The past two weeks I’ve been bingeing Amazon Prime’s The Man in High Castle, a series based on Phillip K. Dick’s 1962 book by the same name (which won a Hugo award in 1963). The brilliant opening credits tell you everything you need to know about the setting:
Setting, perhaps, is one of the strongest points of the series, with a designed-in conflict of an America divided between Japan and Germany buffered by a lawless neutral-zone. The premise is compelling: filmstrips exist depicting an alternate reality where the United States won WWII. Many think they are fake propaganda designed to inspire hope in the rebellion, but some think they are true. We, of course, have seen these films countless times — a sailor kissing a woman in Times Square as ticker tape rains down over a parade — but for the inhabitants of this alternate reality they are powerful images.
The series has a Game-of-Thrones-sized cast, but the three characters it focuses on are Juliana Crain (Alexa Devalous), John Smith (Rufus Sewell) and Nobusuke Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa). Juliana is intended to be the protagonist, coming into possession of one of the film reels in the first episode and catapulting her into a life on the run which puts her into the hands of the Resistance, the Japanese, and the Reich. Unfortunately the show’s writers have made her the least interesting of the primary characters. Her role is mainly to run from location to location, get shot at, and be scared. John Smith, on the other hand, is an American soldier who changed sides after WWII, now a rising star in the Reich. He lives in a swastika-laden New York with his family. You can see the gears turning in Rufus Sewell’s head as he plays John Smith, and John Smith’s struggle to accept Reich idealogies versus the consequences to his family are potent. Lastly, Trade Minister Tagomi is, well, the Trade Minister for Japan, living in San Francisco. He is a kind and peaceful man who wants to prevent World War III. He also is able to travel to the alternate reality depicted in the films.
Notable secondary characters include: Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank), son of a prominent Reich leader and flip-flopper; Frank Frink (Rupert Evans), Juliana’s ex-boyfriend and the Banksy of the Resistance; Inspector Kido (Joel de la Fuente), the Bad Guy playing the show’s Javert role; Robert Childan (Brennan Brown), a seller of Americana artifacts to some of Japan’s more culture-obsessed buyers; Nicole Becker (Bella Heathcote), the Nazi version of Mad Men’s Don Draper.
There are many more secondary characters. These are just the ones with the biggest story arcs. Phew.
Now that we’ve got the foundation, here’s a few thoughts. The first two seasons were a bit like a bowling ball rolling down an alley with the bumpers raised, veering in random directions, deflecting, always moving forward, but unfocused. Somewhere in season three clear themes began to emerge and the episodes were much better when they had a purpose. I think season one reminded me a bit of the sci-fi series Colony, which has a similar setup (America is taken over by an alien power and many Americans try to adapt by working for them as soldiers or bureaucrats. A Resistance forms.).
The problem with Colony was that its endless shootouts mowed down Redhats (stormtroopers) in mind-numbing numbers while human bureaucrats promised all questions would be answered. It quickly became apparent that the writers themselves were winging it and didn’t have those answers. Similarly, when the Man in High Castle series does actually get Juliana to meet the Man in High Castle, it’s nearly incidental. She just moves on to her next location.
What High Castle does excel at, however, is exploring ideas (which is what all great sci-fi stories should do). The show is at its best with:
Visuals - a fleet of Japanese battleships slipping under the Golden Gate Bridge; Times Square with building-sized posters of the Fuhrer; a New York hotel room lamp with a bronze swastika base; the look of the 1960s-era Reich uniforms. In conjunction with this is the ease and comfort that the actors accept their surroundings. People lounge in their uniforms as if they were blue jeans and treat swastika-laden hotel rooms the same as the generic art we encounter at a Holiday Inn.
John Smith - as someone who switched sides to enjoy the comforts and security of the Reich, he now must accept the consequences of their government. When he discovers his son has a genetic disease which would require him to be euthanized under the Reich’s genetic purity laws, he will do anything to prevent it. The aftermath of this extends through all of season 3, and is one of the best elements of the show. There are no simple answers here.
Robert Childan, Americana dealer to the Japanese - in contrast to our reality, where Americans have kanji tattoos or katanas hung on their walls, here is a reality where the Japanese are interested in collecting bits and pieces of American history as a status symbol, like having a rare art piece on one’s wall. Robert Childan is terrific as a culturally-savvy shop owner who buys sometimes-illicit items to satisfy his clients.
Minorities - It’s expected that John Smith should have some doubts about Reich ideology. What’s unexpected, and welcome, is that characters like Nicole Becker, a German national, engage in same-sex relationships despite the potential consequences. Other characters establish colonies in the Neutral Zone where they can practice Judaism. It hints that people are people, regardless of their society’s views.
Complexity in opposing sides - It would have been easy for the writers to turn the story into Red Dawn. Instead, we get terrific characters like John Smith - a Breaking Bad type of arc - where compromises are made to ensure his family’s security. John does some terrible things, but you know why he does them. Trade Minister Tagomi has the weight of the world on his shoulders, a kind, weary man who wants to spare everyone the horrors of atomic war. They seem like real people trying to make the best of their situation.
Lastly, as I hinted at earlier, I think the writers chose the wrong protagonist. Juliana is missing the complexity of her adversaries. The show mistakingly relies on plot to try and make her interesting (she appears in nearly all of the alternate-reality films, indicating that whoever made them knows her). Yet I find myself waiting for any scene with Rufus Sewell. More so than any other, his character is a keystone, where the plot elements converge, and he often is the decision-maker for what happens next. Those decisions often are conflicted and we sympathize with those conflicts. He would be the perfect lens to watch this world unfold.