It is 1962. Germany and Japan have won the Second World War and since 1947 the occupied United States is divided between the two super powers. Imperial Japan controls the West Coast (renamed the Japanese Pacific States), while the Nazis have annexed the East as part of the Greater German Reich. The Rocky Mountains operate as a Neutral Zone buffer between the two uneasy governments.
Warning: extensive spoilers for the entirety of the first season throughout. Proceed at your own risk.
This is the setting for Amazon Studios’ adaptation of the Hugo award-winning Philip K. Dick novel, The Man in the High Castle. Dick’s characters populate a series of realities. This 1962 has an alternative history woven through the narrative courtesy of a book, ‘The Grasshopper Lies Heavy’, written by the titular occupant of the ‘high castle’ and referred to by the characters in the novel. It describes a scenario in which the Allies did win the war, but it’s also an alternate to our own history because in the aftermath the British emerge as the ruling global super power.
Inspired by the book, showrunner Frank Spotnitz (The X-Files) has taken its central premise and some of the characters and, appropriately, created his own version. The book and the television series therefore blur the boundaries of reality, fiction, and cause-and-effect politics, and sublimate the accepted narratives of post-war 20th-century history. In the television series the banned book, its circulation offering a sense of hope to those struggling within the regimes of a totalitarian Sixties, becomes a series of newsreel films that the Nazis are keen to trace to their source.
The exploration of these realities offers the audience an opportunity to think about ‘the moment’; that pivotal decision in public and political life that could change the outcome of a particularly bitter struggle between two or more global power blocks. ‘The moment’ is also tied in with the nature of fate—the fate of the world and the fates of the individual characters in Dick’s book—as expressed in the novel’s predominant use of the ‘I Ching’. The characters’ actions and reactions are often determined by the random samplings from the ancient Chinese divination text in Dick’s story but the series tends to marginalise this aspect of the book.
It’s this layering of realities that’s eloquently depicted in the chilling title sequence of The Man in the High Castle that uses the song “Edelweiss”, which we associate with the sweet sentimentalism of Rogers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music. A paean to the traditional German homeland, it is corrupted, distorted and reconfigured to imply new meanings about the concept of ‘homeland’ both in the sense that the Nazis have won in this 1962 and an American resistance exists to usurp this vision with one that relates to our own concepts of freedom.
Recognisable landmarks of justice and democracy—the Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore—are stained by images of war. National emblems, such as the eagle, are transmogrified by stylised, swastika-bearing alternatives. It’s an elegant summation of the series’ central concepts and ideas and of Dick’s view that history can equally be a mundane and pathological force exhibited through our cultural artefacts as well as our ideals.
This alternative history is seen from the viewpoints of several leading characters, with the pilot concentrating on the lives of Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank), Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos), and Frank Frink (Rupert Evans). Blake is hired by a trucking company in New York to drive a shipment of coffee makers to Canon City in the Neutral Zone as a cover for the underground transportation of one of the newsreels.
His journey is intercut with Juliana and Frank’s seemingly settled life in Japanese-controlled San Francisco. However this “normality” is also disrupted by their inadvertent acquisition of the newsreel from Juliana’s dying half-sister Trudy, shot down by the Kempeitai military police. The newsreel depicts the Allies winning the war and Juliana is so intrigued by this revelation that she takes Trudy’s place as a courier to deliver the film to the Resistance in Canon City.
While these narratives converge in Canon City, other characters shape the politics of occupation and subjugation in the series. Trade minister Nobusuke Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) meets high-ranking Nazi Rudolph Wegener (Carsten Norgaard), disguised as Swedish businessman Baynes, to trade atomic secrets during a ceremony attended by the Crown Prince of Japan. In New York, SS Obergruppenführer John Smith (a superb Rufus Sewell) steps up his investigation of the Resistance and as the pilot concludes it is revealed that Joe Blake is working for Smith to recover the newsreels and find their creator, the mysterious ‘man in the high castle’.
The pilot establishes this world with incredible detail. Production designer Drew Boughton takes Dick’s layering of realities and designs a world both familiar and unsettling in the cultural shifts it depicts. The mundanity of pop culture—recognisable songs, objects, and icons of the period—collides with the banality of evil, the everyday acceptance of swastikas on display in Times Square and uniformed Nazis on gameshows, within the lives of the conquered and the conquerors. These arresting contrasts drive the series forward with each episode offering these visual leitmotifs.
“Sunrise”, the second episode, pulls together narrative and characters toward a tense, breathlessly exciting climax after Juliana and Joe meet in Canon City while she attempts to pass the newsreel onto Trudy’s contact. The contact she meets is an undercover agent for the SS and Joe, whose Nazi affiliations become rather obscured after he watches the newsreel in a closed down cinema, comes to her rescue as the agent threatens to throw her off a dam.
In San Francisco, Frank is arrested by Inspector Kido of the Kempeitai (a wonderfully unsettling performance from Joel de la Fuente) and tortured to reveal the whereabouts of Juliana and the films. It’s a brutal development, particularly when Kido brings in Frank’s sister and her children and, before Frank is spared his execution, gasses them to death. “Sunrise” develops our sympathies for the characters while underlining the continuing theme of mundane evil. The latter is highlighted by our introduction to SS Obergruppenführer John Smith’s family at a breakfast scene that places the SS and the Hitler Youth within a nuclear family portrait of the 1960s.
Frank’s experience at the hands of the Kempeitai fuels the revenge narrative of “The Illustrated Woman” and propels the episode towards Frank’s decision to assassinate the Crown Prince of Japan. His dilemma provides growth for the character but this is to the detriment of Juliana and Joe’s exploits in Canon City when they face a bounty hunter, the incongruous Marshal (Burn Gorman) who feels like he’s been dropped in from another series entirely.
The series starts to tread water at this point, as the introduction of the Marshal serves little purpose beyond keeping the episode going, and fails to develop Juliana and Joe beyond the one-dimensional. This is something that plagues the rest of the series as the writers attempt to give Juliana and Joe some depth by suggesting they’re falling in love with each other as each wrestles with their own conscience.
In “Revelations”, Frank plans to shoot the Crown Prince, crafts a replica gun with the help of his factory work colleague Ed (DJ Qualls) and buys bullets from Childan, an antique shop owner. One of Dick’s subjective characters, in the novel Childan offers us views on the Japanese, the nature of authenticity and knowing your place in the world. The series does touch on these themes and Brennan Brown’s performance as Childan provides something of a highlight. Frank’s assassination attempt, Tagomi and Wegener’s attempt to smuggle atomic secrets and Juliana and Joe’s escape from the Marshal provide three effective cliffhangers and demonstrate what the series can achieve.
Unfortunately beyond this the series takes a dip. During “The New Normal” Tagomi and Wegener fret about their botched attempt to smuggle atomic secrets and while Frank and Juliana are reunited their worlds have grown apart and changed significantly. However, the newsreels and their creator are buried beneath this Cold War espionage narrative and the hand wringing moral dilemmas faced by Frank, Juliana, and Joe.
Juliana secures a job, employed by Tagomi at the Japanese Authority building in “The Three Monkeys”, but the episode is more successful in bringing together Wegener and John Smith for a fateful encounter during a VA day celebration at Smith’s home. Smith reveals Wegener’s true identity and exposes his questionable loyalty to the Reich. Again, this emphasises the themes of authenticity and identity as well as how individuals become complicit with history. Joe attends the party to find out what’s in a file coded ‘Grasshopper’ he’s spotted in Smith’s study. Sewell and Norgaard, locking swords over their consciences, are excellent in this episode but Joe’s character lacks conviction. It makes us unsympathetic to his doubts about working for the Nazis.
The complicity with history is hammered home in “Truth” as Frank’s relationship with Mark Sampson—whom he first met at his sister’s funeral—reveals how Sampson and his family maintain their Jewish faith in secret. Their conversations about the suffering of Jews in Nazi occupied America finds the series seeking powerful resonance with current political and ideological attitudes. Similarly, Juliana discovers the terrible fate of her half-sister Trudy from the clues given to her by Tagomi after he consults the ‘I Ching’.
While there’s a devastating conclusion to Juliana’s search for the whereabouts of Trudy that dovetails this alternate 1962 with the murder of many at the hands of the Nazis and Japanese in the Second World War, this is tonally contrasted by a further examination of the cultural shifts in Japanese occupied San Francisco when Childan visits two of his customers, the Kasouras, at their home. It picks up on the themes of imitation, fakery and illusion that Dick plays with in the book as the Kasouras reject him as a friend but use him as a means to an end in the collecting of pop cultural artefacts, many of which are fakes.
The final three episodes build on this by introducing the search for and possession of a new film issued by ‘the man in the high castle’. In the “End of the World”, the problem is that the film is now held by the yakuza who are demanding a huge ransom from the Resistance. As Frank and Childan dupe the Kasouras into buying his faked American Indian artefact in order to buy his and Juliana’s escape from San Francisco, Inspector Kido closes in on him as the suspected assassin of the Crown Prince.
Frank’s efforts are derailed by Juliana’s belief in Joe, an annoying character trait on her behalf that the series continues to trot out to little effect, but “Kindness” finally concentrates on the intriguing newsreels and what Frank and Juliana see after they recover the latest issue purloined from the yakuza. The film predicts the future detonation of a nuclear bomb in San Francisco followed by Frank being shot in the head by Joe, now in Nazi uniform and moving down a line of prisoners. It’s a powerful twist but not potent enough to shake Juliana’s faith in Joe.
Back in New York, John Smith discovers that the ambush on his convoy in “Sunrise” is part of a complex plot to murder the ailing Adolf Hitler, instigated by SS-Oberst-Gruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich (a delicious performance from Ray Proscia). Heydrich sends the traitor Wegener back to Berlin on a mission to kill Hitler. The finale “A Way Out” is only marred by Juliana’s insistence on saving Joe from the Resistance. The weakest characters in the series, despite attempts to portray them as conflicted, doubting idealists, they’re not written or played particularly well. Much more intriguing is Wegener’s encounter with Hitler. As Wegener attempts to come to terms with his own actions during the war, Hitler flings open a cupboard to reveal a huge stockpile of the newsreels. Is he ‘the man in the high castle’? It certainly seems to inform Wegener’s sad fate.
John Smith foils Heydrich’s coup and prevents his own demise in a hunting lodge to confirm his undying loyalty to the Fuhrer. However, the finale is likely to be remembered for its reality bending last scene. Tagomi has been troubled throughout the series, considering deeply the consequences of a possible war between the Japanese and the Nazis if Imperial Japan gets hold of the atomic secrets he tried to smuggle on behalf of Wegener. He has also been preoccupied with Juliana and her necklace which has come into his possession. Subsequently, after sitting down on a bench in Union Square, Tagomi loses consciousness and somehow shifts into an alternate 1962, possibly our own, where JFK is president.
How and why he does this is presumably going to be explored in the next series already commissioned by Amazon. Certainly, it reflects the character’s ability in Dick’s book, when he briefly glimpses another reality where the Japanese are no longer in power. For the series it adds a flourish to the often uneven narrative and thin characters, finding something at last of the humanity in Dick’s book. Despite these issues, it’s fair to say the series has huge potential through its intricate world building and empathetic characters such as Frank and the sheer attractiveness of evil in John Smith.
Cast & Crewwriters: Frank Spotnitz, Thomas Schnauz, Evan Wright, Jace Richdale, Rob Williams, Emma Frost & Walon Green (based on the novel by Philip K. Dick).
directors: David Semel, Daniel Percival, Ken Olin, Michael Rymer, Bryan Spicer, Nelson McCormick, Brad Anderson, Karyn Kusama & Michael Slovis.
starring: Alexa Davalos, Rupert Evans, Luke Kleintank, DJ Qualls, Joel de la Fuente, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa & Rufus Sewell.