A wild whirlwind of a mess, without any coherence, without even a guiding principle.
Produced by Ridley Scott and Frank Spotnitz, Amazon’s “The Man in the High Castle,” premiering in its 10-episode entirety this Friday, November 20th, is the streaming service’s most ambitious drama to date. While they have received deserved acclaim for their comedies like Jill Soloway’s breakthrough “Transparent” and the clever import “Catastrophe,” the drama side of the ledger on Amazon Prime has been lacking, to put it kindly. I enjoyed parts of “Bosch,” but the crime drama never quite lived up to its potential (I hope for more in season two). “Hand of God” was nearly unwatchable. With “The Man in the High Castle,” Amazon proves they can play with the competition provided by Netflix on a nearly weekly basis. It’s smart, driven, stylish and creative. "The Man in the High Castle" can be a little cluttered in terms of narrative, but it’s the kind of challenging program that we haven’t received from Amazon and rarely even receive from Netflix. Until now.
Based on Philip K. Dick’s 1962 Hugo Award-wining novel, “The Man in the High Castle” is about an alternative timeline in which the United States didn’t win World War II. The war ended with the United States being split in two—Japanese forces taking the West Coast, Germany occupying the Eastern half of the country, and a neutral zone over the Rocky Mountains in between. Living under Nazi occupation hasn’t been good for the American spirit. Free thought is discouraged while a resistance brews underground, trying to take back the country. As Hitler’s health is rumored to be in decline, the Resistance sees an opportunity on the horizon. Meanwhile, tension grows between the German and Japanese halves of the country, one looking for total dominance.
In this fascinating setting, which has been remarkably well-defined right down to a German influence on architecture and a unique take on what fashion would be like in 1962 under this regime, we meet Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos). In classic noir style, Juliana is handed a film by her sister, and then watches from the shadows as the sibling is gunned down by Japanese soldiers. Juliana watches the film, which features footage of the Allied Forces winning World War II. What happened? Did they really win? Is this an alternate vision of the future within this already alternate vision of the future? Reportedly produced by a mysterious man called “The Man in the High Castle,” Juliana seeks to figure out the source of the film and its intent in inspiring the Resistance. Leaving behind loyal beau Frank (Rupert Evans), Juliana heads to the neutral zone, where she encounters the mysterious Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank), someone who appears to be working for the Resistance but may have ulterior motives.
“The Man in the High Castle” cleverly flits between the stories of the people under this German-Japanese banner like Juliana, Frank, and Frank’s co-worker Ed McCarthy (DJ Qualls), and the power structure of this universe, including Trade Minister Nobusuke Tagomi (Cary Hiroyuki Tagawa) and Obergruppenführer John Smith (Rufus Sewell). Tagomi works for the Japanese Empire in San Francisco, and seems honestly intent on building a better world out of the occupation of this bountiful country. Smith, on the other hand, recognizes that the German Empire’s control over the American people is unlikely to last forever. He’s dangerous and paranoid, knowing that the Resistance is hiding in the shadows.
The production values on “The Man in the High Castle,” thanks in no small part to executive producer Ridley Scott, are top-notch; the best yet produced by Amazon. There’s detail in every corner, down to the “alternate history” period costumes and truly unique settings that often merge U.S., Japanese and German culture. With its noir underpinnings (and casting of Rufus Sewell), “High Castle” often reminded me of “Dark City,” while also having elements of the video game series “Fallout” in the way it captures a world that looks familiar but isn’t exactly our own. There is honest world creation here, something that is often lacking in even the best programming of “Peak TV,” an era more defined by its characters than its settings. This makes "The Man in the High Castle" an especially good fit for binge viewing, as this is a world in which one can be easily engrossed.
As for the direction of its characters, “The Man in the High Castle” is ambitious there as well. While I thought I knew where the program was going after watching the premiere, I was surprised at the show’s willingness to introduce new supporting characters instead of just sticking with Juliana’s tale of the naïve girl who ends up inspiring the Resistance. That’s still the heart of the show, but the writers of “High Castle” are more than willing to “complicate” their vision, realizing that the show is better if the world Juliana is trying to save is more completely defined. And a maniacal killer who appears in the third episode gives the show gravity and danger that it’s arguably missing in the first two episodes.
“The Man in the High Castle” does sometimes succumb to those pacing issues that come with ensemble pieces more interested in setting than narrative. Viewers might get bored, although the cast and creative team always do a good job of conveying the stakes of this tale; stakes which feel even more current in light of recent events. Just as Juliana seeing an alternate vision of the future within the show is meant to inspire her, perhaps we can take a lesson in watching an alternative world in which freedom was destroyed by fear. With that narrative as crucial as ever in the international scene, “The Man in the High Castle” is not only Amazon’s best drama, it’s an important one too.
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