After a pair of sick days in the past week, I was able to get through the entirety of Amazon’s The Man In The High Castle. While I haven’t read the Philip K. Dick novel that the show is based on, I was captivated by it’s alternative history premise and the promise that can come from exploring a familiar, yet vastly different, world.
The show takes place in an alternative 1962, fifteen years after the United States has been defeated by the Axis Powers. With the country having been divided into two (the west coast Japanese Pacific States, and the Greater Nazi Reich on the east coast/midwest). In between, there is the Neutral Zone, though the show never makes it clear whether it is simply a buffer between the two “colonies” or if it is considered “uncontrollable” by distant empires due to the terrain. Essentially, this Neutral Zone has reverted back to “wild west” policies with little governance.
While there’s a lot of historical “gap filling” taking place, most of the story revolves around the “films” and a handful of key characters:
- Juliana Crane – A San Franciscan who has embraced the Japanese culture, but whose sister is gunned down by Japanese police while trying to protect one of the films and gets sucked into the resistance by trying to complete her sister’s work.
- Frank Frink – Juliana’s boyfriend, who is also part-Jewish, who helped Juliana rehabilitate from an accident, works at a gun factory, but would rather design jewelry, though it is considered feckless by the ruling Japanese.
- Joe Blake – Undercover Nazi agent working to infiltrate the resistance…or is he? There’s a lot of question marks surrounding Joe, including why he does what he does and where his loyalties lie.
- Nobusuke Tagomi – Trade Minister for the Japanese Pacific States who is very concerned about the stability of the current political arrangements, and possibly much more.
- John Smith – Obergruppenführer (“senior group leader”) for the Nazi SS in New York, who is American born and risen in the German ranks, calculating and ruthless…and Joe Blake’s commanding officer.
- Inspector Kido – Head of the Kempeitai (Japanese police/intelligence) in San Francisco, who is almost Vulcan in nature.
- Rudolph Wegener – A high-ranking Nazi official, posing as a Danish businessman while in San Francisco, trying to pass German secrets on to the Japanese.
Most of the time in the show, there are 3-4 different story lines weaving together at any point in time, and sometimes coupling and then separating once again. It’s not necessarily a complex web, but there are definitely some questions to be answered.
For a show called “The Man in the High Castle”, he’s vaguely referenced more than he’s discussed. Rather, the focus is on the films and their importance. The thing is, the videos depict how things may have turned out if things had gone differently, but The Man in the High Castle is collecting them, not producing them as propaganda. So, what exactly is The Man trying to do?
After 10 episodes, that’s still a question that none of the key characters can answer. Juliana, like others in the resistance, believe that getting him the films can make a difference, yet have no idea how that will happen. Even John Smith, who’s main goal is obtaining these films for Führer Hitler, isn’t told why they are of importance.
So, while a web is being woven in the first season, it still comes across as “setup” for something bigger coming down the path. I’m not necessarily criticizing that approach, but it’s a dangerous one to walk. One one end, you have LOST, who built up around characters and developed a frenzied following (though, we still won’t talk about that ending…). On the other, you have Flash Forward, who built up around (literally) unbelievable pseudo-science and conspiracies, and lost viewers faster than a bottomless bucket (though, honestly, at the very end, after it was already cancelled, is when it finally got interesting).
The Man In The High Castle falls somewhere in between. The characters are built up just enough to start getting invested in them, there’s a lingering sense that this is all much bigger than any of them, and there’s something hinkey going on with the films.
Which brings us to the “Promise Paradox”. The Man In The High Castle delivers a lot of promise in it’s setup…yet it also has the potential for spectacular failure. One one hand, there could be a fantastic build up to the overthrowing of an entrenched oppressive power to reclaim the United States (and, hopefully, a better future). On the other, we could get:
That said, I’m definitely looking forward to more. If nothing else, the aesthetics of the show and the subtleties of cultural shifts in all three former Unites States territories is engaging. So, for me, there’s enough there for forge ahead and hope for the best.