The Man in the High Castle, Season 1 (2015)

 

Reviewer: Charity Bishop

 

What if America had lost the second world war? That is the premise of the novel by this same name, a remarkable work ahead of its time in terms of launching the "alternate history" genre of fiction. The miniseries is not always true to the novel but does boast impressive production values, an intense and fast-moving plot, and memorable characters, all of whom are deep in their own respective ways. There's no straight up good or evil here, which is partly what makes it compelling viewing. 

 

It's been two decades since the government surrendered to the greatest "evil" power on earth, and the citizenship has become accustomed to martial law on both sides of the neutral zone. But there is still a resistance, dedicated to bringing about the end of both regimes... and of late, they are smuggling mysterious "films" to an informant known only as "The Man in the High Castle." On the Japanese side of the former United States, Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos) is unwittingly sucked into the midst of this intrigue when her sister hands her a canister of film shortly before being shot in the street. Not one to take the execution of a loved one lightly, Juliana watches the film, which shows the Nazis losing the war, and decides to finish her sister's assignment in taking it to the neutral zone.

 

On the Nazi side, seemingly idealistic young Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank) agrees to smuggle contraband across the neutral zone... but a bit of prying about in his truck full of coffee makers reveals a film canister. He arrives in town expecting to be contacted by a member of the resistance at the same time as Juliana, and fates conspire that they become accomplices... but what Juliana does not know is that Joe is a double agent for high-ranking Nazi officer John Smith (Rufus Sewell). And Juliana is also oblivious to the fact that her sister's public execution and her own disappearance has drawn unpleasant government attention to her boyfriend, Frank Frink (Rupert Evans), who may not make it out of the interrogation room alive...

 

There are many other subplots going on in this ten hour first season of what will probably be a successful franchise; espionage at the highest level (conspiracies against the aging and sickly Adolf Hitler, the Japanese intending to arm themselves against Germany out of fear they will lose a battle with the nation of superior machines if it begins, and attempted assassinations against the Japanese royal family) paired with the emotional dynamics of all these characters and their families. The world itself is remarkable and eerie, recognizable in some ways and not in others, a place where the 4th of July is replaced with celebrations of invasion and the victory of the Nazi High Command; but also where the terminally ill are habitually executed in gas ovens, discreetly so as not to alarm the general public. Some of the secondary plots can be hard to follow, and others are compelling, but what is most interesting is how grey most of the main characters are -- at any one time, you may feel anger or empathy toward them. Smith is the face of Nazism yet is a loving family man.

 

I've seen few shows where the level of intensity is this high, where from one episode to the next you are in suspense and fearful of what might happen next... to anyone! I found it hard to root against even the villains, which makes the series unnerving at times, because no one is so awful that you want to see them dead. The costuming and set design is wonderful, and immaculate detail worked into figuring out all the ways Nazism would influence the culture, from the banning of certain books, to antique shops stuffed with remnants of a former way of life, to Nazi family shows hitting the airwaves. For the most part, though the violence can be intense, it's somewhat respectable and restrained, often relying more on the emotional component behind it rather than grisly close ups. I just wish the same can be said of the language; hearing dozens of f-words fly reduces the overall class of the viewing experience by several notches. Still, it was entertaining enough that I can't wait to see what happens next.

     
Sexual Content:
A man is stripped naked and brutally interrogated by Japanese authorities (partial nudity from the side, some from the back, episode 2); we briefly see a prostitute topless (episode 4, and possibly again in 8). A man unzips his pants and asks a woman if she wants a job in his office or not (she references another woman having to "service" him later). Mentions are made of a man cheating on his wife.
 
Language:
Dozens of f-words (one combined with "mother"), abuses of Jesus' name, and profanities.
 
Violence:
People are beaten to death, shot in the head (blood spurts), thrown off bridges and tall buildings, and exterminated in ovens (off-screen, but characters comment on the ash). The violence is emotionally intense but not often gory.

 
Other:
Religion is outlawed and Bibles confiscated; owning one can get you shot. A Japanese businessman makes no decision without consulting his oracle sticks.


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