Streaming Reviews: 'The Man in the High Castle'
Mountain View Telegraph, 12 December 2015
In its biggest and grandest step towards competing with the monolithic Netflix, Amazon Prime has finally put out an original show that’s worthy of attention. “The Man in the High Castle” is a loose adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s book of the same name, a sort of tableau exploring a brave and frightening world: a world where the Axis powers won World War II, and have now conquered the United States. Divided into two nations, the larger Greater Nazi Reich and the smaller Pacific States, ruled over by Nazi Germany and Japan respectively, the story focuses on the struggles of three young people caught up in the intrigues between the great powers, who are now eyeing each other warily, and whispers speak of war.
If you’re looking for just a plain old consumer review, then here it is: it’s good. Go watch it. It’s lurid, it’s grotesque, it has moments of deep horror and moments of cathartic comedy. It uses its characters well, it’s well shot, there’s only maybe two slow episodes in a tightly-paced 10-episode season, and there’s a mystery hook that will enthuse even those well-familiar with the book. All of the leads are great, but most particularly solid are the supporting cast, which in this case all comprise various ranks of Axis officials. The Japanese get a bit more focus, but since they’re easily the more human characters compared to the robotic austerity of the Reich, it’s not too surprising to see.
In addition to the Japanese vs Germany setting, the plot on its face is about the presence and accumulation of mysterious film reels that seem to depict history as it actually happened, with the Allies winning the war. The films are allegedly made by “The Man in the High Castle” and the local resistance movement is risking life and limb to bring these reels to him. This is the primary mystery of the plot, and it does some neat things with it overall.
If you like alternate history, sci-fi, spy thrillers, and good acting, this is a must see show, and I urge you to check it out if you have an Amazon Prime subscription. Christmas is coming, so consider this an incentive to pick one up as a present for your loved ones.
Now, the rest of this review is going to be analysis, and spoilers from the whole run of the show will follow. If you don’t care or have already seen the show, read on.
“The Man in the High Castle’s” greatest strength is its timeliness. With our current crop of politics and rhetoric running increasingly right wing and, dare I say, fascistic, with the media’s favorite hairpiece Donald Trump drawing direct comparisons to Adolf Hitler from some more hyperbolic pundits, taking what we consider to be the foundation of Americana and slapping swastikas on it is a downright genius piece of visual art.
The VA day episode, where we see what a holiday in the Greater Reich looks like, with American flags adorned with Nazi symbols, boy scouts with red swastika arm bands, highways renamed to autobahns, country music about culling Jews, and a jaunty, neighborly “sieg heil” from everyone on the block, is particularly disturbing. It isn’t that all of these images are so foreign — it’s quite the opposite, that in a lot of ways, the Reich and the Nazi presence in America feels eerily familiar, and the austerity we see in the show is not so far removed from the reality of today.
The show makes the mistake of all television shows these days in that it feels a need to put a love triangle into its central narrative to try and hook viewers in. I don’t know if they thought that Nazis and fascism tested poorly with the female demographic or something, but the end result is a lodestone that weighs down the main cast, diminishing their otherwise strong performances. Juliana suffers from this the most, since the plot needs to keep moving her around haphazardly, and while Alexa Davalos is really great in the role — she’s sharp, smart, soft-hearted but strong-willed — she just can’t save herself from script stupidity, especially when it comes to her romance options. The season starts out at a blistering pace, introducing Juliana and our two leading men, Joe Blake (Luke Kleinteck) and Frank Frink (Rupert Evans). Frink is an aspiring artist and all around dweeb with thick Clark Kent glasses, and he spends most of the show being in some state of undress and the other half of the show being inconsequential and naive.
Blake is a all-American good ole Nazi whose character suffers from not actually having one; Joe is trying to figure out who he is along with the audience, and the payoff to his storyline isn’t really satisfying and doesn’t take the plot anywhere interesting. It’s hard to believe that his superiors wouldn’t have him shot after his innumerable failures in the first half of the season, but then again, his superiors are vastly more interesting characters, so maybe they had actual reasons and motivations behind them that we’ve only just begun to see.
I’m not sure what message the show wants to send when it made all of its Axis characters sympathetic and likeable, but the show is easily worth watching for them. Trade Minister Tagomi, played by “Mortal Kombat” alum Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, leads the Japanese cast, and plays off the Head of the Secret Police Inspector Kido (Joel De La Fuente) beautifully. The pair seem to make a game of who can make the most ludicrous facial expressions at each other while hissing out angry dialog, and in this contest Tagawa is the clear winner. He contorts his face in such physics-defying ways that it’s honestly not a shock at all that he somehow manages to furrow his brow so hard he folds space and time and emerges into an alternate (or unalternate) dimension in the last episode.
The sci-fi element feels very unnecessary initially. I feel like somebody at the writer’s table said that people expect sci-fi from the name Philip K. Dick, and there will be a sense of betrayal without one. As such, the original book’s alternate history novel has now become a series of mysterious film reels that show news and historical footage from our history — images of Churchill, of the Allies winning the war, Stalin propaganda, etc, etc. This has a nice “Lost” effect, creating an overriding mystery that drives the action forward. It’s a shame that this mystery, rather than the already ongoing drama between the two countries and the resistance within them, is the driving force of the plot because it’s also the one with the least resolution. There is indeed a “Man in a High Castle” but that man is probably a red herring and he shows up at the end anyway.
Old Man Hitler is a character here, and it’s sad to say that Hitler is probably among the most likeable characters. In fact, as the story flows, Hitler is the solitary voice of reason in the entire world, the sole lynchpin to the tense and fragile peace between Japan and Germany. The season ends with him triumphant and the mystery of the films left unexplained. This is fine, as the world they build is far more compelling than any individual characters in it, and the open-ended nature of the ending allows the show to take any direction it wants as it proceeds. What I had expected to be a fully self-contained, one-season show now has legs to go on into the future, and I’m curious to see if the solid foundation can support a castle worthy of the show’s title.
The premise is strong enough to keep you going, but the show is sustained by sub-plots and a supporting cast, and it’s the details, rather than the overall picture, that make the show work. It’s the little things, like Americans reading manga (Japanese comics) in newspapers, a white butler serving a pair of Japanese hipsters with a fetish for Americana, the A-bomb turned into an H-bomb, for Heisenberg.
There didn’t need to be a plot about alternate realities, but I theorize that they put this in to keep people from tuning out after the first episode, where a bleak moment occurs as what appears to be snow drifts down from the sky, only for a character to blithely (a bit on the nose really) explain that they’re just burning cripples and the terminally ill. It’s a gross moment, and if it hadn’t been shown in such close proximity to the first instance of the films being shown, it might have been enough to turn off viewers who aren’t interested in seeing their beloved country getting destroyed from the inside out by Nazis. In this sense, I applaud the inclusion of the subplot, but I do hope the writers have a satisfying outcome for it already planned, or else we’re going to have a very disappointing series finale in a few years. Teasing the possibility of a reset button for an entire world is very tricky, but the plot manages to hold its weight despite it.
I haven’t talked much about the Reich section of the show. Special mention then to Rufus Sewell, who plays Obergruppenführer (how the cast managed to pronounce this without giggling is beyond me) Smith. Smith is a true believer in the Nazi party, but obviously a natural-born American, and his character at first seems the most wholly reprehensible, but the season ends with him having some really interesting developments that make him stand out a lot more from the rest of the rather faceless Nazis who dominate the show. A few bit part Nazis, like Ray Proscia’s Reinhardt Heydrich, a real-life monster played with lovable camp by Proscia, are also worthy of praise. I won’t spoil what moment it is specifically, but there’s a part where he shouts out “Mein fuhrer!” at the capstone of a really dramatic scene that had me in stitches.
Go watch this show, for the visuals alone if nothing else. Seeing a period piece of an America rendered nigh-unrecognizable by foreign conquest is a sobering reminder of what might have been, and also a somber sign of what is. To the American , it is unthinkably humiliating to be occupied. It makes me think whether the countries the Unites States has occupied in the 20-plus years I’ve been alive see us the same way.