Spoiler Kitten Says: This review discusses the premise of the first season of The Man in the High Castle, and alludes to events that transpire throughout the first ten episodes, but does not spoil major plot developments.]
What if we lost World War II? Frank Spotnitz’s The Man in the High Castle, a ten-episode series from Amazon based on the Philip K. Dick novel of the same name, asks that question in a grim yet beautiful meditation on chance, fate, and moral ambiguity.
The premise is simple: FDR died in the 1930s, and the US never developed the A-bomb. Instead, Germany did. After the Nazis nuked Washington, D.C., the Axis powers divided the United States: Japan got the west coast; Germany got the east coast and the Midwest. Between those two dominions lies the Neutral Zone, a lawless swath of misery that runs along the Continental Divide. By 1962, tensions between the “Pacific States” and the Reich have increased. Some Germans want to take over the Japanese-governed portions of the former US; the Japanese government is keenly aware that they would not win a battle with the technologically-advanced Nazis.
Against that backdrop, regular people struggle. The protagonist is Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos), a young woman who grew up in occupied San Francisco, practices Aikido, and accepts the world as it is. When she discovers a newsreel showing clips of a world in which FDR did not die, in which we stormed the beaches of Normandy, in which Hitler died, her entire perspective changes. Over the course of the first season, she tentatively joins the Resistance.
Her actions have consequences, though. They affect Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank), who lives in the Reich and has, shall we say, a complicated system of loyalty. They affect Juliana’s boyfriend, Frank Frink, who is part-Jewish (and therefore in a constant state of about-to-be-killed). As the story unfolds, characters in the Reich, in the Pacific States, and in the Neutral Zone—characters in positions of power as well as characters with no power at all—have their lives irrevocably changed by Juliana’s discovery of the newreel.
Dick wrote the novel while enchanted with the I Ching, an ancient Chinese system of divination that—in his version and the version portrayed in the show—extracts meaning from the random scattering of sticks (interpreted with the I Ching as a guide). Within the show, the Trade Minister of the Pacific States, Nobusuke Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), uses the system to divine appropriate and just action.
I have not read Dick’s novel, but Laura Miller (my favorite book reviewer) describes it as “a strange, mournful story in which not very much happens to people who have very little control over their lives and even less inclination to do anything to change that. It ought not to be engrossing, yet it is.”
Unlike the novel, quite a bit happens in the ten episodes that comprise Season One. But like the novel, what happens is governed by chance, by luck both good and bad, and by the whimsical nature of history.
The result is "engrossing," but not quite a story: we see events, we see causality, yet the goal is opaque. Are we supposed to root for a complete world-shift, with everything going back to the way it should be? (How could such a thing be possible?) Are we supposed to root for the success of the Resistance? For the maintenance of the uneasy status quo? The Man in the High Castle refuses to answer those questions. Instead, it shows us what is and the power of what-could-be.
Part of that power is the system of objects that take on almost totemic significance for individual characters: The newsreel. A necklace. An origami crane. A gun. Who possesses the objects, who interprets or misinterprets the objects—it’s all chance, with a dash of character thrown in.
That is not a complaint. Rather, it is an attempt to pin down precisely what this show is about. The character relationships recede into the background, then come storming back into the foreground. The Resistance plot, the exploration of the world (especially the Neutral Zone)—it all ebbs and flows. This show is haunting, but very hard to explain.
It’s also beautiful. The San Francisco setting is damp, gray, permeated with a sense—from our perspective—of what isn’t: no incipient hippie movement, no Beatniks, no emergent rock n’ roll. The cars lack fins; the skirts are never as full as they might be. The scenes set in the Reich are sunnier, but that just makes them more creepy.
The acting and writing are all quite strong. Although, like many prestige dramas, The Man in the High Castle lacks even an ounce of comic relief, DJ Qualls does a wonderful job as a truly good-hearted person stuck in a nonsensically terrible world. Rufus Sewell is a Nazi; he’s good at that. And Alexa Davalos, who will always be Electro-Gwen to me, perfectly epitomizes an intelligent woman forced to navigate a world that has suddenly become unknowable.
The result is a show that I definitely recommend, but can’t quite yet wrap my mind around. Amazon has designated these ten episodes as “Season One,” so I assume we will get a second season at some point. I look forward to watching that, but I also wonder if these ten episodes, in all their ambiguity, might succeed most as a melancholy, troubling, and ultimately unanswerable portrayal of what might have been.
Josie Kafka reviews The Vampire Diaries, True Detective, Game of Thrones, and various other things that take her fancy. She is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)