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The Man in the High Castle

Created by Frank Spotnitz

Based on a novel of the same name

Premiered November 20, 2015

On Amazon Video

It wasn’t hard to make the decision to spend this past weekend on my couch recovering from Thanksgiving festivities by binge watching a new TV show. The real choice to make was deciding which series I should spend my precious long weekend devouring. Eventually, I settled on Amazon Studios’ new alternate history sci-fi series The Man in the High Castle. The show is based on a novel of the same name by Philip K. Dick (Blade Runner and Minority Report were also based on his work), was created by Frank Spotnitz (a writer and producer from X-Files), and has Ridley Scott (director of Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator) as an executive producer. From this line up alone, I expected a pretty epic series.

The best part about the show is the alternate history premise. The Axis powers defeated the Allies in WWII, and now the Japanese and Nazi governments are world superpowers. The setting is 1960s Greater Nazi Reich (formerly the eastern half of the United States of America) and the Pacific States of America (formerly the western half of the United States of America). Throughout the series, we learn about resistance groups who locate and transport mysterious contraband films that depict the Allies overcoming the Axis powers, and both the Japanese and Nazis take extreme measures to intercept these films. We aren’t sure if these films are real, or what they mean — all we know is that they allegedly come from a figure known as “The Man in the High Castle” and that resistance members are willing to risk losing their lives (or being tortured or having their families executed) for the sake of protecting these films.

The show is visually striking. It was unnerving to see New York City’s Time Square adorned with swastikas and teeming with Nazi soldiers. Young boys go off to school dressed in Nazi Youth uniforms and V-A Day (Victory over America Day) is celebrated in the Greater Reich like a mash-up of the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving (complete with turkey, apple pie, and fireworks). Meanwhile, in San Francisco, the Kempeitai (Japanese military police) begin grand preparations for the arrival of the Japanese Crown Prince.

Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank) and Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos) meet in the Neutral Zone (a lawless area located near the Rocky Mountains) both on missions regarding these puzzling films. The pair serve as our main characters for most of the series, and many episodes are devoted to developing and exploring their relationship. In fact, I’d say too much time was allocated for this as the first few episodes really dragged during this phase, especially because I found these characters bland. The action and intrigue of the show pick up when we meet Obergruppenführer John Smith (Rufus Sewell), a high ranking official in the Nazi SS, and the Japanese Trade Minister Nobusuke Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) — Sewell and Tagawa’s characters are easily the most compelling due to incredible acting and strong writing. Burn Gorman (Pacific Rim, Torchwood) also gave a notable performance as the ruthless bounty hunter, ominously known as The Marshall, who poses a serious threat to Juliana and Joe’s film delivery operation.

Despite the strong performances, the show is brought down by the plot, which was slow and obtuse at times. Joe and Juliana spent too much time doing not much of anything in the Neutral Zone (this spans several episodes, and there are only 10 in total). Many of the events and characters’ motivations aren’t explained until the last few episodes, and even then, we’ve all but lost our interest in finding the answers (which largely end up uninteresting). The show hints at compelling themes, exploring parallels between the world we know and live in today and the world that could have been had this alternative history unfolded. What does it mean to be oppressed? How much of your freedom are you willing to trade for peace, safety, and stability? These questions and themes are raised, but not explored to anywhere near their full potential.

Usually, I find it easy to give a verdict regarding a show, but I have incredibly mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I was (and still am) intrigued by the premise of the series, but on the other, I was disappointed because the show’s creators could have done so much more with the rich universe and characters they had created. If the premise of the series appeals to you, I’d recommend watching it and then reading the novel, but if not, I’d go with Sense8 or Jessica Jones instead.