Contains some spoilers
Not everyone likes alternate history fiction, but I should confess from the start that I’m a bit of a fan. Robert Harris’ Fatherland is probably one of the most oft-reread titles on my bookshelf, while more recently I was very impressed by The Company of the Dead by David Kowalski. But when it comes to tales of parallel universes, arguably the granddaddy of the genre is Philip K Dick’s The Man In The High Castle that has recently been adapted for television by Amazon Prime, which full disclosure requires I should declare it to be the biggest single reason why I recently gave in and subscribed to the streaming service.
In the TV version, the point of divergence between our world and that of the High Castle is the assassination of FDR in 1934. As a result of this the US never recovered from the Depression to play its full role in World War 2, meaning that Nazi Germany won the war in Europe and went on to invade the East Coast of America. Meanwhile Japan was victorious in the Pacific and occupied the West Coast, leaving a wild west neutral zone straddling the Rocky Mountains between the two superpowers. But now Adolf Hitler is ailing and the Nazi High Command is ruthlessly jockeying for position to succeed him as Führer, which Japan fears will herald the start of a new global war – one that the Japanese Empire cannot possibly win given that the Nazis alone possess the super-destructive Heisenberg device.
That’s simply the background premise of the series. When it comes to plot, we’re initially following the movements of Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank) and Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos) from opposite sides of the continent, who have been recruited by the resistance to smuggle contraband across country to Canon City in the heart of the neutral zone. Juliana doesn’t realise that her actions have left her boyfriend Frank Frink (Rupert Evans), his family, and his best friend Ed McCarthy (DJ Quails) all in mortal danger back in San Francisco. But the biggest mystery is about the very nature of the contraband they are risking their lives for: reels of propaganda films which inexplicably show a world in which the Allies won the war. Who produced them, how, and why they should be so important that even Hitler is said to be obsessed with their recovery is at the heart of the first season.
In truth though, plot is not The Man In The High Castle’s strong suit. Joe and Juliana go through the usual sort of wartime resistance manoeuvres with various problems, obstacles, setbacks and reversals but we’ve seen it all many times before and there’s a forced, artificial sense to it all that makes you suspect that it’s a case of making busy work for idle hands rather than achieving anything meaningful, for example by addressing the importance of what the smuggled films mean. Eventually the Canon City plot line simply runs out of steam and peters to a halt without any real resolution or sense of achievement, and the characters disperse back to their respective points of origin. Subsequently the resistance manages to insert Juliana as an undercover agent in the main Japanese government offices, but again the same thing happens and after a couple of episodes the story loses interest and Juliana conspicuously leaves work early never to return – hardly a great way to avoid incurring suspicion.
The plot lines only seem to have more substance when it comes to the senior characters, which is to say those played by actors who typically warrant a ‘with’ or an ‘and’ in the credits. Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa is profoundly magnificent as senior Japanese trade minister Nobusuke Tagomi, a patriot whose faith in the predictive power of the I Ching leads him to believe that a new war will be a disaster for his country and who therefore embarks on a highly dangerous covert relationship with an undercover Nazi agent played by Carsten Norgaard, with far-reaching consequences for all. Then there’s Refus Sewell who is superb as John Smith, a man who combines an idyllic suburban home life with his wife and young children in New York with his day job as a terrifyingly efficient SS Obergruppenführer in charge of hunting down the resistance. Yet as great as both Tagawa and Sewell are, they’re both nearly eclipsed by Joel de la Fuente’s gripping portrayal of Chief Inspector Takeshi Kido of the Kempeitai who is determined to hunt down and convict Frank for high crimes and treason
Even so, it isn’t until the last three or four episodes of the ten-part first season that the storylines really start to cohere and take proper effect. Until then, the show is less interested in plot than it is much more focussed on using its characters to allow us to explore the world of the High Castle from the ground level, a reality achieved by the immaculately detailed production design of sets, costumes and props to evoke the twisted 1960s set-up, augmented by top-notch CGI to create believable vistas of occupied San Francisco and New York. Against such a backdrop, much of what happens is about introducing us to people, locations and concepts that will be required much later down the line, and also about moving the various pieces around the board so that they make the necessary in-story connections that the narrative will call upon toward the climax.
A case in point is the somewhat unnecessary diversion when the Yakuza hijack a newly discovered reel of propaganda film intended for the resistance; its retrieval fills up half an episode of running time, but the chief reason for this development is really to highlight how life in occupied San Francisco is shot through with the tradition of organised crime imported from Japan rather than its Italian mafia counterpart. Then there’s the strange subplot concerning antique store owner Robert Childan (Brennan Brown) who is a major point of view character in Dick’s novel but who is reduced to a mere cameo in this series. His story could easily have been excised entirely, but it’s the insight that his character gives us into the social reality of the Japanese Pacific States that makes it one of the strongest moments of the season as a whole, as Childan fawns and flatters his Japanese clients only to gradually realise that for all their impeccable politeness they nonetheless regard him as a second class citizen little better than a savage. It’s more effective seeing life through Childan’s initially sycophantic and then increasingly resentful eyes rather than through those of the youthful, militant resistance agents precisely because it demonstrates how passive collaboration with the Japanese occupiers is doomed to failure.
The end result of all this world-building is a chilling, suffocating sense of claustrophobia where it becomes all too clear that a single misstep or wrong word could result in one’s entire life coming crashing down, no matter how low or high in society one is. As the first season moves to its climax, there is barely a single character who is not in imminent danger of being slain in one way or another – it almost makes the average Game of Thrones wedding feel like a tame garden party by comparison. It makes all that slow burn build-up truly worth while, but before we get there it has to be admitted that The Man In The High Castle is actually a surprisingly quiet and thoughtful show with little in the way of action or high drama for the most part: there are the occasional foot chases, gun fights and assassination attempts but they’re downplayed and rather muted, over as quickly as they begin and rarely mentioned again. Even the music (by Dominic Lewis and Henry Jackman) is subtle and subdued, but nonetheless effective especially in the final episode where its metronomic quality imbues proceedings with a palpable countdown to disaster.
Overall it’s perhaps the most literary screen adaptation that I can remember watching – not because it’s unique in being based on a novel of course, since clearly there are many shows with similar origins, but rather due to the way it ignores the usual television conventions and has the courage to trust in the world it has painstakingly created at its own measured pace. It does it so well that I once genuinely found myself turning on the lights after watching an episode, and for a moment I was momentarily disorientated and unsure what was reality and what was fiction. Just like the characters in The Man In The High Castle, indeed.
Some will doubtless find it too glacial for their taste and give up watching, but that would be a huge mistake as things really pick up in the final two hours wherein we finally get to see the shocking contents of a new reel of that strange, impossible propaganda film; a memorable guest turn from Ray Proscia as the fanatical SS-Oberst-Gruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich; and a sequence involving one character leaving the US and heading to Berlin, and then on to the Führer’s personal residence which is a castle high in the Alps in which a solitary figure views the recovered reels of film while plotting the future of his empire. But as gripping as all that it, it’s the very final scene featuring Trade Minister Tagomi that will catch you out with a broadside straight out of the box marked ‘WTF?’ If that doesn’t bring you back for season 2 – just released on Amazon Prime, with the show also renewed for a third season in 2018 – then I don’t know what will.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★
The Man in the High Castle S1 and S2 are available for streaming and download on Amazon Prime.