to perhaps an alternate dimension, our dimension, and see the happy outcome. A world where she wouldn't have lost her father and millions more wouldn't have been exterminated. It instantly shades the story with a multiverse theme. It even evokes 1998's 'Dark City' at [sic] little, in that somehow everyone in her world might be being toyed with on a cosmic scale. But then that element vanishes. Because there's no time to fixate on that kind of gimmick when there are Nazi agents to avoid, bounty hunters to battle, assassinations to plot, Yakuza to fight, and mysteries to solve. All while the elusive, shadowy Man in the High Castle either makes and/or covets these strange illegal films.

'The Man in the High Castle' may not exactly let up, ease up, on its grimness, but it is a captivating, gripping affair. One where no character is wasted. Everyone, as you'll discover, means something. From a book shop clerk to a secretary to a random SS officer. Everything circles back. And while the show makes ample use of its vast, complex world and its awesome cast, it also does that unthinkable thing (though wonderful for TV) of turning monsters into characters. Rufus Sewell is the best example of this. In the pilot episode he's "the villain." Smarmy Sewell, as you've seen him play in many different projects. Naturally, he's certainly capable of doing more as an actor, he's just fallen victim to type-casting over the years.

Well, his cliched Nazi flatness instantly falls away after the pilot. As SS Obergruppenführer John Smith, he's instantly elevated above mustache-twirling villainy following a bloody attempt on his life. A rebel ambush that, over the course of the series, you discover is much more than it seems. And this is where Smith also becomes more than he seems. A man with a loving family (of Nazis, yes, but that's the world) and very specific devotions and regrets.

And all the while, a much larger plot involving an ailing Führer (yes, Hitler still lives, but there are rumors of illness) and his successors' designs on, basically, wiping out Japan and taking full control of the world. Which brings in Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa's soulful, dutiful Trade Minister Tagomi and Carsten Norgaard's Captain Rudolph Wegener - two men trying to smuggle nuclear weapons plans to Japan so as to even the playing field and stop Germany's aggression. And this much larger struggle helps shade and shadow the entire season.

Down on the ground level, among the oppressed, is Juliana (Alexa Davalos). A character who starts out as sort of a reed in the wind and then grows into a much more proactive protagonist. Juliana's a tricky deal. Because one slip here and, unfortunately, she'd become unlikable. And she does teeter. Because of the unintentional destruction the leaves in her wake. The pain she inadvertently causes by picking up her late sister's rebel cause. Particularly, pain to her boyfriend Frank (Rupert Evans). But the show rebounds from this quite well. In fact - and this is an odd beat to bring up, I know - but Frank's story reminds me a bit of Major on iZombie (for those who've seen). A seemingly thankless boyfriend character who gets put through a wringer because of his gal, but then comes out the other side in an amazing way.

Adding some love triangle spice to the mix is Luke Kleintank's Nazi agent Joe Blake. A man with wavering loyalties and a strongly hinted relation to Hitler himself. In fact, you could call the guy "Joe Hitler" as a joke, but also probably be pretty accurate in the labeling. These are our players on the ground. The ones after the forbidden films. And they're all great. In fact, the only character who just sort of seems to fill up space is DJ Qualls' Ed - Frank's buddy-ol-pal down at the antique replica factory. He eventually pays off, but it takes a while. Enough of a while that it starts to become noticeable because so many other side characters balloon into much more than they started out as except for him.

If you'd like to chat/post about specific episodes, plot twists, character beats, and more, head over to the official 'Man in the High Castle: Season 1' spoiler discussion page. I've written a bit there about things I couldn't bring up in this review, so check it out.

The Verdict
'The Man in the High Castle' is stunning and not for the faint-hearted. Naturally, in a story like this, it's the oppressed citizens who are the heroes. But this show also turns the oppressors into quasi-heroes as well. And well-rounded characters. Making things even more terrifying, in fact, since it shows us how easy it is for good people to do monstrous, condemnable things. And how quickly people living in fear and craving safety can accept a harsh life of limited choices and subservience.

'The Man in the High Castle' is a superb, frightening experience filled with unexpected twists and (some sci-fi) turns.


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