One of the classic tropes of time-travel stories is “history changed and the Nazis won”. The fictional multiverse is veritably littered with alternate worlds where the Nazis are in control of the world. Perhaps it’s because there were points at which the scary prospect of Nazi victory in World War II was actually possible, or because of the sheer evil represented by Nazi Germany (or both!), but alternate-history fiction has a sort of fascination with jackboots and swastikas.
While The Man in the High Castle is certainly not the first show to take place at least partially in a Nazi-victory alternate timeline, it also takes a very novel approach by introducing a metaplot that flips the script on most takes: glimpses of an alternate timeline within the story, a timeline where the Nazis didn’t win. This is a story where our world is the alternate timeline.
And, since Season 2 recently came to Amazon Prime, it seems like a good time to review it.
The Background of Man in the High Castle
The Man in the High Castle is adapted from Philip K. Dick’s book, also named The Man in the High Castle. It’s hardly the first Philip K. Dick adaptation–the films Total Recall, Minority Report, and Paycheck are some of the best-known, along with the classic sci-fi film Blade Runner (loosely adapted from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?). This time around, Ridley Scott goes to work again with a PKD adaptation (his first time being Blade Runner).
Adaptations of Dick’s stories are generally fairly loose in details but close in spirit, and from what I hear, this series is no different. This means that while the plot and even characters have been changed to better fit a television show, the dismal spirit of the world remains the same. Which, of course, is what you’d expect from a world where the Nazis won. “Dismal” doesn’t even begin to describe it.
The original book was published in 1962, and a lot has changed in the world over the past 35 or so years. This publication date is honored in the setting of the show (which takes place in 1962), and this also explains some of the shifts in the plot of the show, including a rather interesting bit of focus devoted to our world’s history around 1962.
Ultimately, the world depicted in this series is grim, with tiny spots of what might be construed as hope tossed in. For the most part, though, it’s about as dark as you’d expect a world conquered by Hitler to be. Sure, the Japanese-controlled West Coast isn’t quite as bleak, but it’s still pretty bad, especially because they’ve been working together with Germany for the past 30 years or so. And, well, it turns out that Imperial Fascist Japan-occupied California is not that great of a place to live in if you aren’t Japanese.
What’s most interesting is the way that the show weaves actual historical details into its alt-history tapestry. In the Pacific States, there’s a ton of narrative-flipping, with an imperialist Japanese presence that exoticizes the United States, to the point where Colt Revolvers are considered to be “antique remnants of the ancient American war culture”. Meanwhile, the “Greater Nazi Reich” (their term for the Germany-occupied portions of the USA) puts a sinister spin on 1950s America, mimicking it in eerie fashion. It’s clever cultural commentary without being on-the-nose about it.
The Characters of the Show
While the world development of The Man in the High Castle piqued my interest, it’s definitely the cast of characters who kept me in that world, riveted by the unfolding events. The show revolves around a pair of characters whose lives touch different halves of the setting, but quickly unfolds to encompass a massive ensemble cast. Ultimately, its leads serve as anchors for a story that is much, much bigger than them. They remain important, but it becomes clear that everyone in the cast is important–which is good, because I found some of the most interesting and relatable characters to be among the supporting cast.
Juliana Crain (played by Alexa Davalos) acts as our entry point into the show, as your typical low-income American in the Pacific States. Her push comes when she encounters a strange film reel that depicts a history that didn’t go the way of Nazi victory. That moment crystallizes what proves to be the core of her characterization: a root of fear and vulnerability that catalyzes into a reckless determination when given a spark of hope. She’s simultaneously beset by anxiety and driven by her objectives, giving her a wonderfully complex characterization.
Joe Blake (played by Luke Kleintank) is a wonderful foil to her, showing us what an American everyman looks like in the Eastern portion of the country. There’s honestly a great deal of…vanilla to him, which makes it harder to get into his storyline. This makes me very grateful for Juliana’s place in the plot. That said, as we watch him progressing from his work in a New York factory to a deeper involvement in the secrets and intrigues of the Nazi Reich, it becomes clear that he’s a character flooded with uncertainty and doubt. While this initially makes him less interesting to watch, it gives him a sort of potential that takes time to manifest, and it keeps the viewer guessing. He’d be frustrating as a sole protagonist, but as a co-lead with Juliana, he becomes a valuable piece of the character tapestry.
Speaking of that tapestry, the show really does shine based on the variety and depth of its cast. Here’s a quick sampling of some of the characters I truly loved to watch in action.
- Trade Minister Tagomi, who serves as a Japanese liason to the Pacific States. He’s a complex middle-aged man who’s probably wiser than anyone else in the show, a moral compass who struggles with the power he possesses.
- Chief Inspector Kido, a cutthroat police investigator who tries to navigate the calculus of yakuza ties and Nazi pressure in Los Angeles, with honor as his driving motive.
- SS Obergruppenführer Smith, an American-turned-Nazi chief of intelligence who feels like the evil Nazi version of Captain Von Trapp–brutal, efficient, and constantly coming to terms with the reality of Nazi ideals.
- Frank Frink and his right-hand man Ed McCarthy, old friends who act as a contrasting duo–Frank as the brains, Ed as the heart, a dynamic which starts to shift and evolve in complex ways throughout the series.
My Overall View of the Show
The Man in the High Castle is a strange mix of various things. It’s a dark setting, a drama starring a large number of morally gray characters, a show with some surprisingly poignant emotional moments (given the bleak setting), and even a look at how insidious a culture can become. (It’s downright scary to see the dystopian aspects of Nazi suburbia coming together.) The first season in particular is very tight, weaving together a broad spectrum of characters into a strong narrative.
The second season does get a bit more scattered and rushed, but overall, the show still holds together pretty well, and I definitely recommend it overall.
Content Advisory: blood, violence, minor nudity (sexual and non-sexual), extensive featuring of Nazi imagery and characters
You can watch The Man in the High Castle on Amazon Prime’s streaming service, but they’ve uploaded the first episode of the show for free onto Youtube, as a trial.